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Systemic Change During a Pandemic

For me, Collaborative design and facilitation are powerful tools in creating the opportunity for lasting transformative or systemic change to occur. But what do you do when people are change-tired, change fatigued or in today’s environment change-exhausted and you can’t leverage in-person connection to sustain new ways of working?

In other words, in today’s environment, how do you affect transformational or systemic change?

For transformational or systemic change, we often need a kind of stickiness in order to shift our ways of working over a sustained period of time. Everything from principles for decision-making to patterns in our ways of working. As a result, when I am working with clients who seek a transformation or systemic change (as opposed to a cyclical or structural change), I design for change journeys instead of a point in time intervention. This enables us to be responsive to our own mental capacity and physical environment to adopt change, without giving up entirely on our desired future state.

Designing for Change Journeys

Designing for Change Journeys are a lot like planning for a workshop, with a few differences:

Time Horizon

Every change journey exists on a time horizon. In a workshop setting, you are designing an experience over a number of hours or days. Depending on the business context you’re working in, you might consider implementation dates or project schedules.

Designing for a change journey is similar, except you’re designing over months, years or even generations. Working with your leadership to define the end state at multiple points along a change journey is helpful in setting expectations for what can reasonably be expected over the course of the journey. Depending on the level of change readiness, type of change (such as cognitive, behavioural, etc) and general understanding of the need for change (think change management’s burning platform), you’ll need more or less time. For example, working with a nation to redefine how people relate to human rights will require a longer timeframe than modernizing access to services. Both are transformational in nature — they require people to re-frame their orientations to their everyday world — but where one focuses more on our day to day ways of working, the other requires us to tap into our unconscious assumptions and potentially reframe some mental models.

Tip: Working with a cross section of your organization; hold a virtual Discovery Day and/or a virtual Timeline exercise to conceptualize the change you are trying to make over a broad time horizon. Blend in Bridges’ Transition Model to establish a sense of progression along the change journey. This will help establish a common vision and contextual understanding of the journey ahead.

Systems of Change Readiness

Once you have established your change journey time horizon, dig into your level of readiness for change. Where time horizons ask us to consider “how long could this take”, here we seek to answer “how long is it respectful to take”. This is critical in any collaborative environment as it relates directly to people’s free will and the basic human right of consent.

In a transformational context however, it’s the single greatest factor. Vision, capacity, timelines, resourcing — all take a backseat to readiness. It comes back to the question of free will and consent. Asking a group of people to report to a new person or to take on a new project of course requires their consent, but it’s cognitive in nature. Asking an individual or group of people to reframe the way they understand the world — that requires inter and intra personal reflection and a whole lot of sustained will and consent. It also means that our role as facilitators blends more into a neutral coach, holding people whole on their personal and collective discovery process.

Tip: Readiness is unique to culture, both individual culture and collective (which are often different). The intersection of where individuals meet the collective is where I try to sit as a facilitator during these moments. My toolkit is broad in these moments, curated over years and drawn on for each client’s needs, but as much as possible I leverage models/approaches/tools the client is already familiar with to reduce the change impact.

Tip: Supporting people in finding readiness can be tricky at the best of times and over the years I’ve found I need my own support structures too. I follow a reflective and debriefing practice before and after interactions and have a group of incredible coaches, mentors, councillors and conversation partners I can rely on when needed. The book “ Ethical Maturity in the Helping Professions” by Elizabeth Shaw is an excellent resource for exploring some of the topics worth considering in complex change journeys.

Partnership vs Sponsorship

To me, facilitators are a kind of partner. We partner with clients to help them achieve a desired outcome, to problem solve something tricky, to do something they’ve never done before. The power of collaboration design is to harness the collective power of diverse groups of people, of diverse ways of knowing and being to define solutions the world has not seen before. While this is true in a transformational and systems change context, the journey is much longer.

Facilitating transformation and systemic change journeys, especially ones that span multiple years or generations, is more than a job — it’s a conviction, a partnership, a commitment. As a result, business development cycles, value add, returns on investment, can look a little bit different. There are many facets to this difference, one of them is the role of sponsorship.

In a workshop setting, sponsorship is firmly the role of the client. In a systemic change context, like all good partnerships, sometimes we (designer/facilitator) end up playing that role. This can be a dangerous state of affairs.

Let’s define a partnership as an interpersonal relationship between two individuals who share a common vision and work over time to achieve that vision. Let’s define sponsorship as an individual who financially, cognitively and behaviorally supports an idea, outcome or project. The sponsor still ‘owns’ the outcome. In a change journey, I’ll often become a strategy/design/vision partner, someone to remind the sponsor of the vision when business as usual tries to take over. As a result, I can’t both be in the system and a partner to the system change sponsor. Let’s look at an example. Working with a group of people on a human rights project, I found myself nearing the end of the sponsor process with the client looking to me as the only vision keeper. Somehow, along the way and without realizing it, it had become about ‘my’ vision for ‘their’ future. The result was a power dynamic and the unraveling of months of collective discovery. Coming out of that experience, I learned two very important lessons:

  1. No matter how much I care and believe in a vision for the future — it’s not about me. My role is to hold witness to the collective change journey, not to lead it.
  2. Leadership in change design is about a symbiotic relationship with everything that has come? become?, everything that will come again and everything that surrounds us. It exists across time and space and will take the time it needs, at a pace that is defined at the intersection of each individual interacting from those participating in the system. We cannot control it, or will it? manage? it into being. We can only nudge, reflect, tweak, and show up day in and day out.

Tip: Work with a conversation partner in complex change journeys. Their role is to remain outside of the system you are designing for and hold you whole during the design process.

Tip: I use the Cynefin framework (check out HBR’s article by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone here) as a thinking tool to orient clients to different levels of complexity as a way to enable systemic decision making along an evolving change journey.

If you’re interested in a conversation partner for a change program you’re working on, reach out at or on our website at



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