How change happens – some initial thoughts

Last Thursday, I took some sixth formers along to Chester University to hear Duncan Green launch his new book, How Change Happens. Having heard Duncan speak at a Geographical Association conference a few years ago and having dipped into his previous book From Poverty to Power (as with so many books I buy, I have never read it from cover to cover, but enjoy the idea that I still could one day), I was really looking forward to the lecture. In fact, taking the students was an excuse to go. I would’ve probably made excuses if it was just down to me to go, but an external commitment made it a reality!

Anyway, this isn’t a review of the book – I haven’t read it yet! I have read the introduction. Rather, this is a reflection of Duncan’s talk. He is a really engaging speaker and something of a (self-acknowledged) lucky sod. He has the job which many people would like. He literally has a job that,  by his own admission (though I’m sure with a little exaggeration) he makes up as he goes along. A significant amount of his time is reading, researching and reflecting upon ideas which are of interest to him. Wow. Who wouldn’t like that job? I digress though; what did Duncan have to say?

Well, first of all, he made clear that the book was written with development as a backdrop, but the concepts included – about how change happens – are much more widely applicable. Indeed throughout the lecture I thought at a number of times how it applies to my work as a teacher and a local politician. This is really interesting – to have a generic theory of change, of achieving change, in whatever field we are working. How does this change actually happen then?

If only it were so simple to say how change happens. Green spent much of his time talking about how current and prevalent theories of change aren’t actually that useful. Most people acknowledge that they operate, at whatever scale, in a complex world/system. Yet, when we try to enact change, we often try a ‘linear’ approach. He likened this to making ‘the cake’: we assemble ingredients, get a recipe and buy an oven. We try to do a ‘project’. Sometimes this works, but how do we know this? How can we quantify or qualify the impact of a stimulus on a complex system? Yet we seek out a positive change and then attribute it to the project – ‘development professionals learn to lie’. This is equally true of professionals in any number of fields who try to attribute success to their intervention, ignoring the complex web of factors at work.

Rather than change being the result of a linear project model, Green suggests, quite persuasively, that change is:

  • Unpredictable and unattributable
  • Often resulting from large critical junctures (or ‘shocks’)
  • Path dependent and context specific – i.e. one size does not fit all. Each system is unique but we come to it with ‘kits’ and ‘plans’.

Instead, Green suggests that to work out how to make change happen, we need to analyse where power lies within a given system. For this, Green refers to the ‘4 powers’ model of Rowlands. This involves power within –  people acknowledging their own power, sometimes requiring a ‘lightbulb moment’; power with – the power of collaborating and organising; power to – the ability to influence decisions; and finally power over – control over decisions and systems.  We need to analyse the ‘ecosystem of power’ to work out who we need to get on board and how we can effect change. This was all fascinating, because it seemed to universally applicable, way beyond development issues. Power analysis wasn’t the most interesting aspect of Green’s talk however, because he also talked about how we need to approach change ourselves.

Whilst not quoting Gandhi, Green’s discussion of how we need to approach the issue of change did remind me that ‘all the tendencies present in our world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.’ I know you were expecting ‘be the change you want to see in the world’, but Just Googled that (who needs teachers?) and discovered this must be one of the greatest misquotes ever! Anyway, I have digressed again, the point Green was making – without misquoting Gandhi – is that we could change our own approach in order to analyse power effectively and bring about change. Green suggests four qualities which people need to embody:

  • Curiosity – we should ‘learn to dance with the system’ and always be asking questions.
  • Humility – we must embrace ambiguity and uncertainty.
  • Reflexivity – we must be conscious of our role, include multiple perspectives, look at the unusual suspect an be open to different ways of seeing the world.

In terms of those questions:

  • What kind of change are we looking at? Policy, practice, or social norms.
  • What precedents can we learn from?
  • What kinds of power are at work? How could it be redistributed?
  • How will we know if change is happening?

Having analysed power, we then need to act with fast feedback and response, changing our approach as we go in the face of complexity. As I said, all very transferable to most aspects of life. Refreshing thinking, but how do we get this thinking happening more widely. That is a change in itself!

I hope you’ll agree, all very interesting. All very transferable. Indeed, I am doing a course with work as I am a new ‘middle leader’. I can already see how some of Green’s ideas could influence my school improvement project that forms a key part of that course. I’ll hopefully blog again, both about implementation in an educational system and once I’ve digested the book properly – if I ever get around to reading it!

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