Three learnings from the School of System Change and what it means for my work
I’m a Senior Strategist at Forum for the Future, a facilitator of the Boundless Roots Community, and I’m currently inviting 11 co-explorers to join me on a Learning Marathon. I’ve worked in the field of futures and sustainability for 5 years, on a mix of collaborative projects and strategy work. Recently I’ve trained as a Lewis Deep Democracy practitioner, looking at how to use difference and conflict to grow stronger group relationships and build more effective collective action.
Before the School — the system out there
When I started working at Forum for the Future three years ago, I felt confident about what needed to change in the world. An advocate of Doughnut Economics, I was convinced that we needed to create a regenerative and distributive economy. We need distributed renewable energy networks; regenerative agriculture producing more local, seasonal food; a circular economy rooted in Cradle2Cradle design and biomimicry principles; decentralised organising and cooperative ownership structures; bio-based solutions like mass-reforestation. We need nested governance systems to regulate the markets and manage the commons, empowering more local decision-making whilst still being able to take meaningful coordinated action on the big things like climate change (e.g. carbon pricing, big infrastructure projects and basically an SDG-informed regulatory framework). I saw the potential of blockchain and platform cooperatives to drive exponential change in a digital world, distributing wealth, ownership and innovation capability.
To be fair, the areas where I think we need change haven’t changed that much. But I can’t shake this nagging feeling that I’m still not looking at the thing that is blocking any meaningful change in any of the ways mentioned above.
I started to notice my own mindset of ‘how do we change the dysfunctional systems out there in the world?’ and my own blindspot of the messy psycho-social process of change; how we are thinking, being, relating; all the unconscious stuff under the surface of our relationships that affect whether and how we change.
I was holding a lot of questions about all of this when I joined the School of System Change (“the School”). I also had a specific project to focus on: I had started working on a KR Foundation-funded project to take a systems approach to individual behaviour change, which became the Boundless Roots Community.
During the School — the ‘how’ of change
My time at the School was full of aha moments and shifts in ways of seeing. I can’t really do justice it to it on paper, but here are three things that I found particularly transformative:
- Immersion in complexity and the patterns of living systems
“Good. I hope I’ve ruined your life.” Jean Boulton, author of Embracing Complexity
What I learnt:
It’s useful to see the world as a complex web of living systems. I think a lot of people these days have a pretty intuitive understanding of us all being part of an interconnected system, but I found it really helpful to learn more about the nature of living systems and how they change. I learnt how living systems are goal-seeking, open to their environment, constrained by structures and nested within other open systems, with evolving purposes related to their context. We can all be seen as open living systems, tied in knots of relationship with each other and nested within other open systems (families, communities, organisations, cities, industries, nations, economies, cultures and ecologies…), all of which interact with and respond to their environments at and between different levels. Among other things, these living systems have the magical properties of:
- self-organisation — higher level patterns can arise from the interaction of autonomous lower-level components, like a shoal of fish, a murmuration of birds or who tends to sit next to who when you hot-desk at work;
- emergence — new, unexpected higher-level properties can arise from the interaction of these components, for example consciousness is an emergent property of the interactions of the neurons in our brains, temperature is an emergent property of particles rubbing together, and organisational culture is an emergent property of the interactions of the individuals in an organisation.
You don’t change complex living systems by controlling them; the motivation for change tends to need to emerge from within and in relation to its unique context. The work is about building the ongoing regenerative capability of living systems to adapt to changes in their context.
What does this mean for my work?
For me, this meant getting better at working with complexity and how to facilitate self-organisation and emergence. Specifically, learning more about Hosting Complexity with Chris Corrigan, and Regenerative Design & Development through The Regenerative Practitioner Series.
2. Creativity in conflict
“There’s richness in diversity and richness in conflict. Conflict is the gateway to wisdom if you manage it well.” Payam Yuce Isik
What I learnt:
I learnt that there’s enormous potential and wisdom in the unconscious of a group (anything one person in the group is unaware of, such as the unspoken views, values, prejudices, hopes, fears of the group), and the value of bringing this to the group’s awareness so as to make decisions based on a richer picture of the system. We were introduced to Deep Democracy as one tool to do this; it uses conflict as a source of creativity and decentralises decision-making so different voices and perspectives can participate in shaping change. I learnt that being able to see the other in the self and the self in the other is a key part of change, and that abuses of power create wounds that get worse with time, block change and can lead to the total breakdown of relationships.
Working with conflict healthily can be the oil of change, creating much more rapid and effective action, and abuses of power can be the biggest blocker to change if left unnamed and unhealed.
What does this mean for my work?
3. The process of systemic action inquiry
“We’re always in that incommensurable space where there isn’t much certainty. It’s a psychological practice to be able to live in that middle ground” Jean Boulton
What I learnt:
So how can we work strategically in complexity? One of the approaches I got most excited about is systemic action inquiry. This builds off Danny Burns’ work in Systemic Action Research and is a form of inquiry that starts from a position of uncertainty. It works off the premise that no one has a complete view of the system so we need to figure it out together as we go. In this way it values multiple perspectives as partial truths and the energy for change that exists within them. As a process it is non-linear — valuing experimentation and learning from feedback regularly and adapting is essential. The Boundless Roots community is an experiment in systemic action inquiry, with inquiry groups focusing on power, cultural momentum for change, meaning-making processes and polarisation. Each of these inquiry groups has been exploring different enablers of radical changes in how we live from different angles.
When operating in complex contexts with complex living systems, we need to use an approach that embodies complexity, allowing for high levels of uncertainty and experimentation.
What does this mean for my work?
I’ve been learning about this in practice through the Boundless Roots Community, learning about how to design and facilitate systemic action inquiry processes, and the challenges involved in this!
After the School — the unconscious in collaboration
Through the Boundless Roots action inquiry, we’ve been able to explore some of the things I started learning about in the School a lot further. For me this has meant a much keener interest in the invisible things that often sit in our blindspots but that drive so much of the behaviour in our systems and stop us from working together effectively.
I’ve been really influenced by the work of Sophy Banks on healthy human culture recently, and the curiosity she brings to the unconscious dimension of change — the things we don’t like picking up and looking at because it’s uncomfortable or painful. She builds off work in trauma, such as Franz Ruppert’s Trauma, Fear and Love, and suggests that pain in the system is valuable feedback about what might need to change, but we have an unhealthy relationship to it in our culture, so we tend to pathologise it, avoid it, suppress it, fight it.. rather than integrating it and learning from it.
I’m interested in how we work with these unconscious dynamics when collaborating. How do we start to name power in our interactions and work with it healthily? How do we communicate, make decisions, and commit to action whilst creating strong trusting relationships? How can we organise in ways that keep learning from and acting on feedback in the system? What does all this mean for me and how I show up?
One of the next steps for me is to test ways of doing this in practice through hosting An Experiment in Collaboration with Enrol Yourself. This is a peer-to-peer learning group that’s going to be a lab for testing the ‘how’ of powerful collaboration. I’m going to be bringing all of this stuff into it, but there’ll be 11 others bringing their own memories, intentions, talents, and values to it too, so let’s see what happens!