Partnerships like machines?
V – so, what’s been happening? There wasn’t a blog last month was there; have you been away?
A – yes, three weeks in Australia.
M – all right for some.
V – anything to report then?
A – not much. One of the committees I’m on missed a meeting while I was away and cancelled the next one, when I was back. Another group continues to be rather unfocussed and seldom covers the main topic it is there for.
V – So just ‘same old’?
A – there was also another group putting together a health and wellbeing conference. I did quite a bit of work on that. They seemed to accept my proposals. Then there was a meeting while I was away and I didn’t hear how they had changed things. At the next meeting they asked me to write the guidance notes for each of the exercises – but of course I didn’t know what had changed!
M – and you weren’t able to just ask what if anything had changed?
A – I, well, I suppose … the thing was …
V – OK, well moving on, what did you do.
A – I wrote the notes largely on the basis of what I’d originally proposed.
M – and?
A – I got an email later, to the whole group, that I first read on the phone which sounded as though they’d discarded what I’d originally written, which I was not too happy about. When I looked at how the documents had actually been changed, though, it wasn’t so bad. The essence of some of the activities had been retained.
M – so in addition to showing us a glimpse of your petty side, what does all this tell us about the nature of partnerships?
A – well when you’re thinking about partnerships in the abstract, trying to develop some sort of theory or even just a framework for thinking about them, I think you can have a sort of ‘idealised’ view, and assumption that everything works as it should.
V – really? Surely you’re trying to identify where they go wrong and how to avoid that too?
A – yes, but it’s easy to focus on the inherent difficulties – conflicting aims, finding appropriate mechanisms for co-ordination etc. – rather than noticing the normal human frailties that infect most systems. You start by assuming the machine’s working then see what might be broken.
M – ah, so you’re going to tell us you need an organic rather than a mechanical metaphor, right?
A – yes, but that’s a different argument (about complexity and non-linear change). I suppose my point is that even when a mechanical metaphor might be appropriate, the idea of a properly function machine can be a misleading starting point.
V – so where should you start from?
A – Perhaps start by asking whether it’s a fully functioning machine. Are all the parts properly joined together? Do cogs slip so one wheel doesn’t properly turn another? Is a broken component acting as a brake on another wheel? Are there forces from outside the system pushing things on or slowing them down?
M – As clear and practical as ever. What on earth does all that mean?!
V – Perhaps you could give us some examples to show what you mean?
A – Well, cancelling the meeting could illustrate weakening commitment to the group-
M – or just that people had other appointments?
A – yes, but more important than this meeting? Unable to send a deputy? It doesn’t prove reducing commitment but it’s consistent with it.
M – OK, even if you assumed that was so, how does it challenge the machine metaphor?
A – Using the fully functioning machine metaphor, you might just disregard the cancellation as it doesn’t seem to indicate that the machine’s not working. You’d say, ‘that’s just one of those things’. But actually it might signal that the group isn’t working well and you could start to ask why. Is it because there’s no coherent ‘theory of change’ for how it is to achieve its objectives? Has it even got clear objectives? Is there insufficient resource going into the group?
V – Mmmm, maybe. Any other examples?
A – There’s the other group that can’t seem to focus on its role, that keeps going off at tangents. You could see that as the machine failing: the ‘aim axel’ not properly fitting with the ‘agenda wheel’. But you could also see it as the individuals raising those off-topic items because they’re important to them. So a different bit of machinery has been grafted to the ‘proper machine’ to enable sub-groups to purse their aims through other means. You can then ask why has this extra bit been grafted on, does it work effectively from its own point of view and how does affect the functioning of the ‘official’ machine.
Or it could just be that individuals raise things because they’re on their mind, whether or not raising them will help them proceed. If so, then this isn’t a coherent strategy to achieve certain ends, rather a by-product of the way people actually function in practice. There’s no new machinery added on, just a bigger failure of the main machine.
M – have you actually thought this through or is it just a by-product of the way your frail mind functions?
A – OK, last example. The essence of my proposals for the conference were retained. Maybe that shows that people don’t always have ideas of their own so don’t challenge the proposal that’s there and what little momentum it has is enough to see it through.
M – and that relates to a machine, how?
A – oh I don’t know – there are several tanks of fuel but some don’t have enough in? – this is all getting too complicated for me.
V – welcome to our world.
M – do you think maybe your machine metaphor is broken? Maybe an axel not fitting or a cog loose?
V – but thank you anyway for a thoughtful and insightful analysis. Now I need a drink. A strong one.