12 habits of successful change-makers: looking at the bigger picture

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s Social Change Project investigated how social change happens. The research identified “the 12 habits of successful change-makers”, behaviours found in both individuals and organisations. Every month in 2019, SMK CEO and ACEVO trustee Sue Tibballs will reflect on what these habits mean for civil society leaders, and invite you to do the same.  

Habit #2: make space on your dance card for system-change thinkers

Organisations that successfully drive social change recognise something that most campaigners regard as a simple truism: change is complex. It requires constant review of strategy and tactics, repeated checks on values and ethics. It necessitates endlessly scanning the state of the world to ask ‘where does power lie now?’, ‘what trends are affecting the change we are seeking?’, and ‘who can we get to help?’

These days, it seems that everyone is embracing the concept of ‘systems thinking’: analysing a problem in the context of the system that birthed it, how the parts of that system interrelate with one another and the wider systems they in turn inhabit. Since the world is constantly shifting, so are the systems we are seeking to change, which is why change-makers can never sit still.

This continual adjustment and readjustment is a daily part of campaign thinking – the question foremost in campaigners’ minds is how they can move their goal forward. Duncan Green of Oxfam calls this ‘dancing with the system’, a particularly apt metaphor because it recognises that the system is dancing right back. Every action has a reaction, every melody a counterpoint. Systems change expert Donella Meadows urges us to throw ourselves into ‘the humility of not-knowing… mastery has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly, letting go and dancing with the system.’

And yet, change-makers’ ‘dancing feet’ are often tied down by organisational structures and cultures that do not allow such flexibility. Budgeting, performance management and reporting are usually built around predictable linear planning processes. They oblige campaigners to do the impossible by predicting exactly how change will be delivered and when results can be expected. This puts them in an unenviable position – forcing them to either play along with the charade or allow processes to get in the way. At best, you are wasting valuable resources creating plans that will never be played out, at worst you are actively working against your own success.

In case you’re deterred by this talk of dancing and playing, I would draw your attention to Donnella Meadows’ exact words: ‘strategically, profoundly, madly, letting go’. It is perfectly possible to be strategic, well-organised and effective without knowing exactly which path you will need to dance down to reach your goal.

Good campaigners are natural systems thinkers: the dance is second nature to them. Don’t be content to let them hover as middle managers – you need such brains at work on your own organisational systems. How will you make sure you have this kind of thinking on your senior management team and your board? Start by working with your campaigners to design an environment that supports their dance while satisfying the need for transparency and accountability. It might be the first step towards a systems-thinking culture that increases your entire organisation’s impact in profound ways.

Previous blog in the series: Habit #1, mission-led

Photo by Ardian Lumi on Unsplash

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