A 3-fold theory of social change (and some great quotes on complexity, ambiguity and dreaming)

January 12, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Sometimes a paper is worth blogging about just for the quotes. Here are the best from a 2016 update of Doug Reeler’s ‘A Three-Fold Theory of Social Change’:

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity. But I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

“Whosoever wishes to know about the world must learn about it in its particular details. Knowledge

Heraklitus trying to work it all out

Heraklitus trying to work it all out

is not intelligence. In searching for the truth be ready for the unexpected. Change alone is unchanging. The same road goes both up and down. The beginning of a circle is also its end. Not I, but the world says it: all is one. And yet everything comes in season.” Heraklietos of Ephesos, 500 B.C

“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.” Anais Nin

“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” M. Scott Peck

‘Reformers mistakenly believe that change can be achieved through brute sanity’ George Bernard Shaw

“Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming after all, is a form of planning.” Gloria Steinem

But the paper is also really good. It sets out 3 types of change and argues that, although reality is often messier, it is worth thinking of them as a sequence through which a typical organization moves:

‘a) Emergent change: A new organisation, or a new department in a larger organisation, begins in its pioneering phase, emerging experimentally as it finds its identity and purpose, learning its way into the future by doing, by creative trial-and-error, often running informally by unwritten rules, held together by the will and personality of its pioneer often in an intense and personal atmosphere.

b) Transformative change: As with seedlings, growth of new organisations can be rapid, but at some point the organisation enters its first developmental crisis where the quantity and complexity of the work, and the number of staff, outgrow the capacity of the pioneer or the informal systems to effectively manage. Often the new generation of staff call for visible procedures, systems and policies, for accountable organisation, but this call is resisted by those who have been there since the early days, not least the pioneer who feels a threat to the power he or she has become used to and known for – “things worked so well like this in the past, we just have to get people on board”. But a transformation is required that enables a letting go of that informality, an unlearning of the
boulton-fragility-cycleunwritten rules, paving the way for a new regime. This letting go is not simply an instrumental process of installing new systems but about a transfer of power and a shift in culture. It meets resistance which must be faced before the new phase of change can take centre stage.

c) Projectable change: The new regime, working in a new, more rational phase, is marked by a more visible and conscious projecting of visions and strategizing and planning the way to get there, enabled by visible, written systems and policies that support a new kind of work.

Until the next developmental crisis requiring more transformation.’

Which reminds me somewhat of the early stages of the forest cycle (see graphic) described by Jean Boulton. What that adds is the sclerosis and rigidity that affect organizations once they have become fixed in the ‘projectable change’ phase, and how that leads to meltdowns and crises that begin the process anew.

I also really liked the final message of the mercifully brief (18 page) paper, which is published by South Africa’s excellent Community Development Resource Association, and aimed at donors, governments and on-the-ground social change organizations:

‘Change cannot be engineered but can only be cultivated. Seeds must be chosen whose fruits not only suit the taste of the eaters but also to suit the soil in which they are planted, the conditions for cdra-logotheir fruition. Processes of change, whether emergent, transformative or projectable, are already there, moving or latent, and must be read and worked with as natural processes inherent to the lives and cultures of people themselves. This kind of orientation, applied respectfully and skilfully, may indeed yield the impact and sustainability that is so desperately sought. Perhaps then our obsession with accountability may be allayed, not because we will have learnt how to better measure impact, but because we will have learnt to practise better, to read change more accurately and work with it more effectively.’

January 12, 2017
Duncan Green