Schools of change
We’re only human. In reaching to find patterns in the world — that’s what we do, as pattern-seeking creatures — we form schools of thought.
We look for gaps, and we look for repeating phenomenon. We self-identify by casting aside what doesn’t fit. And when we do become a student (or a teacher!) of a particular ‘school’, it’s a significant moment. Each comes with heavy connotation. We’re either instantly drawn to it, or instantly repelled.
We do this constantly, and on every front. We do it in determining our political opinions; our most beloved haunts; our favourite bands and brands. I am this, but not that. These are my people. This is my *thing*. And that’s okay, most of the time. It’s natural. But does it get in our way? Does our allegiance block us from something new we might appreciate? Do we turn rigid by thinking we know it all? You bet we do. We’re only human.
In a professional capacity — especially as facilitators of change — Tim and I have to watch this tendency real, real close. In the digital age, we all have every possible make and model of thinking at our fingertips. Our pace of self-identification and casting-aside is breakneck. If we give in to the urge to attach to any one school of thought over another, we will lose our responsiveness. Our approach will calcify. We’ll think we know ‘the way’ (as if there is one, which there isn’t). We jeopardize our naiveté, our openness. And good ideas have a vigorous allergy to the calcified, tribal mind. They steer clear.
So what’s the alternative? Curation without labels. A little of this, and a little of that. We see goodness in every school. We riff on what we like. Let’s imagine some of today’s biggest schools of change work spread out on a table in front of us. What do we borrow?
The premise: A single, compelling vision can work for everyone.
Inspired by predictive strategic planning — learning from the past to anticipate and reimagine the future — with a premium on inclusivity.
Originally published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the intention of collective impact is great, and has certainly moved the field forward.
How it inspires us: Sometimes, we find ourselves in a room that needs unifying structure. We weave in aspects of collective impact as a tool, borrowing from it but making plenty of room for complexity. We need to be careful, here: sometimes, we can cast ahead into the future based on incomplete and inequitable interpretations of a constantly shifting, multi-layered current reality. So in addition to the spirit of collective impact, we practice asking better and better questions, and iterating a volume of new ideas. We unify with collective impact’s intent, but make a point of showing up with loosely-held assumptions and open minds.
The premise: Iterate, iterate, iterate. Make mistakes, and make them fast. Keep moving.
Central to software development, change-makers see many parallels to the Agile approach. When you iterate, you learn. We love that principle. It’s core to our work.
Even though we don’t work in a mechanical realm, there are fascinating parallels between innovating with computers and coding and sparking forward motion with groups of human beings. Agile is an interesting approach because of its core belief in the power of movement — of learning-by-doing — which is intrinsic to our world view that we always need to leave space to play, with permission to mess up. Imperfect movement is always more fruitful than perfect paralysis.
How it inspires us: Sometimes, we join a circle of collaborators who are dreadfully stuck. Maybe they’ve spent too long thinking and rethinking — spinning on a gerbil wheel without any forward motion. We remember Agile’s iterative, experimental sprints, and the value of prototyping. While working with humans will never be as straightforward as working with machines — we’re very affected by emotions, historical context, and real-life stakes — we like the can-do attitude that an Agile approach injects into our change efforts.
The premise: The professional is personal. To show up well in collaboration — to have conversations that matter — we need to show up well as individuals. We can trust intelligence that’s collectively generated.
Art of Hosting puts a stock in relationships — and the notion of being ‘in relationship’ — and we love that. Relational vitality and integrity supports the vitality and integrity of the work. How are we together? It’s a very generous, constant awareness of what makes us tick as human individuals, and as a part of human groups.
AoH is relationship-focused, and both Tim and I need a balance of that plus the rigor of being results-focused. AoH is designed to stage conversations that are events, which can lead to incredible breakthroughs — but we also want to design for systems change over time. Specifically, systemic change with equity at its centre. Unless we consciously put equity up-front, it may not be collectively sensed. So we make sure to do that. Aside from what we weave in as our priority, we appreciate the heavy lifting going on in the AoH community that lifts us all, organizing for greater consciousness.
How it inspires us: Quite often, we need to remind deeply entrenched people that listening is one of the most powerful things they can do to get unstuck. As one of the most influential open source theories of how people are together, I believe deeply in Art of Hosting as the staging ground for deeper understanding. It’s one of our favourite platforms for establishing the heart of change. We begin there, layering on top some nitty-gritty, tactical process rules of how we’ll work together.
The premise: We cannot design a better future by relying on best practices based on the past.
MIT’s Otto Scharmer is celebrated in so many ways, and rightly so. His Presencing Institute and the working model for change that sprung from it is wildly aspirational. As he said in his book Theory U: Learning from the Future as It Emerges: “Isn’t there a way to break the patterns of the past and tune into our highest future possibility—and to begin to operate from that place?”
Scharmer seeks to codify forward movement. It’s quite breakthrough in its orientation towards the future, in a way that’s more imaginative and hopeful than predictive or linear. It’s very popular, widely-studied, and carries a lot of credibility. He has legitimized the idea of field, future, and aspiration, and we love that.
How it inspires us: The culture of some rooms — or entrenched problems that require the convening of multiple stakeholding groups — can sometimes be very backwards-facing. Some organizations are just like that, its people coached by context and past disappointments or shortfalls to cement notions of value, blame, and pessimism. There’s nothing quite like a dose of Otto Scharmer to help us see when perhaps, we’re just facing the wrong way. As with Art of Hosting, this change model is a wonderful staging-ground, on top of which we layer a rigorous tactical process. It helps us envision and rally for impact.
Our learning instinct:
a big tent
You’re unlikely to ever catch Tim or I selling one particular way as The Way. We will never march in just one band, or cheer for just one team. We bring in diverse practitioners who may prefer one approach over the other. They bring us their best, and we merge and mash-up depending on the room.
Consider this our love letter to riffing: a constantly fascinated discernment, with deep affinity for all efforts. It’s our enthusiasm for the study of enthusiasm.
No one way can be fixedly ‘right’ because no one human or group of humans is fixedly predictable. Our complexity is the only constant. We are always moving. And as change-makers, neither Tim nor I are interested in cookie-cutter answers. It doesn’t fit the work, and it doesn’t fit us.
On one day, Otto Scharmer may be just the right thing to nudge people ahead. On another, we may pull out some Art of Hosting rules to make sure everyone’s listening openly, or we may map out a series of Agile-inspired sprints to get everyone’s sleeves rolled-up.
None of the theories above are big enough to hold what we do. We use pieces of them all and are attached to none. Isn’t it freeing?