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As I read reports on the Occupy Wall Street and related protests, as a person interested in agility, I am intrigued to find commonality amongst them.  The protests are a collection of individuals with variety of grievances, coming together with a common theme.  These protest essentially are ongoing experiments in self-organization, using consensus as their primary decision-making, and adapting to various changes.  All this, without a command-and-control hierarchy.  These are the same concepts that the software development community, and organizations, are adopting to find better and different ways to work.  Self-organization, consensus driven decision-making and adaptability are all agility concepts.  And this is what makes these protests interesting at many levels, irrespective of what opinion you might hold about them.

Self-Organization

An article on a local tv website, here in Portland, reported that the protests are not as chaotic as many would expect:

On the outside, the protest might seem a bit odd — there’s music, performers and a bunch of different smells.  But a closer look reveals that it’s not the chaos one might expect. Just stop by the information desk, which is one of about 20 committees helping to run the place, to find out more. There’s even a finance committee.

Reporting on the Occupy Wall Street protests, USA Today states the group has received nearly half a million dollars in donation.  And they continue to receive $8k everyday from lock boxes:

The cash has forced changes in the “finance working group” that arose spontaneously among the self-governed protesters. Buckets were once used to collect park donations, and until recently, a 21-year-old art student played a key role in the working group.

It further states:

The amorphous group has no clear plans yet for spending much of the money. For now, the fund doles out $100 a day to each of the dozen “working groups” that keep the month-long protest going — from sanitation and medical to finance and media.

Look at the language these reports use – self-governed, working groups, various level of specialization (finance, medical, media, etc.).  We use similar lingo to describe our own agile teams.  As both of these reports show, Wall Street, Portland and many other groups are self-organizing and provide operational structure and cohesiveness.

Consensus Building and Adaptation

Having organized themselves, these groups are also adapting and managing new impediments as they show up.  For example, the organizers, now are having to contend with those who are there for the cause and those who come there for partying.  The Oregonian says, these groups are using consensus driven decision-making to deal with new issues, like dealing with weapons and substance use:

In an effort to control the Occupy Portland campsite, the movement’s consensus government imposed rules of conduct Monday night for participants, including no weapons and no derogatory language. More volunteers are wearing white strings around their arms indicating they are camp “peacekeepers” with authority to calm disputes.

The groups are coalescing and arriving at organizing principles without any hierarchical decision-making bodies:

Occupy Portland vigorously resists the concept of “leaders” and instead calls organizers “facilitators.” Ethan Edwards, a facilitator who has been at the campsite since Oct. 6, said demonstrators walk a blurred line between protesting the nation’s economic disparities and caring for the chronically homeless and mentally ill who have moved in with a less political purpose in mind — such as partaking of the free meals served daily.

“Ship It”

As the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest gets beyond the one month marker, many have already started writing obits citing various reasons.  Here are some of the reasons Brend Arends at Marketwatch gives: they are in the wrong place (instead of protesting in lower Manhattan, they should be in up in Greenwich against the hedge fund honchos), the weather is turning, big money will eventually drown them out, and that the public at-large will forget about them.

And of course the bigger reason  –  they don’t have an agenda.  All of these reasons are plausible and may prove out to be true and protests may eventually die out.  For Occupy protests  to sustain themselves and to continue to hold people’s attention and support, they will have to develop a larger agenda and a coherent strategy.  In this sense, they have a myriad items or stories in their backlog that needs to be groomed, ordered and prioritized; themes that needs developing, releases to be planned; and they to articulate a sustaining product vision.

It is quite possible, these protests will never get beyond the expression of anger against the inequities that many feel.  They may buckle under impediments big and small, and fissure.  They may never find the cohesiveness and unifying vision to propel themselves forward.  But, for now what started in lower Manhattan has given voice to many who are affected by many incongruities and ill-effects of the lingering Great Recession.  In this sense, they have already “shipped” their first product (angst) by inspiring many such protests across the globe.   Self-organizing teams using consensus based decision-making, operating within constraints, is interesting to watch and witness.

Personal Reflections

I wanted to keep the post as apolitical as possible, but gotta ask, what’s up with Oakland police?  The protests have resonated the world over, even in the egalitarian Netherlands.  Over at Financialagile, Jamie Dobson has a beautiful writeup on reasons why he attended Occupy Amsterdam.

At the most fundamental level, all protests are a form of political theatre.  So about 2 weeks ago, I took my boys (8yrs and 10yrs), to the Occupy Portland protest, which has camped itself into two downtown parks (the pictures are from that visit). I figured this is a good way to show them how citizens exercise their right of free speech and assembly. In a larger context, I wanted my sons to begin understanding that when the protestors use peaceful means to raise awareness of their grievances, they have good company.  That is when they are part of long thread that weaves through civil disobedience of the transcendentalists, to their own heritage of satyagraha, to the civil rights movement of the 60s and the more recent examples of the Arab Spring.

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