On the tensions of systems change

How many of us are in professions we dreamed of when we were young? Few, I guess, not only because most opportunties remained unknown to us growing up but also because many wouldn’t have existed then, either. Opportunities tend to only reveal themselves as we work our way through life. For me, I didn’t know what work looked like when it wasn’t aligned with my own schooling, for my parents were both teachers. Some, of course, know their calling or passion from a early age and pursue it. Some will make it, too. And that’s ok. But I didn’t. My dream of playing cricked for England was precisely that. 

I ended up following a circuitous route into local government and there found the perfect role to apply my interest in people and places and develop my own skills and awareness. After 15 years I knew it was time for a change. Precipitated by a divorce I had the possibility to try something different, to seek a new path for myself. I didn’t know what that path looked like but I knew it had to start where I was. So I handed in my notice and left with no plan or job to go to. I just knew that if I stayed in local government I might be there forever. Not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but I had a deep gnawing that I had more to offer, more to learn. 

I think we are all, whether we know it or not, guided by our own values and principles over what it is we want out of life, what we find important, and the role of work in that mix. That’s all I really had to guide me. I also knew I couldn’t figure that stuff out under the noise of the day-job I was trying to change. I had to let go in order to create the possibility for the new to emerge and increase the likelihood I might spot the opportunities around me.

I would not have had this language at the time, but I do think that if we see our lives as a complex system, being contextually-dependant and the product of the interaction of many unknown factors, we might give ourselves a break from time to time. You know, like when the unexpected happens, or we feel a loss of control, or just a general anxiety over things. Better, perhaps, to see our lives as an emergent property of all the different systems that interact to create them. We might then use less of the linear, cause-and-effect thinking and planning lens and tend a little more closely to the possibilities in the present. 

And so in my current role I see the challenge of changing a global system such as the humanitarian system is not that different from the way we might curate changes in our own lives, or from my earlier work to try and shift the way local public services are designed and delivered. In all these endeavours, there are a number of tensions to be navigated. Here are three. 

First, are we balancing the desire to start new things with the need to bring an end to others?

Ben and Jerry’s factory in Vermont has a ‘flavour graveyard’ where they pay homage to the past editions of ice cream that are no longer available. Perhaps they were of their time, tastes have changed, or they were simply bad flavour combinations. Yet they openly pay homage to the legacy of inventiveness and failures that have led to the current range of successful flavours. Even the worst failures would have provided learning and insight that was useful information in developing the new. 

And of course cultures have long known this, and it remains alive in indigenous traditions, although in the west this tends to get lost. Religion and myth are all about the cycles of life and the notion of something being left behind in order to create the space for growth and renewal, as Joseph Campbell sets out so clearly in the Hero’s Journey. And as behavioural economists will tell us we feel losses twice as much as gains. It was hard for me to let go of the comfort of a familiar job with familiar people and familiar challenges.

Next, are we balancing the need for dynamism and the need for stability?

If we try and innovate around everything at once it can feel frantic and overwhelming, as though we’re perpetually canoeing down white-water rapids. We need to be grounded in some areas to enable us to be dynamic in others. Which things are we holding stable as our core and where is the possibility to try new things? And once we’ve tried something and learned from it, how do we make it part of the way we operate so that the new and dynamic becomes central to a new way of working and more stable? I may have quit my job but while I figured that out I still lived in the same town and maintained my interests and friendships in order to have some things that kept me grounded in the face of such change. 

Finally, are we in what Simon Sinek calls a finite or an infinite game?

A finite game requires you to know your destination or goal, like doing the shopping. It might work for some contexts where we can predict cause and effect but in complex systems it has limited utility. Of all those who set the goal of becoming Olympic champion, only one gets to claim it. A finite game is a binary product of our industrial mindset. The infinite game, instead, is like the quest for fitness – it is an ongoing endeavour where we can never truly say we’ve arrived. And that being the case, the important – if not the only – thing you can usefully attend to is the process and what you are learning through it.

If we set a goal and single-mindedly pursue it we may well blinker ourselves to the adjacent possibilities in the moment. It’s here where the opportunities for change can be found. I didn’t know what might emerge when I had the time to explore my next career move, spoke to people, took actions. I had a guiding ambition – find a challenge that spoke to me and that I could contribute to (and hopefully get paid for!) – and I had values and some design principles to guide me.

Each step opened up different possibilities if I was attuned to look for them. It makes for a much more interesting journey.

“Sometimes it’s better to take life as it comes, set your sails according to the winds that blow, go with the tide, follow your instinct, choose the grassier, less trodden road for its own sake and not in the hope it might lead anywhere very special.” 

CR Milne

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