Excellence and Peacebuilding
I had planned to write a series of blog posts about teaching/learning about peacebuilding now that I’m writing the core of an introductory textbook on the subject. Before I heard Tom Peters being interviewed on the NPR program, 1A, I had not expected the first of those posts that I would deal with excellence in the first one I would be writing.
Peters is, after all, one of the preeminent business management gurus of the last thirty years rather than a peacebuilder. However, as he talked about the themes in his new book, The Excellence Dividend and its associated website, Excellence Now. I realized that a number of his points directly carried over into what I should include in the book and what I wanted students to get out of it. All of that was driven home when I sat in on my friend Doug Irvin-Erickson’s undergraduate classes at George Mason University, which I will be doing for the rest of this semester and next.
- Excellence itself. We all think we demand excellence of ourselves. I’m not sure we always do. However, as I sat in Doug’s classes, I realized that he demands excellence of himself and—to a surprising extent—his students rise to the challenge. Above and beyond his own significant skills, I realized that students take classes like his (and the ones for which my book is being written) because they are truly interested in the subject matter, which is not always the case when I taught comparative politics which many students take because it fulfills some graduation requirement.
- Putting People First. This has always been one of Peters’ key themes, but it applies all the more to peacebuilding whether both in the way we teach about it to the way we practice it in the field. I fear that as the field grows into a billion dollar a year “industry,” we will end up living “down” to the less than stellar norms of what Séverine Autesserre calls Peaceland, a book that one of Doug’s classes read. Part of excellence includes putting people first, whether they are our students or the people we work with in the field.
- Changing Cultures. I’m a big paradigm shift fan. However, I’m enough of a realist that any such transformation starts with changed values or norms—in this case regarding how we deal with conflict. So, my book will not only cover paradigm shifts in general but the pathway(s) we might have to follow in making one happen. Indeed, more and more of us are talking about creating a culture of peace which, in many ways, reflects what Peters and others have in mind when they talks about corporate culture.
- Innovation. My own title at the Alliance for Peacebuilding is senior fellow for innovation. Frankly, like Autesserre, I’m often surprised how much innovation is needed in peacebuilding yet how reluctant we are to follow the paths Peters discuss. We acknowledge that there is no single roadmap that can get us to a more peaceful world or even a culture of peace. However, I’m concerned that the principles of design thinking have yet to sink in to our field and in our classrooms. Like Peters, I’m a fan of companies like IDEO that specialize in ideating, developing rapid prototypes, and learning from the successes and failures one has along the way. Peters and others even refer to this as serious play when they try to describe the kind of experimentation that has characterized the groups I’ve had the privilege of working with since the 1980s. The challenge now is to get that mindset embedded in our field and—more importantly for the purposes of this post—the next generation of peacebuilders who are sitting in classes like Doug’s at colleges and universities around the world.
- Manage by Wandering Around. This is the Peters meme that most grabbed my attention when I first read In Search of Excellence sometime in the mid-1980s. I realized at the time that that was how I taught and my wife managed her team of analysts. In more general terms, his term MBWA refers to the need to get out of our offices and really interact with our employees and our students and the people we meet in peacebuilding environments on their own terms. In short, this is another way of endorsing the lessons we draw from local peacebuilders in, for instance, the work of Peace Direct. That includes changing the way we work in the classroom, too. I’m an old-school teacher whose default mode is to lecture a lot more than I should. It’s also in the nature of text-book writing that one’s focus has to be on presenting the material. However, one can engage students in the classroom (as Doug does so much better than I ever did). In my own case, I’ll be building more participatory (and hopefully empowering) exercises into the book and the peacebuilding portion of my web site to which I’ll be devoting a lot more attention in the weeks to come.
While it should be clear that Tom Peters got my intellectual juices flowing for my book, it should be just as clear that my writing and my peacebuilding practice are both a work in progress.
So, suggestions are always welcome. Just send me an email.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.
Also published on Medium.