Sunday, 25 March 2012

Trevor Hopkins and Trojan Mice

I am looking forward to attending a learning session on the practical application of asset based approaches later this week. The session is provided through the West Midlands Public Health Observatory Learning for Public Health programme and will be delivered by the engaging Trevor Hopkins from Asset Based Consulting and co-author of A Glass Half Full.

Trevor delivered an introductory afternoon seminar last month which I attended (the slides from the session are here). I Storified tweets from the session. The session included descriptions of 'deficit' and 'asset' approaches, applications of an assets approach in relation to health and wellbeing, case studies from Sandwell and Coventry and thoughts about community asset mapping and JSNAs (Joint Strategic Needs Analysis).

Trevor opened the session by saying that he would be challenging - that felt exciting to me. He asserted that a problem is a management issue - managers can deal with it, whereas a dilemma is something you can’t solve - it’s what leaders do. Trevor thinks we have a dilemma around public health and how we deal with it. He talked about recovery and resilience, using the example that personal networks and support are as effective as a flu jab ... if we can have both together then it’s even better. This reminded me of work that the RSA have been doing around whole person recovery and connected communities

Trevor explained that a deficit approach to health is a pathogenic approach which focuses on disease and death, and leads to disempowerment and dependency. (He challenged us to find more deficit ‘d’ words, which of course I tweeted. @lizzie_banks suggested depression, disorder, disengagement, debilitating and disaster!) 

The features of a deficit approach were described as including policymakers seeing systems or institutions as the principal tool for the work of society, a structure which is designed to permit a few people to control many other people and people being seen as clients or customers. This brings to my mind a description of neoliberalism in David Gauntlett’s excellent Making is Connecting:
“ the belief that markets are the only lens through which to run anything, or to assess the value of anything. It is manifested in many ways, and becomes apparent when individuals are seen as simply customers and consumers, and workers become faceless ‘service providers’. It means that the ‘voice’ of people is denied, because they can only express themselves through choices within the existing market, which is not genuine self-expression at all.”
Trevor highlighted that traditional approaches result in production a great deal of the same thing, whether goods or services. Then to overcome the issue that people are different and may have different needs or problems services are targeted at at those needs and problems, resulting in communities an individuals being ‘segmented’ and posts such as ‘obesity co-ordinator’, ‘smoking cessation co-ordinator’ being created. However people aren’t a condition, nor are obesity or smoking single problems, they are complex, wicked problems.

On organisational change, I liked what Trevor shared: that a lot of organisations see organisational change like a Trojan Horse. The organisational development team are hidden inside and come out at night! A better model is Trojan Mice - lots and lots of them nibbling away. What a fantastic vision, and imagine all the diverse challenges which could be made if there were lots of people making them. This makes me wonder whether the idea of trojan mice is similar to the idea of horizontalism:
“Horizontality or horizontalism is a social relationship that advocates the creation, development and maintenance of social structures for the equitable distribution of management power. These structures and relationships function as a result of dynamic self-management, involving continuous participation and exchange between individuals to achieve the larger desired outcomes of the collective whole” (from Wikipedia)
Trevor suggested that social sciences are going to save public health and referenced Ivan Illich and his publication ‘Medical Nemesis’. I’ve just come across Ivan Illich in Making is Connecting. I found this passage in chapter 7 useful to reflect on.
“Whilst big, uniform systems may have been developed with the intention of helping people on a broad and democratic scale, Illich argued that they always reach a point beyond which they cause more harm than good. Schools, for instance, are originally intended to provide an education - of course - but once they are established into an institutional system they become machines to deliver schooling - conformity to rules, and memorization of a set body of knowledge without necessarily learning or understanding - which is then measured as an end in itself. Therefore, Illich suggests, the institution of school makes people stupid, institutionalized medicine makes people sick, and the institution of of business ruins the planet. This sounds gloomy, then, but his solutions, based on more individual and community-based engagement, helpfulness and creativity, may be of interest."
During the seminar we heard from two officers involved in asset based projects in Sandwell and Coventry respectively. Marianne Munro, a Community Development Officer for Sandwell MBC shared the story of the Friends and Neighbours project and Kate O’Hara shared the Coventry Asset Based Approach which is linked to their 10 ways to wellbeing. Having heard both case studies I was left with a niggling frustration that both case studies seemed to be presented as a journey from initial stages of mapping, listening and networking, working towards goals of a structure, for example a formal partnership or Community Interest Company, with governance and sustainability plans. I can’t help feeling that this shouldn’t be the prescribed destination of asset based work, and it feels inherently unsustainable compared to other outcomes which asset based activity could result in. 

I return to the excellent Third Sector Research Council paper by Eileen Conn, as referred to in my last blog post. In Community engagement in the social eco-system dance Eileen’s description of vertical, hierarchical system of relationships fits with Trevor’s description of a deficit approach and Illich’s issues with institutions:
"... the nature of the relationships is primarily vertical and hierarchical: tightly regulated to ensure compliance with organisational policies and constraints including employment and contract laws, and financial and managerial governance. They are generally divided into segments, subjects and topics. The organisation structures, and management and governance systems, have co-evolved with the vertical hierarchical system of relationships."
I would have thought that an asset based approach would be concerned with creation and nurturing of the horizontal, peer system of relationships - Eileen suggests that to be healthy and strong 
"the roots for these social relationships need to be appropriately tended. The way grass roots grow… is an instructive image for this. Grass that grows strongly and healthily, and is difficult to uproot, has a strong and intertwining mat of roots. These are like the strong interconnections in a community, all giving strength and support to the whole. If the grass is separated from its mat of roots it loses its strength and its intrinsic nature. These social networks, and the need to nurture them, are fundamental to resilience."

Have the projects in Sandwell and Coventry been looking at communities through a lens which results in them looking for things like the institutions which initiated the projects? Eileen Conn helpfully describes issues with the lenses through which we see communities in this video clip

Trevor highlighted questions which arise if we agree that the solutions to health inequalities might be in the hands of individuals, their families and their friends: What does that feel like to health professionals? How can they do their jobs? He suggests that an infinite model of power is helpful. I think a very real focus on barriers people face and social justice is also helpful.

There was lots more covered in the first seminar, but I think this post is getting rather long. So .... was Trevor challenging, as he had promised? 

Perhaps some of the things that he said may have been challenging for participants who are working in vertical hierarchical systems of relationships, as I observe from the outside that such organisations squash creativity and assertive challenge of the status quo. However I didn't find anything challenging in what Trevor shared or suggested. It sounded to me like absolute common sense, and I really connected to the community development roots in what Trevor talked about, and welcomed his references to social justice as being fundamental to asset based approaches.

Two things I found challenging in the experience of attending the seminar were:
  • The style of the seminar not being asset based, given the content was about asset based approaches. I felt there were missed opportunities to share some of the assets in the room - particularly the knowledge and experiences of participants. I wonder if a better balance of time could have been achieved so that we became participants rather than an audience. Or perhaps different ways of sharing the case studies so that they were discussed rather than presented. Of course I say this with appreciation for the task that the organisers and presenters had, and there was an awful lot packed in to an afternoon session, which I greatly appreciated having the opportunity to attend.
  • Being the only person in the room who was visibly using a laptop/ipad for note taking and tweeting. I don’t think anyone else was tweeting (I expect some people aren't allowed due to organisational social media policies) and I felt a little self-conscious about it.
Finally here are some resources I recommend if you would like to find out more about asset approaches, and an online network (ABCD Europe) where the asset based practice and approaches are discussed.


  1. Hi Lorna
    I feel very flattered to be the instigator of such a long and detailed blog. Some of your own analysis and references are very useful to me and I will check these out. I have come across some but not others.
    My view is that if some of us are thinking the same thoughts semi or completely independently then there is probably something in it. After all many modern ideas and inventions were born almost simultaneously, usually because the conditions for their emergence existed. What's exciting to me is that many more people will also be having similar thoughts or coming to the same conclusions about the way we have approached health and well-being for the last 40 years. These are the 'Trojan mice' - let's start nibbling!
    In answer to your observation that we could have used a more 'Asset Based' approach in the workshop, I agree. I hope you enjoy the session on Thursday which will use: 'Appreciative Inquiry', 'Asset Mapping', and 'Open Space Technology' as tools to explore the potential of 'Asset Approaches'
    I will be reading Danny Dorling's excellent book 'Injustice - why social inequality persists' on the train down. In the first chapter he has more Ds for us (very appropriate with his alliterative name): delinquent, debarred, debtors, discarded, depressed & disenfranchised.

  2. Hi Trevor
    Thank you for your kind response to my post. I did indeed enjoy the exploration of asset based methods on Thursday, and have been thinking more about community development and asset based approaches. I agree with you about those of us thinking about things needing to start nibbling :o)
    I love the array of Ds you've picked up in Dorling's book. I too am reading it, though got a bit stuck a third of the way in. I must continue, as his evidence and arguments are helpful in considering why things are so wrong in the world.
    I look forward to further discussion around asset based approaches - perhaps you'll dip in to ABCD Europe?