Towards a theory of change

Towards a theory of change

A handful of heuristics for your consideration

Here's an emerging theory of change and some principles which apply to our change work.

People don't resist change. They resist being changed. Peter Senge

Small change: chunk it down

Change moves at different paces in different parts, and is layered, cumulative and aways unfinished. Constant waves where the second horizon incubates change, leaving the first horizon a little further beyond, striving to the third horizon which always lies ahead.

Change must be crumbled from an abstract monolith into small pieces to be something that can be considered and negotiated in a meaningful way in the space between people.

Equivalence: share the power

Change is powered by distributed voices, equivalence and permission to lead, whichever part of the formal power structures you might inhabit. It spreads sideways through networks and peer to peer relationships. This challenges hierarchies and deeply held assumptions about power, responsibility and how decisions are made.

Together: work is shared

There is no masterplan. It doesn't happen in a black box. By making things together, as well as making things that can be used, people make lasting relationships and shared memories which build social capital that lasts beyond the transition and get to see the world differently. The thing being made creates a primary task which keeps people doing real work and meaning-making together. The people who share the making become the critical few who help advance the change through their own peer to peer networks.

Pop up: make places of potential

Protected space incubates the confidence, commitment and verve it takes to become one of the critical few. The organisation must make it possible to create hosted spaces in which people can step out from behind their defences and daily dignity and participate in a liminal space on equal terms with each other, set apart from the day to day and the strategic imperatives.  This is slow work. Festinalente.

Inhabited: make a story you want to live in

The story needs to be strong, and inhabited by those whom the change affects. It needs to dislodge the existing story, without dissing it, breaking open spaces in which a new story can be incubated. And the emotional complexity of the change for them needs to be recognised in the story. Leaders need to witness people and their stories as well as tell the story. In order for the immediate emotional turbulence and uncertainty not to drown out the steadier drumbeat of the longer narrative, there needs to be rhythm, repetition and reincorporation in the evolving narrative. A constant reminder that change is a means not an end. Now needs regularly to be place back into the long arc of change so that the moment of change does not dominate the longer story and is rightsized. A red thread must run through everything.

A string of facts, however well attested, will not correct or dislodge a powerful story. The only response it is likely to provoke is indignation: people often angrily deny facts that clash with the narrative “truth” established in their minds. The only thing that can displace a story is a story. Those who tell the stories run the world. (George Monbiot)

12 design principles.

  1. Make something together, shared ownership from the outset.
  2. Build human networks. Invest in the 'soft wiring' early on. Connect with the kernel of a community, which can evolve into a core group of advocates.
  3. Process and product are constantly interwoven strands. Give this continuity, and the understanding of change equal status with other types of organisational knowledge and power.
  4. Understand that it's paradoxical, pace-layered. Work simultaneously in several time periods, short, medium and long term, and at many paces, fast to slow. Change the tempo. Embrace and work actively with tensions  spring free energy for the change.
  5. Anticipate reuse, be open to new reuse: work the process and products to anticipate, and respond to, connections and assets that can be used in multiple ways to secure, strengthen and evolve the story.
  6. Iterate, iterate, iterate. Understand that the preliminary products and outputs are transitional, pathfinding towards more permanent products. Make it do-able. Just good enough to get you to the next place.
  7. Open channels to feedback loops to learn from these, gain insight into their use.
  8. Use a visual, improvising, participatory processes to make temporary spaces between people in which they can make sense of things, make room for their own and each others' take on things.
  9. Disrupt the status quo.
  10. Model the desired future with experimental new ways of working.
  11. Keep telling the story and creating listening for the story. (And the story of the process is a powerful attractor as well as more obvious stories)
  12. Make it a lively, fun, human, process, memorable and poetic. People deserve beauty in their work lives.
'Instead of specifying it in full detail, you simply ride on the dynamics of the system to where you want to go.’ (Stafford Beers quoted by Brian Eno, foreword to ‘Think before you think’)

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash