Changing systems by changing ourselves

Changing systems by changing ourselves

Adam Kahane, a Canadian by birth, has been working on global system challenges for over 20 years; think sustainable food system, truth and reconciliation issues post apartheid in South Africa, and climate change.

He recently shared his learnings on a webinar organized by Social Innovation Generation (SiG).

Key lesson: Change Labs are initiated by a group of people who understand that in order to address a complex issue they have to work together. They have the fundamental realization that no one individual, organization or even government, can solve complex challenges on their own.

From his book on Power and Love, Adam states: a challenge is tough when it is complex in three ways:

  1. A challenge is dynamically complex when cause and effect are interdependent and far apart in space and time. Such challenges cannot successfully be addressed piece by piece, but only by seeing the system as a whole.

A challenge is socially complex when the actors involved have different perspectives and interests; such challenges cannot successfully be addressed by experts or authorities, but only with the engagement of the actors themselves.
And a challenge is generatively complex when its future is fundamentally unfamiliar and undetermined; such challenges cannot successfully be addressed by applying “best practice” solutions from the past, but only by growing new, “next practice” solutions.

The Reos Change Lab sets out to address these complex challenges in the following ways:

1. A collective effort to address a vital, complex challenge in a given social system
2. An innovative approach that is systemic, participative and emergent
3. A committed alliance of political, economic and cultural leaders
4. A rhythmic process of acting and reflecting
5. A structured container for building capacities for co-initiating, co sensing, co-presencing, co-creating and co-evolving
6. A safe space for practicing how to exercise both power and love

A Change Lab in Action

To illustrate how a Reos Partners Change Lab works, Adam worked the group through the example of the Sustainable Food Lab.

In this case, a Change Lab was initiated in order to make food systems more sustainable, and came about because each of the players realized they could not do it alone.

Adam then outlined the process, which even though depicted as such, is not a linear one, further expanding on the “structure container for building capacities”.

  1. Co-initiating – bring together a few people who care about the issue, all trying to work on the same problem but frustrated by what they could do alone, convening a strategic microcosm of the system
  2. Co-sensing – develop a shared understanding of what is going on, sometimes simply by talking to each other, from our different perspectives, the act of going out together to “make sense of the structure of the system”, of immersing yourself in the system. In this situation this component took about 6 months
  3. Co-presencing – a form of retreat, to step back and reflect and to determine each person’s role, to immerse oneself in the situation then step back; a process of crystallizing the vision and leverage points; making sense of the structure of the system by retreating to access deeper knowledge
  4. Co-creating – try stuff out together; many pilot projects, lots of failure then learning is fed back into the system; a time for prototyping innovations
  5. Co-evolving – a process of institutionalizing innovations; and changing how we do business. For example, Unilever made a declaration on their use of sustainable food and their plans going forward.

Some of you may recognize this as an elaboration of the U Process. A process that generally includes personal awareness that then has to be fed back into the system. Ideally in a way that shows how the system benefits but so does each of the component parts.

The greatest take away from the session for me was the simple realization that we need each player to articulate what it is about the situation that is problematic from their point of view so that it then justifies investing their resources to change it.

Adam recounts a scenario where people often enter a room with the notion that “this could just work better if everyone else would change” and then waits for the moment when all the participants realize that they are the one that need to change.

The following lessons were also articulated: everyone in the lab needs the other players; the process must be participative and include engagement at all level; it is emergent and creative; it alternates between acting and reflecting, and ultimately, it is built on interconnectedness.

Although this can be a very expensive and time consuming process, there are variations on the theme that are possible, change can be achieved on a smaller scale.

MaRS CEO Dr. Ilse Treurnicht is a chemist by training. She often articulates how MaRS is a lab wherein we have an opportunity to mix up various components even if we are not quite sure what will come of it. Adam uses the same analogy when talking about his “structured container”.

He sees the change lab akin to a chemistry class – a space where you can work with other people to figure out a problem, with certain rules and with dedicated space. But this space is much more than physical; it can also be psychosocial, political, and intellectual. A place where we can say what we think to build our capacity – to work differently – beyond the board room – where we can experiment and be honest and make mistakes and carve out our way forward.

Adam will be in Toronto on Thursday July 21 to present at the MaRS Global Leadership Series. He will talk more deeply about the roles of power and love in trying to build effective collaborative partnerships – particularly in areas of instability.

Register here to see Adam Kahane.