Learning from the places where informal and formal change activity meet — Part Three

Clare Moran, David Buck and Nour Sidawi

This is the third of a trilogy of posts from a trio of authors, prompting three points in response (following some more general comments when the first in the series appeared).

This post (and the entire series) is the result of deep reflection and contains powerful insights. It challenges its readers to reflect and respond, and where the post offers answers, they are hard ones, not easy. This note makes no attempt to address that full breadth, but instead explores one part of the argument.

The starting point is the idea of cathedral thinking, the recognition that some forms of building can take generations to complete and that the original visionaries are anticipating a future they may not be part of. There is real power in challenging both the priority of short term delivery and more subtly, but perhaps still more importantly, the pressure to exclude approaches which take a longer term focus from being seen, let alone adopted.

But there is also a tension. Our cathedral thinking is for the long term, for the benefit of those who come after us. But what of the cathedral thinking of our predecessors, how should their ideas inform and constrain our present and our future? If we should build bridges to the future, should we not also respect the bridges built from the past? This doesn’t work if everybody is an architect and nobody is a mason, so there is some difficulty in immediately going on to assert that:

Old or existing ways of thinking cannot address complex problems in a real world that is organic and adaptive

There are two ways of responding to that apparent conflict. One is by recognising its reality. Past decisions do necessarily and unavoidably constrain what we can do and how we can do it, in ways which are obvious for engineering (and perhaps cathedrals), but are no less real for cultures, systems and organisations. Most design is not of cathedrals, which stand alone, dominant and largely unchangeable, but is of streetscapes and landscapes, where the new is unavoidably in a relationship with the old.

The other is to accept, as the authors of the post very clearly do, that machine metaphors can be less helpful than ecosystem metaphors. Both past generations’ half-built cathedrals and our own laying of foundations for cathedrals of the future are perhaps unhelpful ways of thinking, if what we are doing instead is nurturing a landscape. As they say, ‘the process of change in existing systems of government is slow, messy, and social work’.

It is always tempting to start designing the future with a blank sheet of paper. But there never is a blank sheet of paper. Nothing in government (or anywhere else much) starts from nowhere, there is always history. That history is not deterministic, but we have no hope of getting to where we might want to go without understanding where we are starting from.

That leads us on to the second point, prompted by this important insight:

In the Civil Service, we think of roles as fixed and people as movable. Civil Servants, in our myth, are cogs in a policy and delivery machine, roles to be fulfilled by interchangeable skilled professionals. Yet, in the centre of government almost the opposite dynamic can be seen: despite best efforts, reforms and change initiatives are rarely fully institutionalised. They tend to live and die on the power and presence of their champions, and when either reduces, the system moves quickly to cannibalise the remnants and adopt the next idea.

They are right about myth and reality. Indeed more than that, this is an issue not just about champions, but about system states. The champion themselves may be an agent of the system state, rather than the untrammelled change agent they are perceived to be – and often perceive themselves to be. They flourish for a period when a critical mass of system characteristics align and lose their way when entropy reasserts itself. So there is a critical but all too rarely asked question, how is the benign period best used to maximise the chances of positive change continuing when less benign circumstances inevitably follow on?

And so to the third and final point. The exploratory thinking captured in these three posts may be the beginning of an approach to answering that question. But if it is, that answer is not a comfortable one. The argument that personal and systematic change are inseparable is powerfully made – and if it is right, it must follow that systems’ ability to nurture change agents is as important as change agents’ ability to nurture systems.

Amended 1 June 2021 to add back a paragraph lost in editing