Collins dictionary defines an alchemist as:
In recent years this term has been given a new lease of life with the idea of ‘social alchemy’. Often framed as ‘turning bad into good’, Paulo Coelho breaks this down further in his book ‘The Alchemist’ by explaining that social alchemists “show that, when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.”
Yet calling oneself a Social Alchemist can often be scoffed at, seen as having more than a tinge of the Hipster. Plus, it’s all a bit vague isn’t it?
Well, let’s get down into some specifics shall we.
Social Impact Architects (2014) developed the below framework to break down the Social Alchemist approach to problem solving and it expertly documents why this identity is more than just catchphrase.
In order for brevity, I am going to focus on three key themes that run through the theory. A more detailed breakdown of the approach can be found here.
We live in a society with a narrative where problems need to be identified and solved quickly and efficiently but rarely does this correspond to long lasting and meaningful effectiveness. Understanding a problem and identifying potential solutions is often one-dimensional and developed from within a pre-existing narrative. It often focuses on the opinions and experiences of a small section of ‘problem solvers’. Seeking input from a wider knowledge and experience base can lead to the discovery of new (and often more appropriate) methods of problem solving. This also means that individuals and communities involved in solution implementation are likely to be more invested in it’s continued effectiveness as they have been directly involved in the process of development.
Early stages of problem exploration also ensure a stronger, more well rounded understanding of both the presenting problem as well as many of the ‘foundation factors’ that create and maintain the issue. This process is key in finding solutions that not only address the direct problem but also many of the underlying aspects thus limiting the risk of problem re-emergence.
The framework also prevents unnecessary time and energy spent on problem solving, purely through the process it outlines — one of identification, implementation and reflection. If a problem continues to present, more exploration and solution testing time needs to be given. If this is not the case, then the process moves forward. This ensures that individual and collective energy is used in an engaged, organic and useful manner. This in turns tackles one of the biggest issue with open ended problem solving — stagnation energy.
Mistakes happen. As much as you may say “well obviously”, very rarely do we give ourselves the time, energy and vulnerability to fully realise and prepare for this. We live in a society where the consistent narrative is “you better get this right”, whether it’s in regards to our work, education or relationships. The Social Alchemist approach does not see problem solving as linear, instead the journey is full of twists and turns with returns to prior stages where appropriate. This movement in understanding ‘mistakes’ is a fundamental one. It takes something traditionally framed as a negative and opens it up. Very rarely do we hit the jackpot of complete problem solving the first time around, other factors may appear which we were previously unaware of, a new problem may inadvertantly be created.
Seeing ‘mistakes’ as an important part of growth and learning helps to maintain individual and collective energy moving forward. This approach removes the concept of unnecesary blame which in turn supports the process of problem identification & exploration as welll as solution development, testing and reflection. Opening up and redefining this concept as a healthy and essential one also supports individuals to feel more able to share thoughts and ideas without a strong fear of reprisal.
Open ended solution growth
Often we become fixated on a ‘cut and paste’ approach to solutions. This approach is fundamentally flawed as there can be many differing factors that impact on a problem in the moment. A key aspect of the Social Alchemist framework is how we grow and disseminate solutions — not by inherently keeping to each and every aspect but by defining the core, essential components that must be present alongside promoting an open discusion around the bridging (and adaptable) factors. This supports an easier, clearer transition to different organisations and situations while also allowing for the growth that is essential for meaningful change and development.
Problem solving culture
A final key element to explore here is how easy it is to ask “but when does this stop?”. As previously noted, there is a current social mentality of either direct, short term (and limited) problem solving or ‘brushing things under the carpet’. The Social Alchemist framework does not limit itself to retroactive problem solving and instead promotes a wider (and healthier) cultural identity of shared learning and communal growth. It is this change in cultural mindset that can truly help individuals, organisations and communities to respond appropriately to not only problems as they arise, but also the changing world around them.