Key ideas: Staying light on our feet

This is one of a series of shorter interlinked articles expanding on more theoretical ideas about how we might go about ‘changing the world’. If you want an easier starting point – if the words below sound like irrelevant theoretical academic jargon – then start with the article ‘This isn’t going to be easy‘ instead and come back here later. These ideas are about things we need to remember if – in practical terms – we’re going to actually make a difference and not accidentally make things worse – but they take some getting used to.

We know that we’re involved in social & cultural change. We know that it’s useful to think of this as an ‘adaptive’ challenge. We know that the biggest mistake we could make would be to think we’re dealing with a ‘technical’ issue.

We know that it’s useful to think of the task we’re facing as like a chess match – where every move we make will generate a social response that counters its effectiveness, and where our approach has to continually adapt if it’s to stay effective.

But what does this mean for how we actually run our change efforts? What does an organisation or effort look like if it understands that it’s dealing with an adaptive challenge – if it’s thinking in terms of a chess match, a battle, or ‘adaptive’ change? What does it look like when an organisation hasn’t understood this? What differences might we see?

Here are some possibilities. First – an organisation thinking in technical terms, failing to see the adaptive nature of the challenge, might be seen to:

  • talk about rolling out and scaling up successful pilot projects ;
  • do more of what’s already proven successful, sticking to what’s worked before;
  • work on standardising things, rely on a consistent approach, engage the efforts of those with technical expertise;
  • see the praise of those that might have been expected to object, as evidence of success;
  • look for evidence of the good that they are doing (but not the harm);
  • always seek to brand their work, to give new initiatives fancy names, to make sure these are talked about widely.

Second, and in contrast, an organisation that truly does understand the adaptive nature of the challenge might be seen to::

  • ask whether the activities of a pilot project would work second time around;
  • expect to change what has worked in the past as soon as it becomes something that won’t work in the future;
  • work on staying light on their feet, rely on flexibility and adaptability, engage the efforts of those with imagination and vision;
  • see the praise of those who might have been expected to object as a possible warning of failure;
  • look for evidence of the harm that they are doing (in addition to looking for evidence of good);
  • seek to decrease the chances that efforts are neutralised by keeping new initiatives ‘under the radar’.


See also:

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