Brink’s Learning and Adaptation Lead, Jess Price, breaks down some of the moments in her career that shifted her perspective on how change is created.
How can our institutions ‘do better’ to create positive change in the world? How can big bureaucracies be better? A few weeks ago I wrote about how institutions need to get better at handling change, in order to change things. I posited a working theory of the institutional capabilities for change, and suggested some questions to ask.
In this post I’m going to talk a little more personally about a few moments and experiences in my life which influenced my point of view on change. I started writing this in response to a watershed professional moment: seeing a diagram about change that I had co-created in print (ok, online), published by the highly respected OECD. This post unpacks the evolution in my thinking that influenced that diagram.
First, the diagram that inspired this post
Last year, I worked with Ben Kumpf, Parnika Jhunjunwala , Mariam Tabatadze frm the OECD Innovation Development Facility team and fellow Brinksters Emma and Abi on a process to support the adoption of innovation. In plain language: how can you take a new method, or a type of technology, which has worked in very specific instances, and make it a normal way of working that anybody in your organisation can turn to in the right circumstances?
The OECD paper is now out. It gives an overview of the state of play, a bit of the theory behind adoption, and three great case studies from the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Korea’s International Cooperation Agency, and Germany’s GIZ. And: the diagram I co-created!
The diagram is trying to express that change is not linear: that you have to go through several cycles of learning, adapting, and gathering influence, in order to transform the institution. It acknowledges that sometimes you’ll feel like you’re looping back on yourself. It implies that it might be hard to see your progress unless you look at it differently (after all, a spiral seen from the top is just a circle- going round and round, and not up and up). These are all things I think are important to know up front about change.
Up, down and round and round
For me at least the diagram’s origin story probably starts with this image, which first entered prominence in the 2011 World Development Report. It transformed the way governance practitioners like me, who were still delivering linear, new public management style programmes, thought about our work.
The diagram is about how countries move from a state of violence and fragility. The report explains that countries often experience repeated changes over time - just when they solve one set of problems, new ones pop up that need addressing. This requires a constant cycle of taking action to strengthen the country's ability to handle difficult situations. It made sure to express that help and encouragement from outside can boost a country's own efforts, but also that outside pressures can also throw a wrench in the works. The corkscrew image challenged the ‘straight left to right arrow’ implicit in our mental models for post-conflict transformation. (For a properly up to date expression of mental models in international development and peacebuilding I highly recommend this open access book by Mareike Schomerus Lives Amid Violence.)
The WDR 2011 was very firm on the idea that countries shouldn’t be pushed to follow Western-inspired ways: saying that it's actually better if they figure out what works best for their unique situation (once upon a time not that long ago, that statement seemed groundbreaking). At the time, I was working on a governance programme in Somaliland, which was a definite culprit of imposed Western wisdom. So, this felt particularly meaningful.
For example, our project called for ‘human resources management reform’ including the elimination of ghost workers (civil servants still drawing a salary who were in fact, dead, or never existed - the money would generally get picked up by their families). To Western donors, this seemed like a waste of money at best, corruption at worst. However, Somaliland didn’t have a social safety net or a pension system, and the allocation of government positions - whether to someone dead or alive- was an important stabiliser in the political settlement. The negligible funds spent on ‘ghost workers’ helped keep people alive, and to a lesser extent, helped keep the peace. And yet eliminating them seemed more important than the other hundreds of things we could have done.
Fresh from my Masters in international development, I found the rigidity of my programme design bizarre (as did several of our funders!). We didn’t have the flexibility to truly engage with and support our partner Ministries, to meet them where they were, and work within the grain of the political settlement. Though we muddled through well enough, and did our best together, it was a heavy lift. The WDR report felt like the first point of credible leverage to rethink this way of working. And I liked that the diagram carried with it the implicit (but often unrecognised) potential that things may get worse or go backwards before going forwards.
Fast forward several years, and I found myself at ODI, working in the politics and governance team. This team is a global thought leader in thinking and working politically and adaptive management, carrying out world class research and policy advice. I used to read reports which questioned the very fundamentals of my governance work, and then one day I got to work with the authors directly. A dream come true.
There’s a diagram from those days, which I turn to again and again:
This is the brainchild of Professor Tim Kelsall, a master of the two by two diagram.
It helps donors think about how to pursue transformation based on the political settlement in the country they’re working in. Essentially: how not to be blind to the way power is distributed and how that creates or undermines stability, when designing and implementing programmes.
For example, in some countries, where power is narrow and concentrated, and where the elite is in favour of change, system wide approaches from the top down might work (like, when I worked on civil service reform in 2013 Myanmar, and civil servants pretty much did what the President told them to, risky change was easier). In others, they won’t (like, trying to impose human resource management reform on the Somaliland government, where the disbursement of power was a delicate business).
Many of us instinctively know this, but still find ourselves designing our programmes to the ideas in our minds, not the contexts that they play out in. I like that the typology takes something nebulous and opaque, and gives an entry window for some of the practical considerations. Tim has an extensive body of work on political settlements which I won’t get into, but you can read more about this particular diagram here.
The sentiment that I took into the OECD work was the importance of ‘mapping your landscape’ and understanding the power dynamics and influences on your change process.
For the past few years, I’ve been working directly with governments and large donor organisations based in the Global North: a diagram like this challenges me to rethink, and remember my past. Each bureaucracy sort of has its own political settlement, so how would my suggested tactics play out in a bureaucracy that doesn’t act like a Western bi-lateral development agency?
Advising other people on change is an odd and difficult thing. I’ve had many more frustrating days than impactful ones. People often expect that organisational change comes after you analyse the problem, and develop a concrete set of recommendations to ‘tick off’. ‘Jess: you tell us the problem and how to fix it, and then we will action all the fixes you suggest.’
And it’s very easy to get sucked into that comforting falsehood of certainty in change processes. Here’s the image which pulls me short whenever I find myself or people I work with prioritising ‘delivering on our plan’ instead of ‘creating change’. I discovered this on one of Tom Aston’s brilliant blogs about evaluating complex programmes, but it applies to many things, and has been shared in other places since.
Transforming an organisation is complex - there are a lot of interlinked factors which influence whether what you do is going to make a difference. In the face of this, it makes much more sense to approach organisational change as one would complex systems change. This means ditching the rigid plan, and instead experimenting with what works, and doesn’t work.
But what about the human side? Transformation is hard, on everyone. Change is not easy, and the work required to transform an organisation can feel overwhelming: it's important to recognize that this work will feel hard, and you won't see change straight away. If you’re doing it right, it’s probably going to feel hard on other people too.
It helps me express some things which I’ve intuitively begun to understand. That the old coexists with the new for a time. That, at one point in time, you might see a bunch of oddballs bucking the system, but if you look again later, you might find that the weird things those oddballs said have become ‘normal’. A sign of evolution in the system and that the individual can change the system around them, if connected in the right way with others.
One thing I particularly like about this diagram is that it emphasises the importance of understanding the people involved and the roles they need to play in the change process. It issues a clear call to action for change: identify and connect pioneers who can work together, who should name the new system they want to see, and create change by nourishing each other and growing their influence as a collective.
In addition to pioneers, there are individuals who must create stability for others while new ways of thinking and working emerge. These people provide the necessary support and guidance to ensure that the organisation does not falter during the transition period.
Finally, it borrows a term from palliative care- the hospice- to describe what a good ‘end of life’ for a system could look like. ‘Hospicing’ in the context of changing people and institutions, involves recognizing the value of the existing system, honouring the work to date, and providing a safe space for people to transition to the new system. People worked hard, and they were right to do so, at the time: now things are changing, but they have still made a huge positive contribution.
Shall we play a game?
I’ve called this post ‘5 images’ but I can’t leave without telling you about a last, sixth, image. Possibly the most important one of all.
It’s a cartoon of a boy and his toy tiger going sledding (I’m linking not posting it here as it's copyrighted, but fans of Calvin and Hobbes, you’ll love it).
It’s also a story of the value of play in forging new paths: sometimes you just need to have fun, and give yourself the space to be creative, to understand and enact change. Play helps us learn- LEGO Foundation says so. Play helps us weather the inevitable bumps and crashes involved in change.
That’s my final exhortation to myself when working through change: have fun. Because changing the world around us is too important not to laugh about. Which brings me to a little announcement:
We’re creating a game
How can we distil our collective decades of personal experience, the latest ideas in organisational psychology, and the most recent evidence about change, into a fun flexible format which helps people actually take action? Our answer, for now, is a strategic card game, which people can play alone or with their teams, and again and again.
We’re targeting folks who want to create change in their institutions, but who might not be professional ‘change managers’ or paid full time to enact that change- everyone who, like me, wants things to be different but isn’t sure how to make it happen. We’ve built a library of tactics that people have used in real life to effect change, and developed some crafty gaming rules so that discovering them is fun, and deploying them becomes more feasible.
I’ll share more in the next post about how we’re developing this game, and how you can be a part of play-testing it. Thank you for joining me on my journey so far!