Many of us in the social sector, when reflecting on what brought us here, remember that at one point or another we thought we could “change the world.” Years later, our determination to make positive social change has not wavered, but rather than needing a how-to guide, we need a better framework to understand social change in the first place.
Duncan Green’s latest book How Change Happens presents a ‘power and systems approach’ to understanding how change happens in a system. In order to generate social change, he urges, we need to analyze the distribution of power and then determine tangible strategies to not only take action but to learn about the impact those actions have on the communities we’re working with.
At Feedback Labs, we practice one of Green’s guiding principle for change: convene and broker relationships1. This past August we convened a community of donors and practitioners – the Practical Adaptation Network – to improve the practice of adaptive management. The methodology of Sprint Relays tested our hypothesis that when several agencies collaborate over a 100-day period they can produce concrete, useful products designed to support adaptive implementation within – and sometimes across – agencies.
To successfully implement these changes, however, each team required a unique theory of action. PAN community members self-formed into 6 teams, each setting their own action plans and achieving deliverables at their own pace. Differentiating between a theory of change (how change happens in a system) and a theory of action (how we are going to bring about that change), a key message from Duncan’s book, proved essential in getting the network off the ground.
As we wrap up the first Sprint and prepare to launch Sprint 2, How Change Happens led us to consider the variety of changes members of the Feedback Labs community pursue. We are reflecting on 5 key ideas from the book as we move into the new year.
- In complex systems, institutions need to level the playing field. By encouraging dynamism, often in times of crisis, state institutions can prevent initial winners from using their power to maintain favoritism. Seeking fast and ongoing feedback enables institutions to detect the need for changes in real time.
- Hidden power and invisible power are just as important as visible power. Endorsing a historical power framework can unintentionally cause the powerless to internalize their situation. It is our role as organizations seeking social change to support a comprehensive approach to power, including personal, collective, and active.
- Law is an important driver of change. States are complex systems made up of families of institutions, each with their own history and norms. Laws illustrate what citizens expect of their society – and legal institutions can help change those expectations.
- Citizen activism goes beyond political activism. Civil society has the ability to influence states to be more effective, and states can simultaneously help the effectiveness of civil society.
- Advocacy is important and involved. Duncan sketches a move in advocacy away from ‘command and control’ style campaigns where one central advocacy body imposes assumptions about the right solution onto campaigns in many countries. From recruiting retired influentials to building empathetic two-way relationships, a range of advocacy tactics can influence systems thinking and in turn lasting social change.
We will keep practicing – and learning how to practice – these guiding principles and invite you to join the conversation. Leave your comments at the bottom of the page or share how you’ve learned to make change happen with us on twitter @FeedbackLabs
1 Duncan Green, How Change Happens (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p.22