Engaging with Incremental Change: Reflecting on SDX6

By SDXer Darcy McDonald

The last SDX I attended — SDX6 Epic Tries: Innovation Stories from the Field — left me uplifted and energized. Actually, every SDX I have attended has left me feeling uplifted and energized.

Sometimes, it’s the ideas and learning. But it’s mostly the people and the generosity they extend to each other. SDXers actively listen to each other because they see each exchange as an opportunity to learn. Conversations are meaningful because SDXers believe they can contribute to something bigger than themselves. Frankly, I feel fortunate to be in a room with some of the most inspiring and talented people in Edmonton. Modeling this generosity are the organizers Brent Wellsch, Roya Damabi, Ben Weinlick, and Aleeya Velji.

SDX events tend to have a mix of systemic design theory mixed with healthy doses of its application in real life.

In the first part of the session, panelists candidly shared their epic tries. Situated in the Action Lab at Skills Society, SDXers had front row access to the first-hand experiences of community members that had taken the risk to try a different approach to their work. The folks volunteering their experiences were Gemma Dunn (Director of Programs and Initiatives, Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations), Nadine Riopel (Purpose Fuel), Leann Wagner (Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategy & Policy, Alberta Department of Labour), Darcy Scott (Owner-Operator of Whimsical Cake Studio), and Ian Howatt (Director of Strategic Leadership, Citizen Services, City of Edmonton).

The time raced by as panelists fielded insightful questions crafted and delivered by moderator Keren Perla. I have attended countless panel events where panelists answered questions with pre-written, contrived responses. But this panel came prepared to authentically share their experiences for the betterment of everyone. The audience understood they were there to learn. Once the panel survived the gauntlet of Keren Perla questions, inquiries were taken from the audience.

It was an atmosphere of colleagues all grappling with the same challenge of effecting change in their various contexts.

The last half of the afternoon was equally as engaging. SDXers broke into smaller groups to discuss a question or problem posed by a panelist. They contributed with their candid disclosures from their experience and we contributed to them by generating ideas to help them with their problem or question. I like this format because it gives participants an opportunity to contribute their ideas and expertise to the panelists.

Near the end of the afternoon, we became one large group again to debrief the conversations and what had been accomplished.

There was one phrase that kept bubbling to the surface that both resonated with me and frustrated me. It was the idea of incremental change.

Incremental change, as I am taken to understand, is created by seizing opportunities to make micro-changes that eventually coalesce into more substantial change over time. On the surface, it makes sense: it’s easier to move a few smaller boxes that one huge box. Incremental change is actually a very smart strategy and it’s very difficult to argue its logic.

Kudos to Ink Strategy for this nifty graphic: http://inkstrategy.com/innovate-like-start-ups/

Unfortunately, my experience working in government has taught me that the lasting impact of incremental change is undermined by three corrosive forces: lack of coordination, indecision, and apathy.

I have witnessed situations where one team will make an incremental change and be high-fiving each other while another team is unintentionally countering their change with one of their own. This happens all too often in government. Sometimes, I hear the question: didn’t we fix this problem last year? From year to year we haven’t really ‘moved the needle’ by any lasting measure.

I know a few middle managers in government that really want to do things better but are fossilized into inaction because of indecision above them. I’m sure some of these indecision-makers would appreciate the freedom to try new things, but they have to be mindful of making a ‘career limiting move’. In the meantime, the idea being considered becomes stale and loses its relevance. An opportunity to make an incremental change passes and people move on.

At this point you might be tempted to say “that’s the way it is in government.” When I first joined government I was astonished at how casually people accepted this as a reason for not doing better. This apathy is the most lethal killer of any kind of change and signals someone that believes doing better is not possible. Worse, it signals a person who believes doing better is no longer their responsibility. The system is the people who run it.

My apologies. I see this post has taken a turn towards hopelessness. But I think hopelessness is how many people in government feel as they tirelessly and continuously push an agenda of change from their cubicles. I’ve seen it in the faces of people around meeting tables who know they will return to dealing with the mindless, soul-crushing minutiae that matters urgently today but is forgotten tomorrow.

But not all is lost. The people I meet at SDX refurbish hope that change is possible. I agree that change is hard. But it is also inevitable. The greatest potential for meaningful, incremental change comes from intentional coordination and integration of our efforts. This leaves me with three questions that may not have answers…yet.

1. What can I do to coordinate people and their incremental changes?

2. How can I access and support indecision-makers so they feel comfortable transitioning to decision-makers?

3. How do I influence others to shift from the ‘way it’s always been’ to the ‘way it can be’?

Setting aside time to attend an SDX event was the best investment I made and I invite you to do the same.

Darcy McDonald is based in Edmonton. He is an SDXer because he believes “a better future lies with groups of people willing to disrupt the ‘way we’ve always done things’.” Follow Darcy on Twitter @nokkcha or connect with him on his blog at pivotpapers.com.