Social system transformation

Peter Blocks's foreword to a recently released book on positive deviance (aka 'bright spots' in the Heath brother parlance), Inviting Everyone: Healing Healthcare through Positive Deviance makes the point that:

We all have a long tradition of thinking about individual transformation, but the question of how collectives or social systems are transformed by design is still open for discovery. We are familiar with how social systems can be disrupted by forces like technology, or shifts in markets, or political upheaval, but how to reform a social system growing out of the explicit intention of its own members is still cluttered with conventional practices that struggle to fulfill what they were designed to do.

I was reminded of this during a meeting last week when a business unit head remarked that she expected 75% of her staff to leave rather than take on the extra 45 minutes each way on their commute that the office move to a new building imposed on them. Her anxiety was that there would be a total collapse of business continuity if this happened. But at the same time that she worries about three-quarters of her workforce leaving, she is also aware that the move will disrupt the existing social system enough to potentially bring in its wake transformative positive change and a much better way of operating the business.

So how can she use the move in a positive way to achieve that end rather than a decimated and angry workforce?

Block offers a way forward. He remarks that:

Social systems are human systems. They are complex systems, as mentioned in the book. Which means that they cannot be reasoned, persuaded, driven, engineered, or implemented into an alternative way of functioning. They have to be invited, enticed, seduced, engaged into participating in what could be called a self- inflicted wound. Real change in human systems has to be bought, it cannot be sold. The easy term for this is self-organizing or self-managing change.

Suppose we approached the move not from the point of persuasion or coercion but by enticement and seduction, in a way that doesn't scare people or provoke them to leave.

Block suggests some building blocks for how to do this:

The following seem to be the strategic elements that are associated with this idea of communal transformation:

Choice and Invitation. The thread in all reform movements is that they are initiated by choice and invitation.

The End of Ambition. At the most human level, these reforms are initiated by people at the stage of life where they have given up on ambition. They are often people in midlife, in age or spirit, who reached a point where they are ready to look far outside what they were conditioned and trained in to find meaning for what is to come.

Acts of Dissent. Healing and reform begins with an act of dissent. Jung said that all consciousness began with an act of disobedience.

Gifts and Capacities. Healing and reform is interested in the gifts and capacities of ordinary people. It is not interested in the gifts of extraordinary people-the world of celebrity, passing fame, and the meta message that this could not happen to you.

Community Is It. Healing and reform is all about a shift or renewal of the collective. Communal transformation. Individuals play a small role in reform. It is when a community, even if just three people, gets organized and determined that health and transformation show up.

Humanity Restored. Finally, reform efforts have to accept the fallibility in each of us. There is great respect for mistakes, which are essential for learning. There is a place for variability, sometimes called diversity. Real reform avoids the instinct for raising the bar, increasing controls, endless automation and the stress on performance. It reclaims and honors our humanity as the ultimate healer.

Translating these into action revolves around:

1. Looking for signs of health – where things are working well.

2. Listening. Most improvement efforts are about profound speaking. And if the message is not working, turn up the volume. This approach is only about the listening.

3. Choosing positive intent with each person. Acting on faith, rather than cynicism. Not talking about resistance to change, but catching people at their best. Holding the wisdom of people at every level in esteem. Authorizing people on the margin and lower levels to speak.

4. Having top leadership be tolerant and often playing a supportive but relatively minor role. (Not to discount their place or say the leaders did not matter, because of course they do). But avoiding the deference to position that is so common in most stories about "change management."

5. Learning through a peer-based process rather than an expert-based teaching process. Helping people discover what they already know.

6. Thinking in a holistic way. Integrating a common spirit from a wide variety of disciplines or fields of endeavor. Calling on the self-organizing wisdom of complexity theory and the large group methodology of organization development where we know the wisdom that is released when the social system is the focus of attention.

7. Developing and telling stories of community organizing: slow, persistent relationship building, awareness building, and celebration as we transform.

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