From organisations towards organising — #systemicforms

Anna Birney
Nov 30, 2018 · 5 min read

Key words: Systemic, ecosystems, relating, inquiry, roles, #livingchange

This starts to documents our action inquiry into forms of organising for systemic change. It was authored by Laura, Louise, Anna and Corina, who are based at Forum for the Future and part of a multitude of spaces, from labs and networks to platforms and communities of practice.

The context: a time of increasing complexity

The world is constantly changing and evolving. Living systems evolve towards greater complexity, as do the systems we create across our societies. The challenges we face, such as biodiversity loss, social inequality or climate change, are also becoming more complex, urgent, uncertain and volatile. As a consequence, for the people seeking to work with this context, it is becoming harder to address these challenges in meaningful ways that can move us towards sustainability.

Increasingly, different voices are arguing that it might no longer be enough to address these complex challenges within the current structures which we humans have developed over the last few hundred years. Our current organising structures are deeply rooted in a worldview that doesn’t see the world as complex, dynamic and interconnected, but to the contrary, linear, rigid and divisible. We need to look at the deeper patterns that inform the way our systems operate and question the assumptions about the landscape from which we organise — the structures, patterns and forms of how we are in relationship with each other.

As well as questioning, there is doing to be done. Along with thousands of people trying to create positive change, we are exploring and experimenting what it means to invent and practice ways of organising that don’t perpetuate the challenges we are working with.

We are connecting with and learning together and with others who have a similar inquiry: What might systemic forms of organising be?

Current diagnosis: organisations as the dominant form of organising society

Today the current way that organisations (in our Western societies) are structured — the form they take — has its limitations. The ‘organisation’ is getting in the way, inhibiting and not evolving in line with the growing complexity of our challenges. The ‘organisation’ sees relationships as extractive, non-regenerative and people as replaceable resource. The ‘organisation’ as a pyramidal hierarchical system, where power and wealth accumulates at the top, perpetuates inequalities; both within organisations, and between people and the environment they operate with. The ‘organisation’ as rigid and resistant to change has path-dependent purposes that are static and self-reinforcing. Despite the success of change management approaches, most attempts to shift organisations to respond to new realities fail (60–70% according to McKinsey).

This leads us to ask: Can the dominant organisational structure evolve and/or do we need to be creating new organising forms?

So what might we need? Systemic forms of organising


noun | the visible shape or configuration of something | a particular way in which a thing exists or appears.

verb | bring together parts or combine to create (something) | make or be made into a specific shape or form

Given the challenges laid out above, we need to understand what it means to apply a complexity and systemic worldview to how we organise. We need to move from ‘organisations’ (static noun) to organising (active verb) and actively develop, nurture and cultivate different and new forms of relating, towards flow and fluidity.

It’s tempting to start from scratch — to create new forms of organising and hope they’ll come without the baggage, weight or complexity of organisations. It’s easy to assume that all organisations are obsolete and that a clean cut separation is possible. However, there are inevitable interdependencies and many benefits to evolving what we already have.

Might we see the organisations of today as the very starting points for incubating new forms of organising?

Uncharted territory

There are different roles that existing organisations can play in enabling new forms of organising for systems change — through protecting and creating space, catalysing, hosting, supporting, or decentralising networks. From our own starting place, that of working within an organisation, we have been experimenting with some of these new forms of organising and we’ve been documenting what it means to be navigating this uncharted territory.

As individuals based at Forum for the Future, we first started experimenting among ourselves through running the System Innovation Lab between 2011 and 2016. Through that space, we seeded and hosted a number of experimental collaborations, from the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, FutureScapes, to EU-Innovate, a pan-European inquiry into the role of citizens in enabling systemic change.

Since 2015, we’ve been participating in the Marine CoLABoration, an action research lab among nine civil society organisations focusing on marine issues and a funder-catalyst,

In 2016 we launched the School of System Change. We have the ambition to serve the emerging field of systems change, as a vehicle for connecting and amplifying spheres of learning and practice, and as a case study of an initiative grown explicitly as a system change endeavour.

During 2017–2018 we were the stewards of the Civil Society Futures Inquiry; a two year process exploring the key issues for civil society in England, run through a participatory action research methodology in collaboration with three other organisations (Goldsmiths University, openDemocracy, Citizens UK) and involved over 3000 people in the process.

More recently, we’ve been part of a convergence of 16 other global networks coming together to learn and experiment as part of #HumanNetworks.

A living collection

There are a number of different theories, case studies and resources that try to articulate what these new forms are and the practices that make them work. What we wish to bring together here is a living collections of ideas, experiences, and reflections of and for practice from our own action inquiries. We would like to capture the fragments of this process as a living inquiry and make more explicit what we are doing and seeing, so that others might join the adventure.

We are often drawn to carefully curated narratives as a way of engaging people in the work we are doing. Here we are trying out a different approach, laying out the bits and pieces we’ve got, rather like a 19th century museum showing multifarious objects and things, letting you wander, flutter along, make up your own stories and meaning. We will start with a few of the crafted pieces we have, and add to this over the next while.

Our inquiry ground (first, second and third person*), is captured in the diagram below, as well as some of the reflective questions that are guiding us through this journey and the enabling practices that help us find alignment among ourselves and with others.

We are in the process of writing and capturing the various stories, so watch this space as we keep publishing in different formats and do get in touch if this sparks any reflections, insights or questions of your own.

@annasquestions @futuresforensic @louise_a @laurachaosmilk

*First person inquiry, fosters inquiry in your own life and work, second person inquiry happens when people work together and third person is where we are seeking a wider community to inquire with (Birney, 2015:95).

Living Change

An inquiry into what it means to seek systemic change while living it ourselves.

Anna Birney

Written by

Cultivating #systemschange | Director @forum4thefuture | Launching School of System Change | Passion #inquiry #livingsystems #livingchange

Living Change

An inquiry into what it means to seek systemic change while living it ourselves.