To get better at changing things, get better at handling change

To get better at changing things, get better at handling change

Brink’s Learning and Adaptation Lead, Jess Price, examines how modern institutions must transform themselves before they can begin to help shape a better future for us all.

We live in a wild and wonderful world on the brink. The brink of a future radically different from our past - one where the old ways of seeing the world don’t make sense anymore, where our connection to ‘who we have been’ is emphatically divorced from the ‘who we are now’. None of us can know for sure where we’ll end up as a society. But I’m of the view that it could go either way, really.

Like many, I believe that our shared institutions have the responsibility to tip us into a better version of our world, catalysing and shepherding a transformation for the better. While we may disagree on the precise role of modern institutions (governments, big tech, the oil companies, the airlines) in creating change, most of us believe that they have one. We nearly all agree that someone has to do something.

I believe that modern institutions have the responsibility to act. I also think that they have the power - they are the shapers of so much of our present world, after all. But, I also believe that most institutions are not currently built for this role.

Who hasn’t felt frustrated about their government’s role in dealing with ‘what’s going on now’- however they personally define it? Felt fear, anger, or a deadening apathy in the face of a state and society that are unequal to creating the future we need? Tried to hold in their head a vision that meets the seeming minutiae of the state (such as how to best release a prisoner into society) alongside the almost-fictional-seeming challenges of AI, economic collapse, ecological disasters etc. etc.? What should ‘they’, these personified yet impersonal institutions, do about ‘all this’?

These are big questions. And following on their heels, is a smaller but just as crucial one: where to start? At least to this, I have an answer: To get better at changing things, start by getting better at handling change.

What it means to be better at handling change

Change is my livelihood and my passion. My mystery and my mastery. I’ve worked with governments on internal reforms, from accounting systems to civil service hiring to learning cultures; with foundations, to improve their grant making or disrupt giving all together; with NGOs on their management methods; and with Consortia on their governance and team collaboration. All in the name of increasing impact in social progress.

I’m learning more every day about what it takes to change things in an institution, and about what it means to be ‘better at handling change.’ I make sense of my learning through a simple framework that asks:

  • Mindsets: how to think and feel
  • Methods: how to do things
  • Mechanisms: how to organise yourself and have the right incentives in place

(This framework also underpins Brink’s ‘behavioural innovation’ approach, which you can read more about here and here.)

Every organisation is different, as are the needs of each sector and policy area they are involved in. But I’m starting to see some patterns in my work with bi-lateral development agencies, NGOs, start-ups and philanthropic foundations.

These patterns hint at the core capabilities present in those institutions that handle change well. Things like, thinking at the level of the whole system, not just one product or service; adapting ideas and plans based on evidence about what works; and building solutions with others.

Below, I’ve outlined each of these capabilities, dividing them by mindset, method and mechanism and, alongside each one, added a set of questions any organisation should ask themselves in order to start bringing these attributes to life.

The 16 capabilities found in institutions that handle change well

🧠 Mindsets (‘how to think and feel’)

📎 Methods (‘how to do’)

🏛️ Mechanisms (‘how to organise yourself’). 

  • Futures-oriented: How do we orient ourselves around the future, whilst working in the present and acknowledging the past?

  • Systems-oriented: How do we look beyond our immediate activities or beneficiaries, to think about the system as a whole, and how our work changes that? How do we hold all that complexity in our heads?

  • Comfort with experimentation and learning: How do we feel comfortable admitting things aren’t working? And confident to change that? How can we be more confident to ‘give things a try’ and see if they work?

  • Working in complexity and uncertainty: How do we cope with the uncertainty of a portfolio that might be doing very different things this time next year? How do we cope with the uncertainty of change?  Even better, how can we leverage uncertainty, and see it as an opportunity to find innovative solutions and break new ground? How do we do this in a way acknowledging that some people experience more uncertainty than others (e.g. due to systemic racism)?

  • Risk appetite: How do we have a shared perception of what counts as ‘risky’ across our work? Some people think change is risky, though continuing the same thing as before could be riskier…

  • Thinking collectively: How do we imagine ourselves as one of many? How do we maintain relationships with partners, even whilst our own adaptations may make difficulties for them? How do we imagine ourselves as a diverse collective, ensuring that the voices of all racial and ethnic groups are heard and valued?

  • Power-aware: How do we include all voices, especially those of the most marginalised? How do we look beyond our immediate activities to consider the hierarchies that exist within the systems we operate (racial and otherwise), and work towards dismantling these hierarchies? How do we ensure that we are  actively amplifying those that have been historically marginalised?

  • Futurism approaches: How do we imagine a radically different future, and build backwards from there? How do we picture a different future, forecast risks and scenarios, and build that into strategies?  

  • Strategy adaptation: How does change happen in our system, what is our contribution, and is our strategy leading us to that goal? How do we test and adapt our Theory of Change, and strategy, whilst bringing people along with us?

  • Deciding where to take risks and invest:  What kinds of evidence and at what level of rigour do we need in order to decide where to invest, and where to adapt? Where do we need to take more risks to create impact? 

  • Learning in order to adapt: What do we need to find out, to know if our ideas are working? How do we test our assumptions and decide what to do within projects? What do we need to learn for the riskier/unknown parts or our work, and what is needed for the safer and well evidenced parts of our work?

  • Deciding how to decide: Is it clear who decides what can adapt when? And how others outside our organisation are involved in those decisions? How do we ensure that our decision making includes all people in our societies?

  • Planning and adapting plans: How do we articulate our plans, and capture our work in a way that enables clear decision making, without constricting ourselves to unchangeable plans? 

  • Investing and spending: forecasting, budget and resource allocation. How do we revise our budgets as we adapt our plans? What kinds of spending do we encourage or discourage?

  • Incentivising our partners: procurement, funding, management and reporting mechanisms for downstream partners and grantees. How do we help those who work with us, work in adaptive ways?

  • Accountability: How do we hold ourselves accountable to those that fund us, or have political authority, without constraining our adaptation? What results frameworks,  payment approaches, and reporting do we use?

This is a working theory. It’s drawn from my own experience, and inspired by the ideas and evidence expressed by numerous others such as OECD, States of Change, Dark Matter Labs, ODI, and the Centre for Public Impact.  My hope is that by posing this  list of questions, I can start to find the answers to that overarching conundrum: how our institutions can do better.

Going forward, I’ll be continuing to explore how I and others can be part of transforming our institutions, and in particular, how we can all get better at handling change. Watch this space for more, and get in touch!

Interested in this topic, want to know more, or have some thoughts? Drop us a line at [email protected] and let's chat!