change the way changework happens

This writing originated from an email written from one friend to another. After it was sent we realized the text represented a high level view of our thinking at Civilla. We’re glad to share those thoughts with you.

The very proclamation ‘we seek to change the way changework happens’ inevitably leads to the question: what do you mean by change work?

Think about positive large scale changes that the human species has affected over the past 200,000 years. Formation of societies. Creation of economic systems. Establishment of religious doctrines. Elimination of diseases. Development of new technologies. Advancement of social constructs through cultural movements like civil rights, women’s rights, and climate change.

We call these fundamental shifts in the way we live our lives and work with each other ‘changework’.

As the centuries and decades have rolled on by, we often forget that those changes even took place. And we often forget how those changes really came about.

At Civilla, we see a lot of changework efforts fail to bring to life positive and enduring change. We’d like to change that. We believe that the path to activating change requires leaders to reconsider the way in which they approach their work. This short book reflects our point of view on six topics on leadership that we feel are worthy of earnest reflection.


Point of view:

Changework operating from an active perspective on how things change will deliver more enduring, effective solutions.

We have become stunned by the sheer lack of a ‘point of view’ on how the human condition actually changes. If you want to see an interesting look on the face of a nonprofit, corporate or government leader, ask the question, “how do you believe change happens?”

Most leaders of changework have no such point of view. No strong root. No deep sense of systems theory, or of how large-scale change happens in living systems. This can immediately sound too heady or academic, but we are beginning to think it is borderline negligent.

Billions of dollars are distributed each year by leaders who believe placing money in programs that deliver services is the way change happens. But it often doesn’t. Those models are still relying on an industrial model of delivery. Leaders can forget that they are responsible for change that resides inside a ‘living system’. Rarely, does a mechanical model endure within a living system. The industrial model ends up being too heavy, expensive and not sustainable.

The lack of a deep point of view on how change actually happens is crippling the effective use of resources, often resulting in short term fixes, and can, at times, be causing harm to the very audience a leader is trying to help.

For us at Civilla, we carry a point of view that effective changework draws upon the principles of emergence, which are rooted in how other living systems create change. This is a theory, an expression of an hypothesis. We could be right, we could be wrong. What’s your point of view on how change happens?


Point of view:

Only a practice of deep personal development can help leaders grow the courage they’ll require to lead their organization to new heights.

The height an organization can climb is directly correlated to how much interior self reflection and development work its leader has done on him or herself.

If you get leaders to a quiet space, they’ll admit that they don’t feel like their organization is making the progress they would like. They struggle with the ambiguity they are facing in a world that ‘lusts for certainty’. Too often they have to arrive “finished and complete,” when in fact they are unclear, unfinished, uncertain and completely human.

Today, there is generally a Reflection Deficit Disorder. The volume and velocity of the work that leaders face is overwhelming. Too little time and value is given to the practice of reflection and renewal.

Hence, you get leaders who can’t pull upon the available depth within them because they haven’t cultivated it. That in turn gives us shallow organizations doing a lot of activities, but little deep changework. Which ultimately has everyone asking, ‘why aren’t things working?”

We believe the courage of a leader is often the limiting factor for why change doesn’t happen. Courageous leadership isn’t a moment, it’s a way and a daily practice that requires an enormous amount of energy.


Point of view:

The most powerful dollar invested in changework is a small, unrestricted bet on a leader who knows how to produce value. Unrestricted resources that enable leaders to pursue their hunch are uncommon.

The economic model of the nonprofit and public sector kill innovation. A key barrier is very little flexible working capital.

Just take a look at how the organizations that can have the deepest impact on the greatest number of people (like government agencies) are the least equipped to innovate.

Most of the money targeted for a public good is restricted money. While the intent of restricted money is to ensure that funding only gets placed on work that delivers results, it actually does the opposite. Restricted grants never take in the whole context, rarely cover the actual costs of bringing about change, and typically limit a leader’s ability to rely on his/her intuition and judgement.

We recently spoke to a leader who administers an $18 billion government benefit program who described how he doesn’t have any unrestricted resources to go and explore his hunches that could potentially create impact and savings.

He is administering $18 billion, not powerfully deploying.


Point of view:

Point of view: 1) Human beings are part of nature and exist in a living system 2) Change in living systems take place through emergence 3) If we want to scale changework it must draw upon the principles of emergence

Not everything scales to a Billion. Or even a million.

One of the main reasons that things don’t scale is that they were never designed to do that. The original design was more rooted in programmatic frameworks versus understanding how scaling works within living systems.

We believe that the most enduring change is rooted in what nature has discovered over the past 3.7 billion years. Simply put, change scales in living systems through emergence (more on the principles of emergence in a future book).

If nature uses this method as its instrument of change, and the human species is part of nature, why would this not be the foundational way in which we would design our change efforts?

If you want to understand how scale works in a living system, study Alcoholics Anonymous and Wikipedia. Genius.


Point of view:

Small, dynamic teams are particularly well suited to drive change.

Having spent decades as a part of very large institutions with deep resources we have become big fans of the power of ‘tiny teams’.

One great example of the power of tiny teams is the roll out of If you recall, when was launched to help 25 million Americans access health care, only 6 people could register on the first day. 500,000 tried. The US government spent $225,000,000 on the system, had all the top firms involved, and it still didn’t work!

They ended up bringing in a tiny team of five. Yep, just 5. That tiny team spent less than $5 million, reset the entire system and as Obama would say, “saved his legacy.”

Over and over, much of history’s great changework originated from small teams. Think of Edison’s Menlo Lab, Apple’s Mac team, The Twelve Disciples, Black Lives Matter…yet we design big programs and organizations that continually fall short of expectations.

One might ask: “how do you then take on problems that require a bigger capacity?” At Civilla, we are exploring how we do what nature does: self assemble. That is, we are building strong adjacencies with other tiny teams that carry deep capacity beyond ours in order to bring to life a greater capability. For example, we have begun to align with other nimble teams who carry a unique ability outside of our own strengths to reimagine how residents access public benefits in America.

We see a unique and untapped power in small teams leveraging deep capability through self-assembly.


Point of view:

Too often change organizations become focused internally (on the program, money, technology, or process), instead of being continually guided by the voices of those they’re hoping to serve. teams are particularly well suited to drive change.

This is the biggest one.

Simply put, the organization itself is consuming the majority of its energy and resources. Entire teams wake up well intended, but essentially exist to service the organization or the system, not the people they are charged with helping. If you want to transform an organization’s culture and work practice, start waking up with the User-Client-Customer-Beneficiary at the center of the table.

Pause for a moment and think about how much time is spent on servicing Boards and Committees. While proper governance is critical, we’ve come to believe that governance certainly is not worth the amount of time it’s consuming and has actually become a hinderance to impact.

To get a sense of how detached our sector has become, start asking these two questions in every meeting you attend:

  • who is the user?
  • what is their need?

Just watch what happens.

The time has come to put the user at the center of the table.


The time has come to put the user at the center of the table.

Leading and advocating for a new way is lonely work. Today, most systems reward ‘maintaining what is’ instead of ‘breaking new ground’ on different ways of thinking, working, connecting, and being.

Leaders know that things need dramatic change but early pioneers often get crushed by the inertia and bureaucracy.

We carry a deep optimism about the future and are heartened by those leaders who are reaching for the baton to take on the great pressing issues of our time. And we know that if we are to make greater progress on social issues then we must take that step into the fuzzy vapor that is our collective future.

We would value having you join us on this journey and share your own insights and learnings. Together, we believe we can change the way changework happens.

Questions to prompt insight:

If you are so inclined, we encourage you to step into courageous conversations with those on your team and with other leaders. Use the following questions to explore a few of the six tenets more deeply:

Theory Of Change

  • How do you believe change happens? What is an example of this belief that you’ve witnessed?
  • Who shaped your theory? Tell me a story of how that belief came to be for you:
  • How is your theory of change rooted in how you carry out your work?

Courageous Leadership

  • Courageous leadership means what to you?
  • Do you feel like you spend an adequate amount of time on reflection? How come?
  • Over the past month, how much time have you spent on the “interior work” of self? How come?
  • What is the last courageous decision you made? Tell me about that:
  • What are the barriers for you in making one courageous decision a day?
  • Are things working as well as you would like? What might that mean on changes you personally need to make?

Working Capital

  • How would you define working capital?
  • How would you use $1 million in working capital? Tell me more:
  • What decisions today could you make that moves you in that direction absent of the $1 million?
  • What is the most powerful money you have? How do you deploy it?
  • Are there current resources that could get redeployed in a more effective manner? What are the barriers that prevent you from redeploying those resources?
  • What is the smallest, lightest step you can take to help you redeploy resources in a more powerful way?


  • How do you believe change scales?
  • What is the most sustainable change effort you have ever witnessed that scaled?
  • Do you believe bigger scale is more impactful than smaller scale? Share more on that:
  • What characteristics do you believe are required for scale to take place?
  • What is the leader’s role in scaling an idea?

Tiny Teams

  • What is your point of view about effective teams?
  • What do you think is the right size of a team? Why?
  • Tell me a story about the most effective team you were ever on? What conditions supported that team in being so effective?
  • What are the guiding principles you have for teams you lead?
  • What currently prevents you from assembling effective teams? Tell me more.

Put The User At The Center

  • Who is your user?
  • What is their need?
  • How much time in the past month have you spent directly understanding your user’s need?
  • Approximately how much time in your meetings have you placed on the user and his/her need squarely in the middle of the table? How come?
  • What are the barriers that keep you from placing the user at the center?

Change The Way Change Work Happens

By Civilla

Illustrations by Kevin Gardener

Edition Zero

Softcover editions available for $15

Copyright © 2016 by civilla publishing

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission from the author.

Civilla is a center for social innovation based in detroit, michigan. Over the next decade our intent is to change the way that change work happens, impact one billion people, and deeply impact one thousand people.