Change initiatives need a new approach, not a new model

A recent report by the RSA, ‘Releasing energy for change’, dissects existing social movements to identify what it takes to make a successful social movement. It is highly instructive and offers excellent insight.  At the beginning of the report they identify a critical issue that so often bars the progress of successful social movements and change initiatives;  the severe limitations of a conventional bureaucratic approach. “Service providers are increasingly seeing the need for new relationships with those they serve, yet remain mired in traditional ways of doing things’.   So the question is how to create the right conditions within traditional organisations to embrace the less linear grass roots energy? However, there is a further, initial question I believe needs to be addressed – is it even possible to design a model that will work everywhere with everyone?   Even the most conventional of organisation’s change initiatives often fail when ‘models’ are used that have been devised in one place and transplanted to another. As the organization professor Margaret Wheatley says .. “ I don’t believe (organizations) are ever changed by imposing a model developed elsewhere”.

There are many things that actually can’t be replicated or scaled up, even if it does work in theory.  One size does not fit all. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of G.E. talks about the need to introduce a ‘local voice within a global network’.  Instead of looking to create a standard model we should be focusing on identifying a more flexible approach.  In my experience the approach is the constant, but the execution may vary, and so introduces a level of flexibility that can properly serve and reflect the community or organisation. Initiatives that are ‘of and for the community’ able to take on their own specific needs and respond to their unique opportunities.

Social movements in particular are by nature, organically grown and driven by clear purpose. They have a determination to overcome, readdress, innovate and are unencumbered by the usual restraints imposed by a conventional hierarchical demand for control and certainty. So, the attempt to pin down one model to suit all is, as the nuns sing in Sound of Music  like  trying to “catch a cloud and pin it down”.

So, whilst understanding and exploring is vital, the key in trying to find a way to ‘release energy ‘ and cultivate greater levels of innovation,  engage wider involvement, is in  identifying an approach that can work with not be imposed upon a community or organisation. We need to work with what we have, to make the most of that to engage its full potential, rather than expect to contort people and places into ready-made shapes and contours.

The great community organizer Saul Alinsky once wrote “You can’t animate a community through prescription and clarification” so when we try to introduce change or increase innovation and engagement, leaders need to be clear;  this is not something within their power to command, but is in within their power to enable.

Next Blog:  How 5° of change creates 360° of opportunity.

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SpeakTo are engagement experts, working as advisors in public and private sectors. Their groundbreaking grass roots regeneration model, The Crouch End Project became an inspiration for many town centre initiatives and was the motivation for their focus on engagement.  

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