This week, the Guardian ran a very nicely edited ‘long read’ extract from How Change Happens covering some of the book’s central arguments, under the title Radical Thinking Reveals the Secrets of Making Change Happen. Here it is:
Political and economic earthquakes are often sudden and unforeseeable, despite the false pundits who pop up later to claim they predicted them all along – take the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 2008 global financial crisis, or the Arab Spring (and ensuing winter). Even at a personal level, change is largely unpredictable: how many of us can say our lives have gone according to the plans we had as 16-year-olds?
The essential mystery of the future poses a huge challenge to activists. If change is only explicable in the rear-view mirror, how can we accurately envision the future changes we seek, let alone achieve them? How can we be sure our proposals will make things better, and not fall victim to unintended consequences? People employ many concepts to grapple with such questions. I find “systems” and “complexity” two of the most helpful.
A “system” is an interconnected set of elements coherently organised in a way that achieves something. It is more than the sum of its parts: a body is more than an aggregate of individual cells; a university is not merely an agglomeration of individual students, professors, and buildings; an ecosystem is not just a set of individual plants and animals.
A defining property of human systems is complexity: because of the sheer number of relationships and feedback loops among their many elements, they cannot be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect. Think of a crowd on a city street, or a flock of starlings wheeling in the sky at dusk. Even with supercomputers, it is impossible to predict the movement of any given person or starling, but there is order; amazingly few collisions occur even on the most crowded streets.
In complex systems, change results from the interplay of many diverse and apparently unrelated factors. Those of us engaged in seeking change need to identify which elements are important and understand how they interact.
My interest in systems thinking began when collecting stories for my book From Poverty to Power. The light-bulb moment came on a visit to India’s Bundelkhand region, where the poor fishing communities of Tikamgarh had won rights to more than 150 large ponds. In that struggle numerous factors interacted to create change. First, a technological shift triggered changes in behaviour: the introduction of new varieties of fish, which made the ponds more profitable, induced landlords to seize ponds that had been communal. Conflict then built pressure for government action: a group of 12 brave young fishers in one village fought back, prompting a series of violent clashes that radicalized and inspired other communities; women’s groups were organized for the first time, taking control of nine ponds. Enlightened politicians and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) helped pass new laws and the police amazed everyone by enforcing them.
The fishing communities were the real heroes of the story. They tenaciously faced down a violent campaign of intimidation, moved from direct action to advocacy, and ended up winning not only access to the ponds but a series of legal and policy changes that benefited all fishing families.
The neat narrative sequence of cause and effect I’ve just written, of course, is only possible in hindsight. In the thick of the action, no-one could have said why the various actors acted as they did, or what transformed the relative power of each. Tikamgarh’s experience highlights how unpredictable is the interaction between structures (such as state institutions), agency (by communities and individuals), and the broader context (characterized by shifts in technology, environment, demography, or norms).
Unfortunately, the way we commonly think about change projects onto the future the neat narratives we draw from the past. Many of the mental models we use are linear plans – “if A, then B” – with profound consequences in terms of failure, frustration, and missed opportunities. As Mike Tyson memorably said, “Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth”.
- Complex Systems