The power of an invitation: learning about how change happens from those on the front lines…

Have you ever had one of those ‘lightbulb moments’, where you get an idea so inspirational that it creates perfect clarity for just an instant, and then afterwards you slap yourself in bewilderment at why it took you so long to realise it? Happily, (and embarrassingly), we had one of those epiphanies, if you will, in September.

Since our founding, Wasafiri has been grappling with the question of ‘how does change happen?” when tackling complex problems. Our practical guide to action (Systemcraft) was a product of this life-long journey of exploration.

Our most recent ‘aha’ moment was to ask, ‘why don’t we bring together some of our most diverse, dedicated and dynamic clients to learn from each other?’ Seems obvious, right? Well, that’s exactly what we did – and the joy, connection, and energy from our gathering have given birth to a new precedent for how we learn moving forward.

The virtual learning session brought together Wasafiri staff from four continents, and wonderful clients from four of our most recent projects.

We dove into the lessons from messy, real-world work together. We shared stories from the failings, successes and imperfections of our shared endeavours and together, identified some common themes and insights.

Participating Projects

Africa Food Fellowship (across Africa) is a world-class leadership programme for food systems leaders, catalysing a professional movement for systemic change across Africa. Wasafiri co-designed the Fellowship in partnership with Wageningen University for Research & Innovation.

Project reps: Eunice Khaguli, Dave Okech and Winnie Yegon

CREATE (East Africa) Wasafiri works with Mercy Corps to lead the Knowledge and Learning Unit of this three-year, five-country regional program to counter violent extremism across East Africa.

Project reps: Catherine Mwendwa and Maia Blume

Feltham Convening Partnership (Greater London, UK) is a 7-year project that aims to use systems-based approaches to deliver substantial, sustainable improvements to the lives of local children, young people, and families in the Feltham community.

Project reps: Scott Hinkle, Mei Lim, Victoria Hirst and Teo Balint

United Nations Food Systems Summit (Global) To ensure the voices of SMEs were heard at the Global Food Systems Summit, Wasafiri was commissioned to help activate the global community of agri-food SMEs, profile those SMEs improving nutrition and sustainable consumption, and identify pathways for greater support.

Project reps: Ian Randall and Viliana Dzhartova

Key themes that emerged from using Systemcraft

It is difficult to harness, facilitate and measure the Emergence of a systemic effort.

Collective efforts and participation tend to unleash a domino effect of more participation and collective initiatives. This is often where the power and scale of system change occur.

For those leading systems change efforts, the challenge seems to be in how to facilitate the emergence toward a meaningful, constructive and measurable way.

There was also a question of how and when to merge collective efforts (new power) with more traditional and hierarchal leadership systems (old power), and what space is needed to be able to do that.

Genius insight from the session: “How do we host emergence?”

A mindset shift in the way people think about the issue is critical but requires a process of Unlearning.

One of the key aspects of effective systemic approaches is facilitating a process that effectively helps people shift away from what they are used to, and from their default reactions to problems and issues. Our practice should be to help clients and partners ‘unlearn’ practices that potentially perpetuate the problem. We need to hold this process of learning and embody the spirit of collective action.

Quotes from the session: “There is a big leap to bring other people along, whose institutions and mindsets are not set up in that way.”

Tensions exist between the time it takes to learn and implement collective approaches vs the desire to ‘see things getting done’.

Simply put, it takes more time to apply systems approaches; dealing with contextual and relationship sensitivities, power imbalances, and a much broader group of stakeholders.

The above systems learning/unlearning process combined with the time and resources necessary for collective action can be frustrating, but it is important that our teams, partners, and clients learn it, and then apply it themselves in their own organisations.

It can help to openly discuss the balance between collective engagement and required project deadlines and outcomes.

Good news, there is no right or wrong way to use Systemcraft.

It is important, but challenging, to know what parts of systems-based approaches to share, and how. Balancing the explicit and implicit use of them with the clients and partners can be challenging.

Some projects were using it and teaching it to partners explicitly, while others don’t mention it at all, but use pieces of it to guide their work.

This demonstrates that the Systemcraft framework is flexible and can be used in tailored ways to benefit diverse projects.

Quote from the session: “We are not saying to people that we are doing Systemcraft, but we are doing it in our work.”

As I sit here writing this and reflecting on the experience, I am stuck with one lasting impression, a quote I wrote down in my notes, ‘There is simplicity and power in an invitation to participate.’

I am certainly glad that some of my colleagues (George and Bhabz in particular) unearthed that revelation, as well as the moxie to follow it through. It raised the bar for all of us.

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Dying with dignity: time for palliative care for corporations?

Organisations do die; palliative care could reduce the destructive and increase the creative impact of their passing

I was recently working on a Forward Institute event with the rather brilliant Scott Morrison of The Boom!1 He asked the audience “what are the most heretical questions you could ask about your organisation?, This question has sent me off on all sorts of mental meanders and what-ifs. The latest being: Should our organisations really strive to live forever? Could it be a good thing for organisations to die off at some point?”

Much of management and organisational development is centred on the assumption that longevity is a good thing. That being able to reinvent, restructure and pivot are the practices we need. That endless regeneration and never-ending existence are the ultimate goals. That survival is the ultimate performance measure2. But is it? Everything in nature ages and ultimately dies with new growth flourishing in the space created. In reality, organisations will have their time in the sun and then pass on (with increasingly few passing the 60-year mark) and some suggesting as little as 18 years is a reasonable life expectancy3 yet the myth of immortality is a strong one. A myth that often seems to lead to painful deaths, heralded by increasingly bellicose claims of reinvention, promises of new dawns and possibilities and ending with dramatic and painful collapses.

Others have argued in favour of the value of corporate death. Joseph Schumpter is perhaps the most famous with his idea of ‘creative destruction’ and the argument that large companies are inherently inefficient, and ultimately suffer from ‘entropy’ where they spend more time managing themselves than doing whatever it is they are supposed to do in the world. But there is a long distance between what is good in principle and what is good in practice. Schumpter’s principle of ‘creative destruction’ often in practice means the destruction of people’s lives and livelihoods, and, especially when an organisation has a strong geographical footprint, their communities. But what if responsible leadership included knowing when your organisation’s time was up? What if with good palliative care organisational demise need not be ‘destructive’? Maybe palliative care could create a graceful decline and provide individuals and communities with the opportunity to move on in timely, happy, and healthy ways?

What might organisational palliative care look like?

Step one: Timely diagnosis

By acknowledging that the organisation has reached its twilight years we can all prepare for a transition. Customers have time to find alternative options with less risk of price gouging by unscrupulous competitors. Suppliers have time to diversify and employees can think about what new skills they might need and take the time to find new opportunities. Local markets won’t be flooded with a sudden unemployed workforce all competing with one another.

Step two: Managed decline

Our organisational models are built for growth – we know how to add and do more – but how about doing less? Perhaps staff move from full to part time employment or the entire organisation shifts to a 4-day workweek. There will undoubtably be plenty of puzzles to manage as we simply haven’t built organisations that are alive but slowing down; we will need markets not scared of big players that are doing a good job but reducing rather than expanding their activities. Customers need to value the old-age organisational citizens in their world and not just the young and new. There needs to be confidence in the provision of ongoing support for products whose life cycle may be longer than that of their producer.

Step three: Make good choices about divesting assets

Are there buildings, machines, or existing inventory to be sold off? The current mode of sudden collapse makes these sorts of assets easy prey for post-bankruptcy acquisition often allowing asset stripping by predatory interests. But what if these assets could be moved on with care and consideration – perhaps with the money raised forming an inheritance for the employees or communities that will be affected by their passing?

Step four: Celebrate the passing

I remember the passing of the British high-street staple Woolworths4; a final splutter of press attention and then a quick burn out… and with it a load of pain for the 30,000 people that worked there. I also remember the aftermath; the flurry of joy at shared memories of ‘the Woolworths bargain bin’- a place many of my generation bought their first music albums (Tears for Fears for me). At the time I hadn’t been in a Woolworths store for many years, but its passing brought back a nostalgic memory of happy time and ritual. Maybe palliative care would include a celebration of past success rather than glorifying in the moments of collapse?

The reality is most private sector organisations do, eventually, age and decline. And perhaps this is not such a bad thing. Perhaps we just haven’t yet learned how to responsibly help them age with grace and pass with as little pain as possible for the people that depend on them. All living systems include death as well as birth; as we face the climate crisis and the need to reimagine our economies, our modes of energy production and much else besides perhaps ‘organisational palliative care’ can help us create the new world we need?

Wasafiri currently works with the Forward Institute, a not for profit that works with many of the UK’s leading public, private and charitable organisations to make ‘responsible leadership the only form of leadership’. Through the use of Systemcraft we help leaders tackle the complex problems they and their organisations are wrestling with as they play their part in creating a more sustainable and equitable world.

Written with thanks to Adrian Brown, Executive Director of the Centre for Public Impact for the, as always, help to think about things a little differently.

https://www.imd.org/research-knowledge/articles/why-you-will-probably-live-longer-than-most-big-companies/

Photo by Jenna Beekhuis on Unsplash

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The world is not short of models for systems change. Many of these models are right and a few of them are useful. The World Business Council for Sustainability (WBCS) has just published a brief on ‘Unlocking systems transformation’ (LINK here) – which falls well into the ‘useful’ category.

The world is not short of models for systems change. Many of these models are right and a few of them are useful. The World Business Council for Sustainability (WBCS) has just published a brief on ‘Unlocking systems transformation’ (LINK here) – which falls well into the ‘useful’ category.