A guide to enabling social change


Jen Morgan


The context of today’s social, environmental and economic challenges requires leaders of change to ‘think and act’ in brand new ways. Looking at past trajectories of history, observing the fundamentals of nature and shining a light on inspiring new people and practices here are 5 themes that are shaping the landscape of enabling social change at scale.

  1. Dealing with today’s challenges requires a complex systems approach to change

For too long, our human systems such as education, energy, health and finance have been viewed more like ‘machines’ than ‘living systems’. This has shaped how we engage for change –in a very controlling, linear, cause and effect way. The reality? Relationships, dynamics and emergence are the foundational basis of complex human systems. Only when we see our human systems as living systems will we be able engage with them more effectively.  Jean Boulton, Peter Allen and Cliff Bowman’s new book ‘Embracing Complexity’ offers a great resource to understand complex systems and the leadership skills that are needed for the 21st Century.

  1. Working with root causes of problems requires a focus on purpose, values and culture

For human systems to survive and thrive in today’s context, a context in which it is essential that they serve all of life on this planet, we need to strengthen cultures that are underpinned by values such as that of democracy, responsibility and fairness. Inspiring new values and cultures does not happen overnight. It will take time. It needs long-term convening infrastructure to create spaces for people to discover new meaning and to practice ‘being’ different with each other.  The Barrett Values Centre and Common Cause Foundation are great resources that help us to think differently about the role values play in enabling change at scale.

  1. Demonstrating ‘the new’ requires a safe space for experimentation

New niches and outliers that are demonstrating the ‘new’ – whether they be entrepreneurs, social change pioneers or new paradigm businesses, have many forces against them when they start up. They often lack resources, leadership skills, community support or the influence to shape wider market and cultural conditions.  Innovation Labs are needed in order to create safe spaces to try things out and to build the leadership capacity that is needed to survive in the current paradigm. Some great examples of Lab approaches can be found in the book ‘Labcraft: How Social Labs Cultivate Change Through Innovation and Collaboration’.

  1. Changing power dynamics requires collaborative communities

Most of our human systems are dominated by a few hierarchical, powerful players – such as monopolistic banks, media moguls or government lobbyists. These players have an interest in maintaining their power and thus the status quo.  The result? More radical, deep rooted and inspiring change doesn’t have a chance to seed and grow. As John Gaventa demonstrates we need to move from ‘power over’ to ‘power with’ and ‘power within’. We need new empowered cultures that support decentralized structures and decision-making. Civil society has an important role in shifting power dynamics – but to do this civil society needs to working together in collaboration to build leadership capacity, collective intelligence and aligned strategies. A great resource for thinking about how we can do this is Smart CSO’s recent publication – ‘A Practical Guide for the Great Transition.’

  1. Cultivating collective intelligence requires learning and adaption

There are many views and voices in the social change space -many often competing for airtime and resources. What we need now is to come together to bring synthesis to our intelligence and narratives. And this collective intelligence and these common narratives can be best cultivated through ecosystem and peer learning. So how can we put learning at the center of what we do? How do we learn in a way that is based on practical action and rooted in grounded reality? Natural complex systems are very resilience and balanced because they inherently learn, adapt and evolve. Hillary Bradbury and Peter Reason’s ‘Handbook of Action Research’ is a great resource for those interested building cultures, processes and practices for learning our way into the future.

So, now more than ever, our current social, environmental and economic context calls us to think and act differently about how we enable change at scale. This includes having a different mindset that embraces complexity, works at a level of addressing underlying values and culture, creates safe spaces for experimentation, tackles entrenched power dynamics and cultivates cultures of learning.

And, now more than ever, we need enlightened leaders of change to bravely step forth to support, resource and amplify this ‘new path’.

Jen Morgan is an independent consultant who supports pioneering leaders of change to see the bigger picture, think creatively and work collaboratively.

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