You can also see this piece on the Self Management Institute blogroll at http://self-managementinstitute.org/
Over Labor Day weekend an extraordinary event took place in the world of self organized groups. Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, hosted the World Convention of one of the largest and most respected 12-Step recovery programs, known as Narcotics Anonymous. Over 18,000 recovering addicts were in attendance, from over 100 countries.
Twelve-step programs are a massive worldwide movement of various, self-organized groups – each aligned to address a common, life-threatening problem (alcoholism, addiction, overeating, etc.). Their power is based on face-to-face meetings in which people identify with one another and share openly and honestly on a regular basis.
This month, twenty years ago, I began studying Narcotics Anonymous as a participant observer for my senior thesis in Cultural Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. Using Victor Turner’s ideas as a theoretical framework, I titled the thesis “Betwixt and Between: Communitas as Cure in the Lives of Recovering Addicts.” I have been privileged to spend time sitting inside the circle at NA meetings, discovering how principles like “anonymity,” “humility,” and “surrender” make it possible for men and women whose lives had been controlled by drugs to live clean one day at a time, with each other’s help.
Organic openness is the essence of “Communitas” as outlined by Victor Turner (an underrated genius! Please read his anthropology essays if you’re at all interested in contemporary organizational culture. I have recommended them to many Agile coaches and colleagues working to improve the workplace.)
Examples of Communitas throughout history:
the monastic tradition established by St. Francis
women in Paris in the 1920s
performance artists in New York City in the 1970s (the scene fed by collaborations like Merce Cunningham/John Cage)
These groups stepped away from old forms and took for themselves the freedom to experiment with new ones. Eventually, their ideas fed back into the mainstream where society as a whole could profit from them. In the end, everyone had more creative options.
Narcotics Anonymous was founded in 1953 in California. NA describes iteslf as “a global, community-based organization with a multi-lingual and multicultural membership.” Its message, often referred to as the Promise of Freedom is: that any addict can stop using, lose the desire to use and find a new way to live. http://www.na.org/?ID=bulletins-bull25
This message – shared spontaneously in every meeting by members and read aloud from NA literature – is clear, consistent and reliable. There is not one single culture for which the message is designed or in which it can be heard and understood. There is unlimited potential in its simplicity.
Since NA has been fully self-supporting and growing worldwide as a multicultural phenomenon of Self-Organization for sixty years, perhaps we should listen to the wisdom it espouses.
The following is a GAME OF ASSOCIATION. I start with a principle of Self-Organization, and follow it with a 12-step slogan from Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
Opting in. “You are a member when you say you are.”
Collaboration. “I can’t. We can.”
Simplicity. “KISS – keep it simple, stupid”
Continuous self-improvement: “Progress not perfection.” “The journey continues.”
Incremental development. “It’s a process.” “One step at a time.”
Faith in the emergent solution. “Trust the process.” “Act as if.”
Servant-leadership. “Our leaders are but trusted servants. They do not govern.”
Persistence. “Stay in the solution.” “Don’t give up five minutes before the miracle.”
In Narcotics Anonymous, the stakes are the highest possible: people’s lives. In order to have credibility and be able to attract newcomers as well as retain experienced members, it is essential that the organization be able to deliver on its Promise of Freedom.
They cannot achieve this through coercion. It is only through Self-Organization that recovering addicts have been able to adopt this program of change and incorporate its sustaining habits into their lives.
There is a joke in NA that goes “How many recovering addicts does it take to change a lightbulb? None! The lightbulb has to be willing to change itself.”
Therefore, based on everything I have learned in Cultural Anthropology and can offer the workplace improvement movement, culture is more like a liquid than a solid. It cannot be effectively hacked. Instead, it flows like a river, carrying various messages along in its fluidity.
Cultural change is driven by those considered to be outsiders or rebels, individuals driven by courage and/or desperation to admit that standard ways of doing things simply DO NOT WORK. These individuals gravitate toward the margins of organized groups, the interstices, the spaces in-between. There, they have a better chance of finding each other, learning from one another, and together, eventually, making creative contributions.
- What is your Self-Organizing group’s primary purpose?
- How do its members gather and share this message?
- Have they experienced enough pain to truly want to change?
For more background on Outsider Wisdom, Cultural Anthropology, Narrative Intelligence and finding the right creative metaphor to spirit forward your self-organizing transformations, please contact Elinor Slomba at firstname.lastname@example.org.