Process IS Where Change Happens

March 27, 2014 24 Comments

Photo by Crunchy Footsteps


Process can sometimes get a bum rap in our work, as in: “I’m not a process person.  I’m action-oriented.” This attitude can become a source of considerable frustration, and yet, I get it.  Some people are tired of what seems like endless talk that gets them no where.  And yet to translate this kind of seemingly circular conversation (what Chris Thompson has referred to as co-blaboration) as “process,” as opposed to action, does a disservice to what is essential to the work of social change.  No, I’m not talking (only) about talking.  I’m talking about how it is precisely at the level of process that we can make truly profound change.

As permaculturist/builder/storyteller/systems thinker/writer Joel Glanzberg says,

“Everything you see is a track of some process or combination of processes.”

Every object, every “outcome” is not simply a thing or product, but a manifestation of underlying patterns of process, whether mountain or child or sickness or wealth.  However, an overly mechanistic orientation can have us focusing exclusively or excessively on form, on object, on “issue,” and ignoring the underlying contributing dynamics.

Being oriented towards process is not (simply) about talking, but exploring how life happens in a given place or system.  It is about inquiring into the underlying patterns of connection, flows of resources, means of interaction and exchange, how and to what/whom value is ascribed, power dynamics and inclusion, etc.  This is not to say that form and structure do not matter, but without going to the level of process, it is hard to imagine achieving transformational change.  Examples abound, including efforts to change what is most visible (infrastructure, programs, positions, dollars raised, land set aside) because it seems easier, more measurable, or allows (temporary) declarations of victory.  But when problems resurface, or pop up in different form, are we more willing to step back and ask why?  There are indications that often the response is doing more of what has proven unsuccessful and essentially perpetuating or exacerbating existing patterns.

In this sense, the place to start is here:

Again, Joel Glanzberg:

“The pattern most in need of shifting is not out there in the world, but in our minds.”

Are we willing to step back and look at the tracks of our own thinking to see how this supports or blocks our intended effects in the world?  Are we willing to entertain the possibility that the fractures “out there” begin “in here”?  And in recognition of the power and primordial nature of process, are we willing to trace the patterns of that thinking out into the world, to see how life is actually happening and how we might better support it to yield the effects we say we want?


  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    I’m with you on the power and ubiquity of process. It’s hard to think seriously about anything in the social change realm without thinking about the “how.” How did things get to be the way they are? How are current outcomes being produced and reproduced? How are current arrangements affecting different people and different aspects of the environment? How will different actions lead to different outcomes?

    I’m also always a bit wary of the call to changing our minds as the most important change of all. I embrace the systems thinking dictum that changing mental models and paradigms is the highest leverage thing we can do to shift systems. Yet, I have seen that notion used as an excuse to focus only on the internal state at an individualized level (e.g., bias, prejudice, etc.). The broader internal assent to mental models related to social dynamics (e.g., trickle down economics or unfettered markets will solve poverty and racial inequities) goes unexamined. And, by only focusing on the individualized level of thinking, we miss the importance of examining the kinds of thinking that fuel systems dynamics and what they produce. I know you’re not calling for that. Still want to raise this flag because the change “in here” is about more than just our personal biases and prejudices. Serious change “in here” about what we think explains injustices and what we think will correct them is desperately needed. The problems “out there” are urgent and real lives, and whole communities, are at stake in this struggle over ideas.

    • Curtis Ogden says:

      Agreed, Cynthia. It does feel like a both/and to me. Perhaps the suggestion should be more clearly articulated to move between the tracks of our thinking and the patterns in the world. And I think there is important work to be done on the COLLECTIVE “in here,” the dominant stories and narratives that require unpacking and reshaping for our efforts “out there” to take hold. Wanting to avoid “tactical sectarianism,” the call is perhaps more appropriately for movement on multiple fronts and to make the invisible visible.

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