Here’s my attempt at a takeaway message on How Change Happens – what do you think?

Reminder – if you are one of the truly alarming number of people who have downloaded the 160 page draft of Rule of ThumbHow Change Happens, the deadline for comments is just two weeks away – 10th December. Background to the book here.

One of the main messages already emerging from feedback is that I need to ‘throw readers a bone’ in the final chapter, in the form of some rules of thumb they might want to adopt in working on issues of power and systems (the core narrative of the book). Rules of thumb are under-studied – they are actually what guides our decisions from day to day (sorry evidence geeks, but it’s true). But since one of the conclusions of the book is that all those toolkits and best practice guidelines are often incompatible with systems thinking, a tricky balancing act is required.

So I want to run my response (both as powerpoint bullets and text) past FP2P readers and see if it works/how you would improve it. Step forward the ‘How Change Happens Power and Systems Approach’ (PSA). This covers two areas:

  • How we think/feel/work
  • The questions we ask (and keep asking)

Intro: A Power and Systems Approach differs from conventional ways of working in some important aspects: a conventional aid project or campaign tends to do all the analysis up front, come up with a plan, find the money and then stop thinking to focus on action, until the project is completed.

Well I couldn't not use it, could I?
Well I couldn’t not use it, could I?

Since no amount of upfront analysis will enable us to predict the erratic behaviour of a complex system a PSA interweaves thought and action throughout. The purpose of initial study is to enable us to place our bets intelligently. The crucial decisions come after that: how we continue to ‘study’ during the course of our efforts, and adjust according to what we learn.

A PSA encourages multiple strategies, rather than a single linear approach, and views failure, iteration and adaptation as expected and necessary, rather than a regrettable lapse.

How we think/feel/work [6 dance moves?]

The powerpoint slide:

  • Curiosity – Study the history; ‘learn to dance with the system’
  • Humility – embrace uncertainty/ambiguity
  • Reflexivity – be conscious of your own role, prejudices and power
  • Be searchers not (just) planners
  • Include multiple perspectives, unusual suspects
  • Regular time outs to learn from failure and success, and adapt

The text: A PSA means become ‘reflectivists’ as well as activists, nurturing a genuine curiosity about the complex interwoven elements that characterize the systems we are trying to influence, without abandoning the desire to take action. We need simultaneously to be observers and activists.

Dancing with complex systems is like navigating through traffic – success depends on fast feedback to detect new situations and having the ability to respond quickly (a pedestrian has stepped out into traffic – hit the brake!). We need to analyse and reanalyse the context, spotting new windows of opportunity (and threats), learning from failure, trying out different things until we find something that works.

Curiosity about the system needs to be laced with humility and self knowledge. We don’t – can’t – have all the answers; we can’t predict events; what works in one place won’t work in another. We need to get comfortable (maybe even enjoy) messiness and uncertainty, giving far more weight to local knowledge and feedback. We need to include a more diverse range of people and viewpoints in any discussion, and (however busy we are) take regular time outs to assess what is/isn’t working and change course accordingly.

We need to recognize that ‘we’ are not lofty, disinterested observers. Power flows within our own networks; it influences our relations with partners and allies. We make decisions at least partly based on our default models of the world and assumptions not based on evidence.

The questions we ask (and keep asking)

The powerpoint slide: [6 questions]

Everyone enjoying this?
Everyone enjoying this?
  • What are we trying to change? (Policy; Practice; Norms)
  • Are there current/past examples of success that we can learn from?
  • How are decisions on this issue taken? By whom?
  • Who holds what kind of power (especially excluded groups – women, indigenous, older people etc)
  • How can we foresee or respond to any critical junctures?
  • Can we identify any quick wins or implementation gaps to build momentum and confidence?

The text:

What problem are you trying to address? Is it specific (e.g. improving livelihoods for a group of women farmers) or systemic (changing government policy or prevailing norms)? Is it primarily economic, political, social or a combination? Local, national or global?

What is your understanding of the origins of that problem? Have you considered a positive deviance study to explore where the problem has already been solved and how? Who has the ability to solve it? Does the barrier to change lie in laws and policies, or in social norms, attitudes and beliefs? Or is the issue rooted in conflicting interests?

Whatever the issue we are thinking about and seeking to change, everyone involved will be linked by a subtle and pervasive force field of power. A good power analysis should identify the players (both individuals and organizations), how they relate to each other, who or what they are influenced by (peer persuasion or rivalry? Evidence and example? protest?) and the different kinds of power in play (conventionally visible power, or something more behind the scenes, like the power of ideas, or peer pressure and ‘old boy networks’?).

A power analysis should suggest strategies for engaging with the main public or private institutions that drive or block change. It should dissolve the monoliths of ‘the state‘ or ‘big business‘ or ‘the international system‘ into turbulent networks full of potential allies as well as opponents. A power analysis should also help us understand why change doesn‘t happen – the forces of inertia and paradigm maintenance.

cartoon_truth to powerA power analysis disaggregates power, exploring the role of ‘power within’ (e.g. empowering women to become more active social agents), ‘power with’ (collective organization) or ‘power to’ (e.g. supporting CSO advocacy)? That helps move the focus to groups of people (women, poor communities, indigenous groups, those living with disabilities) who are often excluded from decision-making, and whose empowerment is at the heart of many change strategies.

Can you foresee any likely critical junctures when change is more likely to occur (e.g. new governments, changes of leadership, election timetables)? When operating in complex systems, you are only as good as your feedback loops. What systems do you have in place to spot and respond to new opportunities and threats as they emerge? Or monitor your own work, spot failures, and change course?

Implementation gaps – institutions, policies or budgets that have already been agreed but exist purely on paper – often provide fertile grounds for action that generates quick wins, which can have a galvanizing effect – plucking a few low-hanging fruit is great for morale, motivation and momentum.

The argument of the book is that those ways of working, and asking these kinds of questions, should broaden the range of allies, ideas and strategies, introduce better feedback, learning and adaptation and (fingers crossed) make us more effective change agents. Convinced?

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


9 Responses to “Here’s my attempt at a takeaway message on How Change Happens – what do you think?”
  1. Fred Carden

    Having not yet read the manuscript, it is easier to provide a quick comment. Overall, I like it though, unlike your picture, I think navigating this messy and turbulent field is more like shooting the rapids without a helmet. Working with governments and big business on how change happens, you don’t often get a second chance. This seems to have more focus on working outside government and in the CSO sector (and maybe the manuscript says that). And taking time out to review and reflect is easier said than done. As an early adopter of outcome mapping (Thierry BarettoFernandes) said, “taking time to reflect and learn is the ransom outcome mapping demands…”. We all know it is necessary, but….. Any thoughts on how to achieve that would be welcome I am sure.
    And I agree at the importance of rules of thumb – these usually come from evidence at some point in their history.

  2. Helen Jeans

    Power is not the same thing as empowerment. Why do you collapse your initial discussion about empowerment – linked to concepts of liberation, conversion and awareness/understanding/insight – to power?

  3. Hi Duncan, Great stuff. This kind of dialouge is what we need. I have yet to fully read your whole document but I will and comment more substantively. A lot of this resonates with me.

    There is something missing and I’m not sure how or where it fits in. Possibly, where you talk about– how we feel/think; the questions we ask at the start. I might separate the norms/worldview part- 1. how we feel and move in the world. 2. how we question (not just individually and academically but collectively) 3. how we organize (we know that organizing- from association level to networks, alliances and movements is critical).

    I like the dance moves. The curiosity part also feels thin in terms of really naming how important it is to ground analysis and questioning in history and context. I’m trying to find ways to marry (if that’s the right word) conceptual frameworks that I’ve been using -AWID and systems. Systems frames often seem too focused on hard systems and not politically savvy enough. I have been in dialogue with Chris Roche about some of this. Thinking out loud. Hope it’s helpful. Cheers, Nanci

  4. Hi Duncan,

    Interesting to stumble onto this blog post via twitter, thanks for the insights.

    For the last few years I’ve been leading a social R&D program focused on improving youth mental health and wellbeing, called Lifehack.

    Many of the areas you’ve touched on, we have been playing with as we have no authority – only influence – in the NZ system. I think some of the core values and mindsets you’ve outlined are spot on.

    It feels like this is a huge shift for some people and organisations, and to work in this way requires fundamentally different tools, methods and approaches. Most people struggle with the aspect of implementing these from our experience.

    To that end, as we began looking, we discovered an international community talking about ‘Social Labs’ which is a practice focused on complex problems and the power inherent in them. If you haven’t already, I’d suggest connecting your ideas and work with this community. Here’s a starting point:

    I also really appreciated your simple break down of how to start thinking about theories of change. We’re hoping to share something on this side of things ourselves soon.

  5. A lot of good old practice grounded common sense in here, Duncan!

    I especially liked “Implementation gaps – institutions, policies or budgets that have already been agreed but exist purely on paper – often provide fertile grounds for action that generates quick wins, which can have a galvanizing effect – plucking a few low-hanging fruit is great for morale, motivation and momentum”. A lot of people like the idea of power analysis etc a lot more than the slow, tedious reality of it. Such quick wins keeps the momentum up.

  6. Gladys Onyango

    Great initiative Duncan,

    I haven’t had a chance to read your upcoming book yet. I wonder if it addresses the importance of interrogating our own credibility as agents of positive change. Where do we derive our legitimacy? Who do we speak for? Who are we ultimately accountable to? What is our stake in the outcomes that we seek? Throughout history, truly transformative change has occurred when directly affected people and communities became the key drivers of the agenda and change processes. There are many places where the grassroots base of associations that ought to be at the frontline of change have been overshadowed by savvy advocacy NGOs that claim to speak for the communities but in actual fact are accountable to no-one except themselves and their funders.

  7. Jacob

    Hi Duncan,

    Whilst it’s of course good that more people push this way of thinking and working – and indeed you have been at the vanguard of that, as your blog title attests to – but i couldn’t help thinking ‘this is just PDIA, mixed with a bit of power analysis.’ Now, good artists borrow, great artists steal and all that, but i wonder if there are some substantive differences – and i think there probably are – it would be good to highlight these. One of the frustrations of this business, as you often note, is having to hop from one acronym to another, so the less we can do of that without good cause, the better.

  8. Taimur

    A few typos in the earlier piece. An edited version is copied below. Thanks

    Dear Duncan,

    Thanks for sharing. At one level most of what you say makes intuitive sense. However, there are instances when things are not so complex and a ‘simpler’ analysis will do..or a technical solution will do (for example putting in place an electric grid, or fixing sewage issues). While i agree a systems approach coupled with a political economy analysis of power will help, it may also unnecessary complicate we need to judge when such an approach is warranted and when we can do away with it. The distinction between the simple, complicated and complex should be made (if you haven’t already touched upon it in your book).
    Second, there are things outside our realm of control or influence…for example how speed itself has become a measure of success…that is, with technological advancements we communicate instantly, our production cycles are shorter (just in time production), we are exposed to 24 hour news cycles/feeds, we are on twitter, instagram, feedback is instant.. Donors want us to spend now. They want a results report reflecting impact now. Corners are cut, truth id distorted..all for the sake of speed and the false immediacy attached to the situation. This value–‘speed’–can perhaps be traced back to the protestant ethic or even further back to Luther …in any case it is something that is beyond our control or we are unable to control it. Society, in a true sense, has come to be governed by getting things done quicker, sooner without really building a (clear and) rational case for why doing things quicker, faster and immediately is good…for it is often, all too often, at the expense of quality, thoughtful deliberation, and keeping with natural rhythms. ‘Speed’ requires a political economy analysis in itself…as after all we want quicker results, immediate impact and so on.