Transformative organisations: what if we do this right?

What could be possible if more organisations were transformative? What might help organisations transform to create better futures for people and planet?

On the 7th July, a group of us came together to share our perspectives as consultants, researchers, practitioners and advisors, all passionate about transformation for social change.

We share a belief that to make a dent in complex social challenges, organisations need to work differently: to be human and outward looking, to try things, learn and adapt. We could call these organisations ‘transformational’, ‘adaptive’, ‘human learning systems’ or ‘transformative’.

Co-hosted by Ella Firebrace and Ian Burbidge from the RSA and Emma Proud and me from Brink, the group had a wide ranging discussion. Here’s our take on the insights shared:

1. Transformative organisations — facing off threats to people and planet

The need for transformative organisations couldn’t be stronger.

“Every institution on this planet needs to transform in a radical way in service to life otherwise we are not going to survive this century.” (Robert Styles)

We need a radical shift in our organisations and intuitions to match radical shifts in society — addressing deep injustices, unequal power distribution and a climate emergency.

This means working in new ways- ways that re-prioritise our understanding of what holds value and how we share power.

Together, we have seen the need (and demand) for new ways of working across sectors and levels — from local (activists to local government) to global (NGOs to international donors).

2. Transformative organisations — driven by a social purpose and mission

We saw transformative organisations building new kinds of caring relationships. We saw them as collaborative (as opposed to extractive), working with others to shift complex systems for social good.

Transformative organisations:

  • Are purpose and need driven
  • Meaningfully engage with people across divides
  • Understand the world and the people in it as complex systems
  • Encourage collaboration and create collective action for social change
  • Recognise deep-rooted tensions in our desire for stability even as we change.
  • Hold space for reflection and learning, embracing natural cycles of seeding, growing, flourishing, dying and composting ideas.

For example, Gateshead Council, a local authority in the UK, is applying the Human Learning Systems approach to public service delivery. They are experimenting with how to be more responsive to (and anticipatory of) people’s needs. Gateshead started by elevating relationships with the people they serve to their core ambition. They worked to transform their structures to accommodate that ambition.

3. Transformative organisations — between stability and dynamism

Are transformative organisations always transforming? We explored the relationship between the need for societal and institutional transformation, with our own internal tensions around change and adaptation.

To further their mission, collaborate meaningfully, and work in complexity, an organisation needs to adapt to change. However, people don’t always experience organisational change as a good thing.

‘Hard things are hard’ Brink’s Co-Founder Lea Simpson (actually, it’s Barack Obama) likes to say. Some change comes naturally, but when you get to the bedrock and challenge deeply held positions, change can be hard, and it can feel really hard.

One reason it feels hard is that it’s human nature to seek stability; another is that change doesn’t always feel ‘worth it’. We talked about fatigue in organisations which may have changed a lot without transforming at all. How many restructurings have people in the UN or World Bank been through? How much has really changed about how those institutions work as a result?

Ensuring that change is and feels meaningful is vital to combatting the fear, confusion and inertia that plague organisational change efforts.

4. Transformative organisations — telling new stories

Stories are very powerful. Stories of where change has made a difference, of where new ideas are growing, ‘close the loop’ for people experiencing change, and brings clarity of purpose.

The world faces tough challenges and so as not to be fatalistic, we must acknowledge the challenges ahead of us, whilst balancing this with a sense of possibility and optimism for the future — telling new and different kinds of stories can help us to do this.

Encouraging people and organisations to build relationships, collaborate and share their stories can inspire us and build greater meaning and a connected agenda.

5. Transformative organisations — with empathy at the heart

Empathy is at the heart of an organisation’s ability to listen to, anticipate, and respond to people’s complex and evolving needs. It’s essential to operating purposefully in complexity.

Embracing empathy on a personal level is important to the realisation of empathy as an organisational value. In transformative organisations, people are doing ‘inner work’ so that they can increasingly show up as their authentic selves. This helps them listen, and truly, messily, create with others.

Examples given of ‘inner work’ and empathy:

  • Acknowledging yours and others pain- particularly, of failure, of renewal- and seeing it as okay.
  • Communicating with people as humans- real people with emotions, with bodies, with imaginations.
  • Bringing yourself fully to the table, and building confidence to share openly and honestly with strangers.
  • Working towards inner and outer alignment (so what you say and do matches your actual and stated values).
  • Accepting the gift of competition, feedback, and stimulus from others.

6. Transformative organisations — the need to slow down

As Bayo Akomolafe said: “The times are urgent — let’s slow down.”

We wanted to see organisations valuing slowing down, noticing, connecting, and imagining in order to create positive change.

Everyone has a fallow period. A time in our day, in our year, in our career where things are going slower, or feel like they’ve stopped. We reframed those moments as necessary to reflect, and let go of unhelpful ideas, agendas and practices.

Inspired by nature’s cycles of birth, growth, death and renewal, we felt transformative organisations would value each ‘season’ equally. They would align their internal mechanisms (norms, policies, operating systems) to encourage a change in people’s attitudes and behaviour.

However, this shift to a more ‘natural’ rhythm is not uniquely in the power of individual organisations. Wider systems underpin the status quo. We found the new movements in the philanthropic sector to fund change differently very encouraging.

7. Transformative organisations — keeping the conversation going

Social conditions are fractal- they tend to follow the same pattern at different levels, like the spirals in a fern. So, perhaps social change is also fractal? We hoped so: by continuing the conversation together, we felt we might subtly shift the pattern of how our and other organisations work.

Fractals in nature

We agreed to keep talking with each other, and widening the conversation beyond our existing circle of friends. This is our starting point for a wider movement, and we ended with an intention to open up the space to include others round the table.

So, who should join us at our next event? Who isn’t around this table, but should be? Drop us an email on [email protected] and [email protected]

Our next inquiry: what are specific examples of organisations or people doing amazing and transformative things and how can we learn from them or profile what they are doing?