Sunday, March 23, 2014

Stories from the Road

Parable of the Bus

This is the parable of two committees that each wish to reach a destination.  One committee takes care about how it prepares itself for the journey, establishing a clear destination, carefully choosing leadership, developing a plan, attracting others and having clear expectations of members . They also decide how they will develop the power to influence others who may be able to assist them overcome obstacles on their way, as well as ensuring they have the required resources for the journey.  The other committee is not as clear about their destination, the means of getting there and this has clear implications for sustainability and the likelihood of their success.
The reason I conceived this story was that over many meetings, with many different committees, I found that often committee members seemed to see each of the aspects of organising and running a successful committee as being separate and unrelated, so I wanted a way to show how each aspect of a successful committee was a key part of every other aspect.  I wanted one story that contained all the different elements of a successful committee and was flexible enough to adapt to different situations in different counties
The bus parable contains a structure to stimulate discussion and is able to link all the key elements that a committee is likely to encounter in one story.  For example a committee without a clear goal will likely flounder or they may have a clear goal but weak leadership or governance or strong governance but no agreed action plan or map. The aim is really to convey that a committee is  only as strong as their weakest element. I also found that when individual problems arose, I needed a way to be able to place whatever was happening in the moment within a bigger context and within one story and show its relationship to other aspects of their committee life.
Every country on earth has buses, by different names:  Matatu’s in Kenya, Bis in Indonesia or Marshotni in Armenia and all communities  seem to readily identify with them and a the concept of the journey.  I have chosen what I have found to be the most important elements of the “journey” and throughout there is the parallel between running a bus company and taking a road journey and the journey of the committee to its particular destination or goal. At the same time the ‘container’ of this analogy is so rich that there are any number of improvisations that can be added depending on the situation at hand.

But we are also inviting on to our vehicle other community members. They are not the bus company but they can board the bus and reach the same destination but on certain conditions, and they don’t have the decision rights roles and responsibilities of the committee.  It may be that the advantages of being a member means that they pay a discounted price for events that are run but still we don’t exclude the community at large, but it may be they have to pay a different price or receive lesser benefits than members.

The Bus

The bus is used as a metaphor for the committee themselves. They are the vehicle, they are the fuel and they are the bus company. They decide the route and maintain the vehicle. One of the key elements of this part of the storyis the question,  “Whose bus is this?” I have found myself reverting back to this question time and time again as the journey progresses.
It is often tricky for the facilitator, who is usually part of an NGO and who very well may have initiated the initial committee meeting, not to own or be perceived as owning the journey. This becomes more complex if the NGO provides the venue, refreshments and maybe also provides assistance with transport costs. In almost every society the host is the one who bears the expense and therefore it is their event. The questions of “Whose bus is this? Whose journey is this? Who is it that wants to get to the destination and must pay the price to get there?”, helps to clarify the separate roles and separate agendas of the NGO or facilitator and the committee. I sometimes portrayed myself as a bus company consultant, to position my place more clearly in the picture.

The Destination

Committees form for a number of reasons and there will generally be several external goals that are stated. Of course committees are only a collection of individuals and each individual will also have a number of underlying reasons for being part of a committee and hidden assumptions for what they may gain from being part of the committee.  An individual’s primary motivation could be ego-centric to meet needs of status, power, the expectations of others or the perception that there will be handouts along the way. It could be an individual’s primary motivator is socio-centric, a sense of belonging and the power that a committee has collectively to do things that the individual cannot. This would typically apply to people who think that they will benefit from their membership of a self-help group. A member’s  motivation to join may also be more world-centric, in this case it is not just for “us” the group but for “all of us” our community, our children our future. In this case the member’s primary desire is to better the local community in the knowledge that if the community does better they too will do better as well. The likelihood is that the reason a person is willing to join a committee is a combination of these three aspects; me, us and all of us.
If we think of our stated committee goal(s) as the destination, then it is likely that there can be broad agreement. But when we take into account the interior aspects of the committee members it is likely that on the way to the destination there are a number of things that each is seeking to satisfy. And if we are not explicit about this “internal” aspect of the committee and the journey then we may find ourselves taking detours on the way to meet individual passengers’ needs and as a result may never make our destination. Members may become impatient with the journey and get off the bus, or the bus may become lost or bogged or hijacked by bandits.
It is not so much that all the different agendas that individuals have for making the journey may not be voiced but the facilitator can make all the potentially different reasons for joining a committee in the me, us and all us perspectives explicit. And having done that, we now have a way for naming what might come up, in a new way. It is also easy to relate to the story of the bus. Everyone has their own reasons for taking a journey and they may or may not share these with others but if the bus is to reach its destination it needs to stay on course and generally the needs of individuals are not part of that destination. And that is the reason for having a clear destination, a good map and a strong driver or leader. So, for the journey, individual agendas are fine but if they risk taking the bus off course then we need to see if their individual need is on the route the bus is taking or whether they may be better to take another bus. So at this early stage we can embolden the committee to ask at any time, “are we still on course or are we taking a detour?”
As part of this scene setting we can make the comparison between two buses: Good Bus and Bad Bus. The Good Bus has a clearly marked sign as to where it is going.  As a result, everyone on board is happy and confident, from the driver who is sure where he needs to steer the bus, to the passengers who can relax and enjoy the ride, confident that the destination is clear.

Compare this with the Bad Bus. The sign has fallen to the ground, no one, least of all the driver or chairperson, has clarity as to the destination. As a result, there is a lack of confidence that the bus will reach any destination; people pointing in different directions as to where they think the bus should go next. Others are moving away from the bus, having separate meetings in small sub-committees, concerned, uncertain or afraid of what is next. .
Because of the anxiety and confusion it is likely that many passengers have lost their motivation for the journey; some will drift away or just simply return home. This may also mean they are much less likely to want to take a similar journey in the future. It is also impossible to see how the bus will attract new passengers, which will be necessary if the vehicle is to remain viable.

The Passengers

The committee is the bus, the vehicle, they are also the fuel and energy and it is them who set the destination. And they are also the passengers; the bus they have brought into reality is their vehicle for reaching the destination they have decided on.
But they also want to attract other passengers as this will increase the viability of the bus line and make it more sustainable into the future. They want the NGO on the bus, and other NGOs, they want funders on the bus and government; and they also want other community members to join them on the journey as the more people who pay the fare the more viable the operation and the more chance they will reach the destination for themselves and others.
But they can only attract other passengers if the destination is clear and that all the other passengers see that the price they pay is less than the value of getting to the destination. And this is one more reason why it is so crucial to fix a clear destination. We don’t take a bus that takes us somewhere near a city, we take one that delivers us to an exact location.
Everyone knows that there is a price to pay for taking a bus journey. In the case of our bus the prices differ. For the organizing committee the price will include their time, the risk of raising, and perhaps not fulfilling, expectations in their community, the use of their mobile phone, the cost of getting to meetings and refreshments. So the question for the committee is, are they willing to pay this price and to them is the price worth paying to reach the destination?
In addition to the committee itself there are different prices for the different types of passengers. For community members the price might be to pay a monthly membership fee or be involved in certain activities. For NGO’s the price will be higher, and may include financial assistance for projects or staff expertise. For the Government the price may be representing the community’s needs within local government or providing various forms of endorsement, expertise or meeting venues.

One thing is clear, if you are taking the journey you have to be prepared to pay the price and people or organizations making the journey have to be clear about the price before they join. If they don’t pay, then as much as we might value them, we need to kick them off the bus!  If we don’t then it raises the question, “Why should anyone pay?” and soon there is dissention, dissatisfaction and mistrust among all passengers proposing to make the journey.

One of the real benefits of this part of the story is that it again positions the NGO and the facilitator as part of the journey, as entities which need to pay a price but are still clearly separate from ownership of the venture. Essentially the committee is using them to assist them in making the journey more viable.
Another benefit in talking about passengers and who are needed  on the bus is that it can stimulate discussion as to the need for a world-centric perspective. There is always a danger that a committee that originally sets itself up to benefit the whole community reverts back to being a “self-help group “just focusing on the needs and interests of the committee members. Now, it is possible to cut transport costs and reach a destination by a committee hiring a minibus for their own ends. And there is a legitimate place for this. But if the communication of the committee is to ask for wide community support as well as support from NGOs and other organizations and then they take this support and invest it in their own minibus journey then those other passengers who also paid the fare but were left behind are not going to be happy or supportive in the future.
This area of passengers also leads into the other issues of why passengers might want to get on this bus in the first place. And this opens up discussion as to the need for a good map, a good driver, a roadworthy bus and clear communications from the conductor.

Road Map

In the context of the Parable of the Bus, the map is the plan of what route or process the bus will take to achieve its destination. It needs to be clear and unambiguous to everyone. We all know there could be unforeseen events that we will need to contend with, blockages on the road, flooding, a flat tyre and even sickness on the bus. All the same we are setting off with a clear path in mind. The map gives passengers confidence, it means that only those passengers interested in the route will join, it clarifies the benefit of paying the price as the route has been well thought through and it gives the driver a clear picture of where he or she needs to steer the bus – or in another way, how to steer the committee to achieve the stated destination.

The lack of a clear and agreed map means that at every crossroad, the journey needs to be renegotiated. Again the confusion and energy that this process entails causes a lack of confidence among the passengers and may well cause them to abandon the journey.


Leadership in this story of the bus is represented by the driver but also takes into account all the office holders of the committee, the secretary, the treasure, and the heads of any subcommittees.
I have found that it is good to use the committee to spell out how they see the job descriptions of these positions and what is expected before people are voted into the roles. This can be difficult as the committee will probably want to make the election of officers their first task. The challenge is that until we know the road the bus will take, it is difficult to know who will be best to lead the process  . So I generally suggest that we have an interim committee of office bearers and then to have fresh elections once the destination and the map have been agreed.

Of course, what we are looking for is leadership that has the full support and confidence of the passengers. What can help keep this on track and jump the hurdle of who committee members think will suit them best from a “me and us “perspective is to keep the destination and map very firmly to the front of the discussion and to ask the question of who will be the best driver, or leaders for “all of us” for this particular task.

 I believe it is useful to discuss the possible scenarios depicted above. What if no one wants to really take responsibility for leadership? What if there is a continual fight as to who should lead and confusion over their authority and the potential loneliness of having to be leader and not always please everyone? Having firmly set the expectations for the roles of leadership, while the positions are still vacant,  I think it is helpful to talk about scenarios that could lead to problems. What if elected officers don’t attend meetings, what if they don’t do what they have agreed to do, what if the committee loses confidence in them, what if they are trying in some way to unfairly take advantage of their position and how often will officers be elected? And then to allow for hypothetical discussions on what action the committee will take if these situations arise.
This is also the place to discuss the various levels of involvement: what is the role of the officers of the committee and what are we hoping for in support from the larger community? For some reason this element can be unclear. How do they explain their role on the committee as distinct from general membership of our organisation and our engagement with the wider community?
Again we can use the bus analogy. We are passengers but we are also the bus company, setting the destination, deciding the route, deciding the price of the journey.


The issue of communication is critical particularly in the early honeymoon stages of the committee’s formation. If the committee exaggerates what it is proposing to do then it creates a problem managing community expectations as it moves forward, it potentially straitjackets committee members to advocating for things they have promised. It creates stress if community members pay a monthly membership subscription only to find what they thought they would receive in return is not on the immediate agenda of the committee. And the committee chairperson or driver cannot meet everyone’s expectations.

The analogy from the bus story is that it is the conductor’s role to lean out the bus door and shout out the destination. If there are more than one “voice” it will create chaos if one voice is shouting Nairobi and the next one Cape town. Clear ‘single voice” communication is key to getting more passengers on the bus and keeping harmony once the passengers’ board.


If one is going to board a bus and the journey may take several years then it is important that the bus is well maintained and that we don’t wait for breakdowns to fix a problem. Typically a breakdown will happen when we are not expecting it and at times of stress, like bumpy roads and steep hard hills, we need to be on the move. A well maintained bus is continually checked to make sure it is safe and up to the journey ahead. I ask committee members to make a list of all the things that they would want to make sure is working on the bus: the horn, the indicators, the brakes etc. and then to make a list of all the things that they think would be a good roadworthiness test for a committee. Typically the group will come up with expectations for the driver and what a good chairperson will look like, how they will show respect to one another, how they will be accountable to follow through on what they commit to, how they will attend regular meetings and so on. Then I try to have them honestly score themselves between 1 and 10 on how they see themselves now against this set of standards. This then forms a benchmark for improvement and there usually follows an agreement to keep checking back regularly on the health of the vehicle, in this case the rules of the committee. I have found committees tend to have an exaggerated view of how well they are performing and so it it useful to talk about how a score of five might look and what would we see in a committee that scored a perfect ten.

There is wisdom also in having discussions about the opposite, the bad bus, in each of the aspects above and particularly the roadworthiness aspect.  What will happen if we don’t have a good map, what will happen if our communications are confused and what will happen if we take things for granted and don’t keep the bus in this case the committee in good shape for the journey.


Depending on the country and applicable laws it is important that the committee has the appropriate registration. This will be important if they are to own property, have a bank account and apply for grants. I have found that most committees are aware of the necessary registration requirements but it is always good to make sure that they check the legal structure they are proposing is the best from the available options. Otherwise they may find legal  restrictions placed on their activities. I think it is important that the committee raises the money for registration themselves; after all it is always their bus and their journey.

Good Bus: The right registration means no problems for the journey

Bad Bus: The wrong registration can mean real problems as the journey unfolds


If a bus, like the committee, is well maintained, is meeting a need and has the support of the community, then when there are issues, the committee is in an excellent position to advocate for change.  Government in particular are often not used to unified community groups with a clear purpose and destination and are surprisingly humble in response.

Our Goal (at the end)

If the map is good we can always find out where we are on the journey, we can measure our progress, tell the story of our journey and how far we have come. We can celebrate as we progress and we have a sense of how far we have to go. In many ways the actual road unfolds as we take the journey. The map is just a map and should never be confused with the landscape. But with a clear destination in mind and common purpose the end is actually always in sight.

From my experience there is no right time to raise issues in the story. I generally try to tell the whole story in one sitting and then we focus on where the committee is at a particular time and what is the most important aspect to focus on. When formation stages, challenges or problems are brought forward in subsequent meetings we try to use the bus story to solve them so that we have one consistent thread that can endure long into the life of the committee rather than making everything up based on who has the floor or what the expert says.
I know from many experiences that the story of the bus is sticky and when revisiting a committee even after a gap of several years, when I ask what we talked about last, someone will always say, we talked about the bus, and our journey and how we were travelling.

The Final Element
The final element of the Parable is how this metaphor relates to development practitioners and staff working in NGOs. From the NGO perspective there are three key elements. In order to make a particular journey with a group, the NGO staff needs to be a competent driver and licensed to drive, the vehicle must be capable of making the journey and the roads need to be appropriate to the particular vehicle. So thinking about the interior of NGO itself, the vehicle refers to a particular model or approach that may be chosen in order to guide, or make the journey with a group; it could an approach for a sector such as an approach to economic development, health, water, agriculture or education. Or it could be an approach that is designed for a target group such as a group of framers, women, youth or and people with a disability. The driver needs to have the competence or appropriate license to drive the approach, which means they have to be given the necessary training and support or be licensed by the organization to drive the vehicle safely. And finally the organization itself needs to have created the necessary enabling environment and internal pathways to be able to drive the approach. If any of these three elements are missing or mismatched the chances are that the driver will come to grief and often he or she will be a casualty along with those they are taking with them. 

© Words Jock Noble; Available for use with permission and attribution
Pictures from World Vision Australia and previously used in Indonesia. A new set of diagrams is currently being developed.

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