After more than 10 years of working and leading systems change and inquiry spaces I felt it was high time to consolidate the insights that have emerged from the ebbs and flows of this practice over the years. The process of collaboration with many different people and places has led to experimenting, exploring, iterating and creating innovative ways of working each time. I bring my own narration to this, but also have huge appreciation for all those I have worked with who have contributed to these insights; they are never mine alone.
What is Living Change?
Living Change is a core, base, essential practice — a way of being for those who are seeking to influence and create change in the world. It is grounded in a recognition that the changes we’re seeking to create are present within us, that we are part of them as well. We are fractals of a bigger system at play. Learning from these changes at all different levels can make us more effective agents of change.
Living Change is a culture, a way of being and understanding the world. A way of making systemic change personal.
What it looks like for me is about the choice of spaces I spend time in and the depth of connection and conversions I have within those. When I feel willing to invest time and energy into work and the attention I will give it —often a gut feeling as to whether it feels mutually beneficial or not. The need for unstructured processing time while cycling or swimming, to sketch and draw and make sense of things that feel messy. Whatsapp questions with friends and family negotiations about how to best spend our time together or where we want to live.
10 years ago, there were seemingly a few people in a handful of countries who were practising inquiry work and intentional systems change. Today there is a growing movement of people around the world committing time and energy, who are making change real in their lives and their work. There are connections between these people, which are often incidental rather than intentional.
While I wouldn’t change the nature of this life’s work, I know through experience that doing this work is tough, exhausting even. It can feel like you’re fighting the tides, hitting brick walls, and sometimes it’s utterly soul crushing. Not that there is ever a perfect environment or landscape, free of challenge, particularly when the nature of the work is about radically repatterning systems and behaviours and working from a different set of values. At points I’ve wished for a radically different environment to work from.
There is a strong sense that we need to rethink the ecosystem that supports and nurtures people Living Change. I know I need this space, as do those I work with. And if this is the type of work that is needed in the coming decades, then we must address this or I worry burnout will prevail.
Could Living Change go beyond a culture that some of us identify with and become a space that is a vital part of the learning and support ecosystem for people, projects and initiatives doing system changing work? What could increase the collective impact of this movement and momentum?
Why a supportive ecosystem is needed
While I see lots of great and meaningful systems change work, often it doesn’t take place in the most enabling environment. From my own experience there are three recurring needs to be taken into greater consideration.
Deep community learning
I’ve found that in order to hold big questions, we need to create spaces to reflect, deepen and understand these questions. These need to be in community, with people beyond immediate networks, who have the experiences and wisdom to nourish, challenge and complement your own. A haven, a shared space; a community to really live and work with. A place to build reserves, not deplete them, in order to challenge and overcome entrenched systems and structures without being ground down or burning yourself or others out. I felt the power of this type of space firsthand as part of the Boundless Roots community between 2019 and 2021, and see a need for more of this type of ecosystem to exist.
What if… there was a living practice, a place to contribute learning that would support the development of a burgeoning ecosystem of systems changers?
A supportive place to stand
Today there are two common places to stand to do this work — to be hosted by an existing organisation or to start from scratch. Both come with benefits and equally have challenges. We find ways around the organisational form challenges, but neither are the ideal enabling environment for this work.
Being incubated, housed or hosted within an established organisation can be great. It can provide a base access to people and skills to draw on — from a finance, legal and HR perspective, as well as established reputations, brands and networks. It can, however, also lead to differing and parallel needs which can duplicate effort and time.
“The accounting needs of a whole organisation can be quite different to the accounting and transparency needs for a collaborative group to make decisions about where to allocate resources. Inquiry work is in its nature emergent and in contrast to fixed budget allocations — there needs to be a certain amount of flexibility designed into the budgeting and accounting models.” 2020 personal reflections
Sometimes there can be a fraught balance of nested or even competing strategies and decision making. This can lead to this inquiry work being fringe or peripheral to organisations and not understood. It takes a great deal of attention to design the feedback loops to allow for a mutually interdependent and healthy dynamic to flourish.
When starting from scratch, you have a blank slate and get to redesign the essence of some of the necessary structures and systems. However creating these operational elements from scratch does not allow you to draw on established systems and expertise. On top of this, legitimacy and reputation has to be earned, and creating all of this can feel like a distraction from ‘the work’.
What if… there was a space, a backbone, an irrigation system that would bring the best of the enabling structures and operational elements to inquiries? A space that provided autonomy of decision making that could provide flexible and modular (or-pick-and choose) support that would be tailored to evolving needs.
Fluidity of life and work
What the pandemic has made clear is that the systems change needed isn’t confined to our working and professional lives or organisation, but the way we live. It impacts how we use our time, relate to our friends and families, our identities, how we see ourselves, and the transitions between the different cycles of life. These elements of systems change aren’t always served, supported or held in a way they could be; inquiries about how we work and live need to be part of the way we organise, not incidental to it. Significant life transitions that coexist with the work that you’re doing
“Becoming a mother taught me more about living with uncertainty than any project ever did. The full body experience of learning and adjusting to a caring for a newborn baby, one that is utterly dependant on you challenged all my preconceived ideas of being ‘good’ at dealing with the unknown. It explodes your sense of self and this new role and identity is still taking time to settle”
This way of living and understanding ourselves as a human species is more rarely addressed, but it also underpins the other big system changes — of economic and cultural systems. Systems change is relational change, and relationships are the hardest thing to shift. They are, however, foundational to any change you want to cultivate, so let’s not pretend that the way we live, work, relate, organise isn’t important or relevant, but design and work from there instead.
What if… we really understood systems change as being relational and lifestyle change, and supported that as part of the process?
So now what?
What this all points towards is the need for a truly enabling ecosystem for people to do the work and live the change they seek.
There are many people seeding elements of this already and there are lots of ideas about how this could manifest which i’ll be exploring in the next blog piece, to come by Sept 2021.
If you have ideas or needs for what the ecosystem would support you to do or elements of the ecosystem you see yourself playing already — it would be great to hear from you.