What are the impediments to scaling change strategies to address the global breadth and transformational depth of critical issues? Conversations at MIT meeting and Oxford meeting in October, and discussions over the past few months with large system change experts, suggest several important impediments, including:
Over the past 10-15 years, substantial large system change initiatives and change knowledge and methods have developed. Some of my favorite examples are the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, RE-AMP dealing with climate change in the US mid-west, the Sustainable Food Lab…and this week the potential of the 50in10 fish initiative.
Accompanying development of these initiatives is an equally impressive range of new organizations usually associated with specific methodologies. Some leaders are Forum for the Future, Reos Partners (Change Labs), Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment (futures, scenarios), Fowler Center for Sustainable Value (appreciative inquiry), The Presencing Institute (U Process), the Center for Development Innovation (multi-stakeholder change processes), and the Academy for Systemic Change (systems analysis).
These centers of change practice are more like 20th century organization-based solutions rather than 21st century network platforms. Entry is restricted, they tend to focus on a specific tool/methodology, and the common modus operandi is “client-focused”. They do wonderful work, and provide a much-needed contribution to the change field.
However, what has not yet developed is a true field of large systems change, in terms of a field of action incorporating a broad range of theory, tools and skills (praxis) with the accompanying “communities” of learning, training and development.
At the MIT meeting, Joe Hsueh presented a wonderful generic systems diagram developed from work with fisheries, but that helps describe the situation I now think of myself being part of. He suggests that the conversations I’ve been having are a form of “quiet convening” (the black arrows), to bring people into interaction to realize their shared interests. (Click twice on map to enlarge it.)
With GOLDEN’s ecosystems labs I understand we must develop the “large systems change” field…which requires activities similar to those used to develop a “sustainable fisheries” field. The quiet convening activities suggest the need for further awareness-building of the emerging field of large systems change, and managing “self-convening” where people move from their organizational and methodological foci, to develop the large systems change field.
Change Experts’ Dilemmas
Change experts helps people address questions of “emergence” – how to move from “what is” to “what can be to effectively address opportunities and challenges”. Those experts must themselves address those questions with respect to their own development: how can we build beyond our narrow organizational and methodological foci, to build the field – an activity that is critical to really scaling up effective change strategies.
GOLDEN’s ecosystems labs should be an open co-owned platform to support this emergence. Its focus on “accelerating transformation to sustainable enterprise” touches on many critical issues change experts are addressing and is of very large scale – providing a rich basis for collaborative action projects. GOLDEN’s network of academic institutions (and its work on the ecosystem of business and business school sustainability strategies) provides a base for field development in terms of knowledge, methods, theory and training – the blue “capacity-development” arrows of Joe’s diagram.
GOLDEN’s frame of “industry ecosystems” (such as finance, food/agriculture) raised concerns at both the MIT and Oxford meetings. One proposition is that the frame should be “commons” such as air and water. Oxford participants raised the issue that current industry definitions are actually inhibiting the innovation needed to move to sustainability. But community organizing always suggests the importance of “starting where people are” and creating a process of discovery to get to the future. Change strategies emphasize the value of connecting stakeholders at the vanguard (open to, or already engaged in redefining industries) – but the stakeholders must still be well connected to the old industry framework, or they will be easily marginalized.
Oxford participants became energized with the vision of taking on Big Hairy Audacious Goals (B-HAGs), such as reducing carbon emissions by a gigaton within two years (to address climate change, cuts of about 44 GT/year are required). This would have several benefits by being future- and aspirational-oriented and of a scale that would require a challenging “stretch” for change-makers.
But how are the B-HAGs to be identified in a way that they will be “owned” by a set of stakeholders with some reasonable possibility of addressing them? How do we avoid limiting imaginations by the current sense of “reasonable possibility” in a way that dampens innovation? Also, how would this actually help develop knowledge about how to transition from today’s industries to a sustainable future?
The B-HAG strategy implicitly suggests a future where, instead of industries, we have value-creating activity around specific human needs – such as the need for climate stability. How can the big “transition-to-sustainable enterprise” question be connected to current industries to ensure meaningful engagement without limiting innovation?
One way to address this core challenge could be to use of sectors, more broadly defined in terms of responses to human needs, as organizational devices to create the conversation tables, and then the B-HAGs as the focusing items for the conversations.
However, this again raises the question about how current “large system change experts” are themselves working. Are inertia, busyness and their own current frameworks and identities limiting their own potential for impact? Can a group of change experts, based on their currently unassociated work, be a “change lab” in themselves, with the “change domain” being “large systems change and futures work”?