Rules of the Road for Change Agents

July 30, 2021 1 Comment
Image by Eddi

We recently wrapped up a series of workshops for members of the Wallace Center‘s Food Systems Leadership Network focused on Organizational Change for Racial Justice (OCRJ), which was adapted from our IISC workshop Advancing Racial Justice in Organizations (ARJ). This offer was made by IISC under the auspices of The Wallace Center’s CORE Project, and with generous support from the Garfield Foundation. It was a wonderful and challenging experience for our collective Wallace/IISC team, as we welcomed representatives from 21 different food systems-focused organizations from around the US, along with a talented group of 16 small group facilitators who had participated in a customized Fundamentals of Facilitation for Racial Justice Work (FFRJW). That made for over 80 participants over 4 four-hour sessions, that took people from fundamental DEIJ concepts to change process design work to anticipating inevitable roadblocks and detours. We deeply appreciated how people showed up and went along for the ride, giving us helpful feedback along the way, and ultimately sharing all that they had taken that sets them up with a stronger foundation to do the work.

As we wrapped up our final session, my colleague Erika Strong shared an excerpt from a piece by Herbert A. Shephard, “Rules of Thumb for Change Agents,” which appeared in the OD Practitioner in December 1984. It has appeared by permission in our course Collaborative Social Change: Designing for Impact in a Networked World. And we now include it in many of our racial justice trainings as a way of bringing focus back from systems to individual and groups of change agents, and what can support them in doing this work over the long haul. These are re-shared below with some additional commentary.

  1. Stay alive, literally and figuratively. The work is indeed long and often hard. And it can also have its moments of joy and satisfaction, as we experience connection and development of different kinds. But this does not happen if we are not enlivened, or breathing, in a deeper sense. Self and community care is crucial.
  2. Start where the system is. This is about getting clear-eyed about where things actually are, which comes not just from an initial assessment, but over time, especially as people try to do things differently. Action is certainly about trying to make change, and it is also about nudging living organizational/social systems to see how they respond, so that we better understand defenses, patterns, logic, etc. Starting from where the system is not can waste valuable energy.
  3. Speaking of energy conservation, another guideline is to Never work uphill.
    • Don’t build hills as you go. Don’t make the work more difficult than it needs to be, or too insurmountable for people. It is not easy to begin with, requires stretches, but putting people in panic or overwhelm mode does not help. Use accessible language, make clear asks, try not to overly trigger people’s defenses.
    • Work in the most promising areas. Look for early wins. Because this always inspires confidence, that change is possible, and it can build a sense of accomplishment and community. Don’t try and tackle it all. We encourage people to start with a couple of areas in their organization/community/network where you can start and then build/connect.
    • Build capacity. Don’t go it alone. Build your team! As Maya Angelou once wrote, “Nobody, but nobody, can make it out here alone.” Start with your core/design/equity team. Let them become a model for the rest of the organization. And share transparently about how you are working, as there is much to be gained from trying to create network effects through this work.
    • Don’t over-organize. Don’t fall into the trap of the perfect becoming the enemy of the good. Yes, get necessary supports in place. Yes, do some initial assessment and grounding, and then know that a lot of the learning will come through acting, trying out different things, and iterating as you go. And you want to leave place for others to add their ideas and initiative.
    • Be bold. Doing this will send important signals to those around you, be a “chaotic attractor” of sorts, will help you identify allies and some of the strongest blockers. And given the many roadblocks that come up, boldness is an important energetic counter, especially when held by an even small but mighty group.
  4. Innovation requires a good idea, initiative, and a few friends. The idea for change does not need to be perfect, it needs to be “good enough” (reasonably well informed), have legs (can be put into action) and people who are willing to try it out.
  5. Load experiments for success. This connects to much of what appears above, along with being as clear-eyed as possible about what is actually happening in any given system in any given moment.
  6. Light many fires. Don’t rely on only one intervention or one place in a system to create change. A few interventions in different places, especially when connected, can help create ripples of change over time.
  7. Keep an optimistic bias. Negativity bias is real, and can help us to be both realistic and to survive. And it can also quickly kill ideas and initiatives outside of “the norm.” Part of the value of finding a few friends to move things forward is developing a core group that can maintain and spread an attitude of positivity and possibility.
  8. Capture the moment. Timing may or may not be everything, yet is can matter immensely. Staying tuned in, in both a collective and holistic sense, to what is changing and where energy might be shifting and effort applied is key to being able to nudge living systems in more just, prosocial, and sustainable directions. And it turns out, there is something of a science around “when” decisions.

This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, and we are always eager to hear what you would add.

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