Change starts from within
…but mustn’t end there
My first real blog was about change. And when I reflected on opportunities that have resonated with me I wrote, “My core question: How can we solve the world’s problems?…. together?…. by learning faster? ……by sharing a common understanding? …. and what’s my role?”
In 2016 I returned from my Churchill Fellowship with insights galore and much to ponder. One of the intriguing lessons from the wise community leaders that I had reached out to was, “change starts from within”. It came up a number of times and I included it as one of my themes.*
I wrote, ” Change starts with the individual.
Making an effective difference in the system relies on understanding that there are different roles and effects. Activists need to be committed to measuring their work against the impact they are having and being prepared to try different approaches. They also need to understand that the effort can’t be sustained unless it is fun and you are working with people you care about.
But if you want to get stuck into designing the energy system of the future you have to be prepared to work with all sorts of strange bedfellows and build the relationships to work together. This requires everyone to dig deep, find ways to trust each other and to understand other perspectives.”
One friend rounded on me, ” don’t tell me we will stop the planet from going up in smoke by turning off a few lights and composting our waste” – no this isn’t about everyone doing their little bit. We have major systems to change and we can’t do that just by focusing on our own individual impacts … and hence the diagram above.
But we can’t run from the inside of the diagram straight to the outside and make change happen. The best ideas, the most powerful or well connected people, or the most money – none of these can create change on their own. In fact there is no right answer yet. Change is something that emerges, not something that is determined at the outset.
Change is a together process. For anyone with an egalitarian sensibility, it also needs to be a fair and respectful process (in fact change can devastate vulnerable people the most, so high ambitions for the change process are essential). So lets step through the diagram from the centre to generating real change in the systems that need it.
Change starts from within, and I think the essence of this message is that we can’t expect others to step toward us in understanding the problem, if we are not also prepared to step toward them in understanding their perspective. Some humility is in order. If you think you know your way to the answer already, take a step back and consider that you will need to learn throughout the process of change. There is always new knowledge to be integrated into our solutions.
I’ve come across a few concepts which are worth wrapping together in order to understand the importance of this message and useful ways to behave and act.
Richard Sennett, in Together: The rituals and pleasures of cooperation, takes time to distinguish between the dialogic and the dialectic. Debating the merit of something only gets two parties to move toward each other, through compromise or good reasoning – that’s what the dialectic gives you. By contrast, a dialogue generates new. New ideas, fresh insights, deeper understanding, empathy. You have to listen. You have to reflect. You have to learn not to be precious with your own ideas.
- Deliberation. I’ve written before about how people need time to go on their own learning journey and build knowledge about an issue in order to understand how it squares with their values. Raw opinions are inconsistent. Deliberation is rock solid. I’ve tried to square this with expert knowledge. Experts are rightly criticised for thinking they know how to balance various societal values. But experts do know stuff that others may not want to spend a lifetime learning. Being a responsible and trustworthy expert involves ensuring you deliberate, offer transparency about the values that bias your work and also challenge your own judgement with…
- Critical system heuristics. OK, I’ve got a bit carried away with the value of critical thinking recently but I’m quite excited that there’s a whole language for thinking that challenges the dominant paradigm. Karl Marx thought of it as emancipatory knowledge and felt it occurred through work. I’m experimenting with using the frameworks of Werner Ulrich to think in systems and to challenge the real motivations, sources of power and knowledge. The idea is that if you compare how people frame a concept with how they should frame it (by redrawing a few boundaries), you can get more legitimate ideas.
- I think Otto Scharmers U model has plenty to offer. We all know about the importance of opening our minds. But that’s only the first step. Opening our hearts, allowing ourselves to care for others and see them as fellows in this change journey is so important for building trust and communications. Open Will is the step I have the most trouble with, letting go of our ideas, accepting that what emerges will not be yours, but ours and it will be different to the path you thought you ought to take.
- I’d also like to link to the idea of Personal Knowledge Mastery and the concept of working out loud. Because we make more sense of the world when we triangulate our discoveries with the different perspectives of others.
- Finally, I think the practical dimension is missing in my list so far. Design as research and creative activities as research are newcomers to the formal knowledge game – because they try to capture what we learn from doing. The scientific method favours the objective observer, but the designer is always part of the process and uses models, tools and prototypes to always iterate and test ideas. Our feedback loops are the important thing to consider. We get feedback from our bodies when we do stuff – this is often referred to as tacit knowledge because its unarticulated. We get feedback from our emotions. We also get important feedback if we stop and reflect. Building feedback into our learning is an important part of growth.
Moving out to the group or organisational level, we get a whole new series of messages and helpful hints. Solutions to the tyranny of structurelessness (no one is allowed to be in charge) and the limitations of consensus (everybody needs to agree) are offered. Do they work? or do they undermine everyone’s sense that the group is working for the benefit of all?
I’m less confident about the messages here because I don’t get to live them or test them myself. So in theory:
The distinction between structure and self-organising is the distinction in my diagram between group and network. It’s a scale thing. Zappos embarked on a holocracy experiment because “when a city doubles in population, innovation or productivity increases per capita by 15%, which is the opposite of what happens when a company doubles.” The group is small enough to agree its own structures, fill different roles and build the relationships that create great teamwork. Maybe bigger organisations work too but increasingly corporate-speak looks for leadership that empowers its groups and breaks down its silos. And groups aren’t always the ones you choose. The Water regulation examples I have found in the UK and the USA (Judith Innes – Diversity, Interdependence and Authentic Dialogue process) speak to similar values. When a group is forced to work together, ideally they overcome their differences and work as a team.
- I’ve always been aware that many decisions are made in the bowels of organisations. Many on-high decisions are stymied when they get to the practical doer who needs to implement and (in reverse) championship and good changes can happen at a very local level. It doesn’t need to be amongst the most powerful. Vineet Nayar reckons 10% of employees are the type of champion to care about an organisation and transform it for the better if you bring them with you. Nilofer Merchant says anyone can make their dent on the world. And I’ve written about the many and varied voices we need to hear from in achieving our energy transition.
- Frederic Laloux is famous for his take on ‘teal’ organisations which are more empowering (and successful) than normal corporations, and in this video he raises three key points which are mirrored in the organisation of ecovillages.
– Effective admin and operations comes from natural leadership. Letting people lead when they can and want to. Letting them make decisions with a sensible scan, check in with some wisdom, involve those affected.
– Space for people to be authentically themselves is important and if people turn up to work “whole” instead of just presenting ‘corporate me’, the organisation is better. (This probably relates to work and meaning at the personal level too)
– Vision and organisational direction emerge. The space for the conversations that let this happen is important. I’m guessing it is the dialogic space.
- Next comes innovation. Change needs innovation so we can step forward into the unknown and create that future. Look at Timmons triangle (a well known innovation framework). Unsurpringly, it looks like the framework in New Power but Heimanns and Timms put the broader social movement or network in the place of “Resources”.
- Finally, power! I’ve thought about the matrix shown (from an article in SSIR, paywall sorry) in slightly different dimensions. Creation and destruction can be termed “Power-with” and “power-over”. Confrontation and collaboration can be thought of as outsiders and insiders. Activists are down in the blue quadrant, building a social movement with the power to demand that the system changes. But if we see everyone in the system as real people then the working together approaches are attractive places to put our efforts.
- at small scales we will create structure, at larger scales we might need to let the network, the empowerment and the sensing system emerge.
- At the group level we need diversity and there will inevitably be different roles. These differences are key to creativity and a fuller picture of the situation.
- At the group level we will have leadership, ownership, drive, responsibility but it can emerge everywhere and anywhere – the same with collaborations and helping each other.
- The group level is the doing level and also creates the trust and safety for good work and belonging.
- The group capitalises on innovative ideas and puts structure around idea development, even as the network informs, resources and supports that process.
- The group relationship to the network and broader system could be collaborative and egalitarian but might need to be competitive and astute about power.
Networks are the only good way to scale. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Any strategic direction needs to be based on a shared vision. A classic policy development diagram shows any major social change stalled at a backward and forward contest until the politicians have brought enough people with them to get the law passed (eg smoking legislation). The changes I am considering in this blog need many people to come on the journey, so a network that can scale is key to the concept.
- Self-organising is an idea that really excites me. It’s why I’m building wiki-based knowledge hubs. It’s why I explored the constellation model for collaborative policy making (and others, as you’ll see if you read the whole blog) and it was probably kicked off when I read Clay Shirky’s Here comes Everybody. If you didn’t read it before, there are three interesting examples in the governance and organising blog.
- Another theme that has followed me around is evolution and what it means to be homo sapiens. I like the idea that we are a group species and therefore have group behaviours, norms, cultures which help us survive. In fact in Mothers and Others Sarah Blaffer Hrdy posits that the care our infants need made us the intelligent communicating mammals we are. In Moral Origins Christopher Boehm suggests that bullies and cheats were easily dispatched in tribal groups so they learnt to hide or moderate their true nature, a key point in the development of a conscience. In Give and Take Adam Grant shows us how to give effectively and heralds the end of the takers as reputational information travels further and faster in the days of LinkedIn etc. (just quietly, bring on the demise of those who suck up and sh*t down)
- Paradigm shift can only happen at scale too. George Monbiot has a thoughtful effort at a new narrative, one of togetherness and belonging. He talks up the rebuilding of community. And to quote Donella Meadows:
So how do you change paradigms? Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the seminal book about the great paradigm shifts of science,7 has a lot to say about that. In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep coming yourself, and loudly and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.
So if you start your change effort from within, you find your team and groups, and you work together in a scalable network. Then we all have a chance making the changes this planet so desperately needs. Let’s get working!
*A big thanks to Al Weinrub for his wise words, “change starts from within”, at the beginning of my Churchill journey. He published, “Energy Democracy: Advancing equity in clean energy solutions” shortly after and has no idea how much I’ve tried to wrap my head around the importance of his message.