Power and Emergent Change

October 14, 2010 8 Comments


|Photo by Aristocrats-hat|http://www.flickr.com/photos/36821100@N04/3896331106|

Peggy Holman is the co-author of a book that I consider to be one of the bibles for my work here at IISC – The Change Handbook.  This wonderful resource was also required reading for a graduate course I taught on organizational and community change models at Antioch New England.  Building on this essential tome, Peggy has recently authored another book that I look forward to diving into more deeply – Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval Into Opportunity.  Her exploration of how to engage chaos in social systems and bring about greater coherence is certainly timely and in line with much of the conversation you see on this blog.

In a recent post of her own, Peggy highlights an interesting comment that appeared in a review of her newest work.  Ron Lubensky, of the Centre for Citizenship and Public Policy in Sydney, Australia, raises a question about “the thorny challenge of motivating people who exercise power to graciously and generously devolve their authority to a shared enterprise.”  Peggy’s response is of great interest given the number of questions that come up in client engagements about how realistic it is to expect power brokers to sign on and up for collaborative and emergent endeavors that appear to threaten their standing.

She writes, “What I have found to be true is that when the issue faced is more important than their position, people in power positions will engage. In other words, they’ll step up when: the situation reaches the point that they realize that they can’t solve it alone; it is critical to their success; and they’ve found a partner to work with that they’re willing to trust.”  She goes on to mention that these are really the conditions for anyone to engage.  I agree, and of course there is much more to the story when we ask ourselves – HOW do we foster the conditions whereby people understand (and admit) they cannot or should not go it alone, discover that there is shared benefit in going with others, and know that they can trust others and the process?

There is not enough space here to do this compound question justice, but what I can say is that reaching out and engaging key stakeholders (including those with influence) from the start of an initiative is key, as is treating people like people, and not simply as their perceived positions.  Making time for relationship-building, and using processes that give people a chance to explore and discover shared interests help to till the soil for rich an robust collaboration later on.

And surely there is much to add, dear colleagues.  What do you have to say about Peggy’s response to the power challenge?  And how have you dealt with this challenge in the context of emergent change?


  • Linda says:

    Great question Curtis. I’ve found that this is generally the assumption about power in collaborative processes – and people are speaking from their experience when they say this. However, it is often from the facilitator’s point of view – and I don’t know that it’s been really tested. How do those with the least power in a room perceive power issues in the group? My own sense is that power is always at play in a group – not necessarily in bad ways – but that if there isn’t real attention paid, it may play out in ways that we as social justice advocates wouldn’t want. So it feels very important to really check this out and not assume that all is right in the world – based on what appears to be happening to us as facilitators. (Facilitators are often the person with the most power in the room.) What do you think?

  • Charlie says:

    Linda – love your comment. Curtis – thanks for sharing this with the community. I have nothing to back this up other than what history reveals about those in power. I really think a (if not the) key to engaging power people is to ensure that they will not be stripped of their power/money/influence. Probably doesn’t hurt if you can give that person something they don’t already have or cannot get on their own.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    I agree that a lot of power is invested with the facilitator, and as is the case with all systems, we are operating with only a small fraction of the bigger picture. Which is why using processes that activate multiple perspectives in the room is key. The older I get and the more I do this work, the more interested I am in setting the conditions and having minimal interventions so that the system gets fully activated, all perspectives are shared, and I get more of a chance to step back and observe the dynamics and observe patterns. This does not mean lack of structure, because we know that that can often privilege those with the most power. Just less of me as structure or form. I just facilitated a conversation with a team where that was my tack, and while to one person it felt somewhat unstructured, everyone said that they felt like issues were put on the table in a way that they had not been in the past and ultimately progress was made because of that. Again, that is my observation as a facilitator, and it is informed by the words of those in the room.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Charlie, the threat of being stripped of something you hold dear is undoubtedly a big part of the resistance of any body signing up for a collective endeavor. I agree that there should be efforts made to ensure defensiveness does not kick in around this perceived threat, and there may ultimately need to be some trade-off of something given up (decision-making power) for something else greater gained (belonging, a sense of accomplishment). I do believe that at the end of the day there area a few core things that make most people happy – connection, purpose, health. If we can demonstrate both the value of those and that they can be gained from signing up, so much the better.

  • Gibran says:

    If we look at the current state of politics in the United States we see what a commentator recently referred to as “the poisoning of the well.” An incredible moment of hope and good will has been turned into reactionary fervor. This has been an exercise of power and it is hurting all of us – including those who are actively perpetrating this sabotage. There is something about systems not being able to see themselves and people willing to bring everything down if they think in can sustain their positions or their own will to power.

    This being said, I think part of the problem among those of us interested in social change is our own discomfort with power and its exercise. I am interested in catalyzing and wielding the power of those who seek to define the world different than it is today.

  • Curtis says:

    Well said, Gibran. Last night I heard yet another nightly news report claiming once again that one of our fundamental systems is broken – the educational system in this case, which of course we’ve heard many times before. I can’t remember who said it, but there is a quote that goes something like . . . every system churns out exactly what the values underlying it dictate. It’s not that anything is broken, necessarily, it’s that it serves particular interests. These interests are often ascribed to certain individuals and/or groups, but as you say, in the long run no one is being served. Our collective humanity is demeaned by the state of our public school system. Same goes for our health care system, our economic system . . . . We are killing ourselves because we do not understand that we are all in this together. I’m all for wielding power to wake up the dreamers among us and create the vibrant alternatives we need.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Charlie and I were talking about this exchange the other day. I’m reminded of Fredrick Douglas, who said that power conceeds nothing without struggle–whether moral or physical struggle. I think of our work as supporting and facilitating the moral struggle.

    A small example… Gibran and I were working with a group and I observed a pattern of exclusion. One participant of color made comment after comment and the group’s response was “that’s just like something else that has been said” or they missed the point all together. Having observed this, I saw it as my responsibility to hold the space open so that she could be heard, pointing out that there were, in fact, different ideas on the floor and that while the group had agreed on how to deal with one, there were others to come back to. I think of that as a way of leveraging my power as a facilitator in support of the struggle of a lesser heard person to be heard and understood.

  • Corrine says:

    Do you have to should cause it to to heaven you ought to assist occur the name of Oplagt

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