I thought I was neutral & outside “the system”!


By Alfredo Ortiz Aragón



I’ll add an example of my own; one that touches on the need for context-specific practice, which I successfully avoided for years! (yet not on purpose).

For many years I facilitated organizational capacity self-assessments, meant to help NGOs with whom we were working to better understand their strengths and weaknesses and take action to improve these weaknesses, based on the overall score on a particular capacity category (e.g. “leadership” or “financial management”, or networking, etc.). As time went on me and some of my colleagues realized that the actual “self-assessment” session was often highly charged and rich, with people in different roles in the organization opening up difficult conversations about how they saw and experienced the way things actually worked, and what they thought about it now as they reflected critically about it. Then, we would see that much of that richness would evaporate in an action planning session in which we neatly prioritized problem areas and developed an action plan to address key areas. Action planning appeared to “kill the buzz” that was generated as people engaged with each other in rich conversation.

And yet, we held on to the action planning for years, because that is what the methodology entailed….

At the same time, we were definitely trying to be creative–over the years we improved the methodology in ways which enriched the self-assessment dialogue even further, largely by introducing creative exercises to help draw out conflicting versions of organizational experience. But we stubbornly held to the idea that

  1. Rich conversation should end up in an action plan
  2. Our action planning format would do just fine–it didn’t depend on knowing how specific organizations (and subgroups) plan or actually get work done (not part of the workshop!)
  3. An organization could/should assess itself in its entirety–bandwidth is not an issue
  4. Our “creative” exercises would capture the most important accounts of organizational life, and not simply reproduce dominant accounts.

I’ll add one more–we believed ourselves to be “neutral” facilitators helping an organization move from point a to point b. We saw ourselves as “outside” the system.

Some of the assumptions above are more problematic than others and some may not be problematic in certain situations. But I and we continued doing things the same way for a long time, only stopping to make creative tweaks, but not critical tweaks that may have had us focus more on the conversations than the tool, and more on the relevance of these conversations to the most important work in which the organization was engaging. I am more aware of this now, but see many of our students highly focused on filling their toolboxes to apply somewhat a-contextually, like I did. I do believe now that this approach reveals a problem with the practitioner.

I am an Assistant Professor of Nonprofit Management and Social Change at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, an action-researcher, and designer / facilitator of organizational change processes. In all of my work I try to prioritize critical reflection on how power relationships between (and within) people enable and constrain “desirable” and “feasible” change. I believe that increased awareness on the role all people play in including and excluding diverse ways of understanding and acting in the world can lead to new perspectives and increased inclusion of marginalized people, causes, ideas and ways of knowing.

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