The Tyranny of Techniques and Process

The messages of hope and change that dominate our political discussions these days have made many people giddy about the possibilities for public life and politics. But, if we do not wish to slip back into business as usual, we must beware of our own inclinations and proclivities to rely on techniques and process as a substitute for making hope real. Instead, our task now is to reorient ourselves outward, toward the people and communities we serve, or risk squandering the opportunity before us. In our rush to re-engage people and marshal civic resources, we can fall prey to our own good intentions. Good intentions aren't enough, and alone won't get us where we want to go. In our use of techniques and process, we can crowd out the very judgments we must make to create conditions for hope and change. We can assume a false sense of progress and security, and sidestep the very battles we must fight to produce change.

There's so much to say here, but let me offer a handful of examples of where we turn to technique and process and how they can take us down the wrong path:

* We can resort to yet another strategic planning process, deftly moving programmatic boxes around, and yet still not focus on the essence of community challenges and what it takes to address them.* We can actively engage people in the community and still never change how our own organization takes in the new knowledge, learns from it, and applies it to daily work.* We can create elaborate processes that still overlook the poor, those who haven't had a voice, or those in neighborhoods we do not know. Our own unexamined assumptions and fears can prevent us from changing how we fundamentally do things.

* We can efficiently pull down best practices from web sites and reports, pursuing a "plug and play" strategy, but never fully examine if those practices really fit our context.* We can go through yet another branding process in our organization and still not answer the fundamental question: What is our role in the community and what impact do we seek?

My own sense is that many people make a beeline to techniques and processes simply as a way to be "doing something." Others use techniques and process to combat their own internal fears about ambiguity and the unknown, thus providing a tidy step-by-step recipe for action. Still others may be looking for the silver bullet, the quick way to solve the problem at-hand and move on.

Many of us operate with the implicit assumption that so long as we are moving forward, so long as we can say something is happening, so long as we are moving down our task list, we can claim that progress is being made. But is it? The danger is that we become "activity happy, and yet action deprived."

Tools, techniques and to-do lists may assuage our own doubts, may give us a sense of progress, but a completed check list or some such other step won't necessarily lead to change. I worry that our impulse to grab a new technique or process is a way to insulate ourselves from facing difficult truths. We can forget that not every child has access to a good education; that many people are without healthcare; that even as we become a more diverse society, we are turning inward - away from one another. Each of our communities faces its own difficult truths, and we all struggle with how to adequately and honestly address them.

The problem with the tyranny of techniques and process is that it can be a stand-in for our own need to step up and make judgments on how best to make a difference. It robs us of the possibilities for reshaping public life and politics and discarding business as usual. For sure, I believe there is a role for techniques and process, as tools to help us implement our larger ideas and aspirations in public life. But this requires that we have clarity about our intentions and purpose, that our actions create genuine opportunities to make hope real.

So while new techniques, processes and tools have a place, we need something more. We need to reorient ourselves. We need to turn outward to the very people and communities we serve. It's time: please, join me in the fight against the tyranny of techniques and process.


To learn more about how you can avoid becoming "activity happy, yet action deprived" get your free copy of Make Hope Real.  (Chapter 4)