Here’s my attempt at a takeaway message on How Change Happens – what do you think?

November 24, 2015 9 By Duncan Green

Reminder – if you are one of the truly alarming number of people who have downloaded the 160 page draft of Rule of ThumbHow Change Happens, the deadline for comments is just two weeks away – 10th December. Background to the book here.

One of the main messages already emerging from feedback is that I need to ‘throw readers a bone’ in the final chapter, in the form of some rules of thumb they might want to adopt in working on issues of power and systems (the core narrative of the book). Rules of thumb are under-studied – they are actually what guides our decisions from day to day (sorry evidence geeks, but it’s true). But since one of the conclusions of the book is that all those toolkits and best practice guidelines are often incompatible with systems thinking, a tricky balancing act is required.

So I want to run my response (both as powerpoint bullets and text) past FP2P readers and see if it works/how you would improve it. Step forward the ‘How Change Happens Power and Systems Approach’ (PSA). This covers two areas:

  • How we think/feel/work
  • The questions we ask (and keep asking)

Intro: A Power and Systems Approach differs from conventional ways of working in some important aspects: a conventional aid project or campaign tends to do all the analysis up front, come up with a plan, find the money and then stop thinking to focus on action, until the project is completed.

Well I couldn't not use it, could I?

Well I couldn’t not use it, could I?

Since no amount of upfront analysis will enable us to predict the erratic behaviour of a complex system a PSA interweaves thought and action throughout. The purpose of initial study is to enable us to place our bets intelligently. The crucial decisions come after that: how we continue to ‘study’ during the course of our efforts, and adjust according to what we learn.

A PSA encourages multiple strategies, rather than a single linear approach, and views failure, iteration and adaptation as expected and necessary, rather than a regrettable lapse.

How we think/feel/work [6 dance moves?]

The powerpoint slide:

  • Curiosity – Study the history; ‘learn to dance with the system’
  • Humility – embrace uncertainty/ambiguity
  • Reflexivity – be conscious of your own role, prejudices and power
  • Be searchers not (just) planners
  • Include multiple perspectives, unusual suspects
  • Regular time outs to learn from failure and success, and adapt

The text: A PSA means become ‘reflectivists’ as well as activists, nurturing a genuine curiosity about the complex interwoven elements that characterize the systems we are trying to influence, without abandoning the desire to take action. We need simultaneously to be observers and activists.

Dancing with complex systems is like navigating through traffic – success depends on fast feedback to detect new situations and having the ability to respond quickly (a pedestrian has stepped out into traffic – hit the brake!). We need to analyse and reanalyse the context, spotting new windows of opportunity (and threats), learning from failure, trying out different things until we find something that works.

Curiosity about the system needs to be laced with humility and self knowledge. We don’t – can’t – have all the answers; we can’t predict events; what works in one place won’t work in another. We need to get comfortable (maybe even enjoy) messiness and uncertainty, giving far more weight to local knowledge and feedback. We need to include a more diverse range of people and viewpoints in any discussion, and (however busy we are) take regular time outs to assess what is/isn’t working and change course accordingly.

We need to recognize that ‘we’ are not lofty, disinterested observers. Power flows within our own networks; it influences our relations with partners and allies. We make decisions at least partly based on our default models of the world and assumptions not based on evidence.

The questions we ask (and keep asking)

The powerpoint slide: [6 questions]

Everyone enjoying this?

Everyone enjoying this?

  • What are we trying to change? (Policy; Practice; Norms)
  • Are there current/past examples of success that we can learn from?
  • How are decisions on this issue taken? By whom?
  • Who holds what kind of power (especially excluded groups – women, indigenous, older people etc)
  • How can we foresee or respond to any critical junctures?
  • Can we identify any quick wins or implementation gaps to build momentum and confidence?

The text:

What problem are you trying to address? Is it specific (e.g. improving livelihoods for a group of women farmers) or systemic (changing government policy or prevailing norms)? Is it primarily economic, political, social or a combination? Local, national or global?

What is your understanding of the origins of that problem? Have you considered a positive deviance study to explore where the problem has already been solved and how? Who has the ability to solve it? Does the barrier to change lie in laws and policies, or in social norms, attitudes and beliefs? Or is the issue rooted in conflicting interests?

Whatever the issue we are thinking about and seeking to change, everyone involved will be linked by a subtle and pervasive force field of power. A good power analysis should identify the players (both individuals and organizations), how they relate to each other, who or what they are influenced by (peer persuasion or rivalry? Evidence and example? protest?) and the different kinds of power in play (conventionally visible power, or something more behind the scenes, like the power of ideas, or peer pressure and ‘old boy networks’?).

A power analysis should suggest strategies for engaging with the main public or private institutions that drive or block change. It should dissolve the monoliths of ‘the state‘ or ‘big business‘ or ‘the international system‘ into turbulent networks full of potential allies as well as opponents. A power analysis should also help us understand why change doesn‘t happen – the forces of inertia and paradigm maintenance.

cartoon_truth to powerA power analysis disaggregates power, exploring the role of ‘power within’ (e.g. empowering women to become more active social agents), ‘power with’ (collective organization) or ‘power to’ (e.g. supporting CSO advocacy)? That helps move the focus to groups of people (women, poor communities, indigenous groups, those living with disabilities) who are often excluded from decision-making, and whose empowerment is at the heart of many change strategies.

Can you foresee any likely critical junctures when change is more likely to occur (e.g. new governments, changes of leadership, election timetables)? When operating in complex systems, you are only as good as your feedback loops. What systems do you have in place to spot and respond to new opportunities and threats as they emerge? Or monitor your own work, spot failures, and change course?

Implementation gaps – institutions, policies or budgets that have already been agreed but exist purely on paper – often provide fertile grounds for action that generates quick wins, which can have a galvanizing effect – plucking a few low-hanging fruit is great for morale, motivation and momentum.

The argument of the book is that those ways of working, and asking these kinds of questions, should broaden the range of allies, ideas and strategies, introduce better feedback, learning and adaptation and (fingers crossed) make us more effective change agents. Convinced?