Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Knowledge and the power of play: reflections on change management workshop

Before me: two geckos on a white wall, coconut trees in various shades of yellow and green and the sounds of ‘Hotel California’ mingle with cawing crows. At the end of the Irrigation Workshop hosted by the Centre of Excellence for Change Management, the campus where it was hosted is now largely still. I sit in the midst of an old library with so much dust on the floor that my footprints are easy to spot. The once buzzing centre is in a mild state of disrepair. Familiar books of development – ‘the global possible’, the ‘debt crisis’, ‘rural development’, ‘participatory action research’, ‘the study of an Indian village’ are strewn about me in various degrees of organization. An old black board has sketches of faces – all with big mouths and noses. Ceiling fans spread the smell of woodsmoke from local fires between the book cases. I think of the British Library of Development Studies at IDS where I have spent many hours. I wonder if, someday, it will ever resemble this largely forgotten storehouse of decades of knowledge.

What I most clearly recall from BLDS are the people who run it, generously giving me their time and attention and passing along skills of such things as finding ‘critical’ knowledge resources. Here there is no librarian. The books, without human hands to care for them, sit, waiting, growing slightly yellow around the edges.

These books may be rarely read, the campus overgrown and the paint chipping around the corners, but the knowledge being cultivated in the past few days might well delight the long-gone founders from another era. The Centre of Excellence for Change (CEC) is using this campus for the workshops that help cultivate and spread the knowledge of how to create a transformation of human lives that can enable true socio-economic development. Books are not the most important knowledge resource here. Instead, it is the people who come and go in cars, buses and their own two feet, with purses and marking-pens and flip-charts, who are creating a kind of living knowledge. A knowledge that can live in community.

The CEC conducts a series of educational programmes around what they currently call ‘change management’, which is much of what has been occupying my intellectual and emotional energy since arriving in India. ‘Change management’ might not be the best word to describe their process. It is more of a kind of ‘change technology’, using ‘technology’ broadly, that reliably delivers significantly improved results in water service delivery for the poor. Their technology entails a process that dives into the essence of the human being as an agent of change in her work and in her community.

Some of their workshops integrate the entirety of the 8 departments within the Integrated Water Resource Programme. Other workshops work with only some departments or single departments. This workshop was composed of recently recruited irrigation engineers. Many had only been a part of their department for a few months. They came together for 3 days of education that was, for them, an entirely new and unique experience outside of any of their previous ‘education’.

This education was about them.

It is perhaps the great irony of the institutionalization of social systems that we so frequently leave out people. Or that when we focus on people, we leave out institutions and the technologies that shape both the organization and the person. Much less the Spirit – the Spirit Corpus, Politus and Nobus that shapes and is in turn shaped by each of us.

Before coming, people told me that these workshops had changed their life. I asked what they did. We played games, they said. I was not sure what they meant. At the workshop, I discovered the accuracy of their statement: They played games. Simple games, puzzle games, full-body games, role-playing games, circle-games, energizer-games. Many of these games might be familiar to a Westerner who has participated in ‘participatory’ workshops within Western contexts. I’ve played many variations of these games before. But this time the games were different.

After each game, there was a substantial discussion about what the games meant. Lessons were drawn about leadership, team-work, hierarchy, trust, communication, different perspectives, high-level performance and equality. The games got under the participants’ defenses, poked holes in their armor (not too difficult for this group which was pretty young) and gave them some wiggle room to discover new things for themselves through experience. Security needs were met again and again even as new rules were introduced and reinforced, such as being on time. They were thrown off balance and brought to a new balance with a subtle deftness that most of them were largely unaware of. It didn’t take long before the group was laughing more often than not. Laughter became the access to humanization.

And then all of it was tied to their mandate as civil servants: to serve the poor and the citizenry of India. Their focus was returned, again and again, to their interactions with villagers and with their co-workers and one another. A villager was brought in to talk to them about how often engineers do not listen to the perspectives and needs of the villagers. These young engineers were given a chance to have an open dialogue with him. He was accompanied by an older engineer who had already been through the Change Technology program and had grasped much of the essence. I had met him before: he sat besides the villager with a humility and respect for the other’s humanity that spoke more about their relationship than any of the words I did not fully understand. The villager, meanwhile, said that what he wanted was to be treated with dignity, and respect to be given to the traditional ways of irrigation. I sighed: the value, ‘dignity’ flowed out of him, infusing every part of his being. How anyone could not treat him with dignity that was so clearly part of his essence escaped me.

At the end of the workshop, they took concrete actions. Each chose to experiment with two villages who had some of these new ‘values’. This enabled them to discover what was going on and engage with the farmers in creating real, co-created solutions. They would gather together in 45 days and in 90 days to report on their progress and learn from one another. Some of them already had the support of their bosses, though they might not realize this. The participants left in a serious tone. There was no ra-ra so often found at the end of workshops. There was an awareness of how much work there was to be done.

I had, as one does, become friends with a few of them – mostly women with good English. They found their jobs, which they had been so thrilled to obtain to often be difficult, lonely occupations. Gone was the commodery and mutual understanding of their peers. Instead, they were distant from their co-workers and supervisors and having to learn to submit their sense of self to their professional commitments. Some of this is normal for any person entering any organization, especially one as established as the civil service.

None of them particularly wanted to go back to their offices. They craved the sense of mutual support and belonging that they found in this newly created space. While taking on the new assignment of engaging in a different way with villagers was rather daunting (despite having clear and measurable results in a specific time scale) it gave them a way to engage with valuable work in a community with which they wanted to be associated and in which they wanted to be held in high esteem. Here, words, action and knowledge can integrate into a new way of living. Done in the context of the Indian Bureaucracy, a new social order becomes possible, orientated towards serving the poor.

Maybe someday books will be written about this. Maybe they won’t. But for these young people, a dream is being cultivated. That dream may well gain a life of its own. It is certainly not a new dream. But the dreams of a Beloved Community have brought men and women out of their bondages and closer towards the present moment before. There is no reason why it can not happen again.

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