Difficult days pave the way

The systems change and equity facilitator’s to-do list:


(Quick edit: it’s not a to-do list. It’s an always-doing list.)

In systems change, there aren’t so much goals or an end-game as there is a constant practice. Goalposts move in the best possible way—we nudge the world to be a little more equitable, a little more inclusive, a little more innovative—and when we reach one milestone, we shoot higher for the next.

As facilitators of this kind of work, we follow whatever comes up. We offer conversation, improvisation, or experimentation to get a room unstuck. Sometimes it lands. Sometimes it falls flat. We might measure only fractional movement. We might simply invest some time helping participants to contemplate the nature of their stuckness. We might walk away with nothing more than the conviction to try again tomorrow.

Sometimes, in facilitation, the room is electrified. It’s primed in a way that’s tough to articulate. Leaders feel it, though. We live for those moments. Across a table or during a talk we might smile and exchange a knowing glance: This room is switched-on!

The best ideas, most honest truths, and most unexpected alliances are forged in fire.

But in systems change, some of the most valuable days are the difficult ones. From the moment you open the session on a day like that, you get the sensation that you—along with everyone else in the room—are climbing uphill. You know you’ve got everything you need in the room, but you can’t seem to tease it out. You might see a lot of crossed arms or furrowed brows. The challenges, for the moment, might feel insurmountable for everyone. Participants might enter the space feeling exhausted, demoralized, defensive, territorial, or repeatedly blocked. And we get it. Continually unfolding complexities suck all the air out of the room. A difficult reckoning, no matter how worthy, is never comfortable.

As a collective of people sharing the work of change, difficult days are par for the course. But they’re more than just something to be tolerated. They’re essential. The best ideas, the most honest truths, and the most unexpected alliances are forged in fire.

Within the same day or cohort, groups and facilitators can experience the most intense of both ends of the spectrum: one session may feel blocked, followed by another that feels electric. Sometimes, an amazing group of people show up with a fierce energy, ready to be in it together. Other times, we—facilitators and that same amazing group—struggle to wrap our heads around the gap between the current reality and where we’d like to be.


Think of how kids play, learn, and integrate new information. As we explore and push the boundaries of what's familiar, we endure (and perpetrate!) countless bumps, scrapes, and meltdowns. This is the formative glue of long-term learning. Without challenging days, we’d lack the context to capitalize on our best days. And without a playful spirit, the most serious blocks might break our best efforts apart.

Best to you on the playground of change as you grow and stretch. No day we spend together—as long as we're trying our best—is misspent. Keep to-do’ing!