Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How does change happen?

This article is reprinted with permission from the Gifted Leaders May Newsletter. For more great information check out

Change happens, not in a top-down manner, but as networks of relationships form among people who share a common cause and vision of what’s possible. Change isn’t something we can mandate by getting other people to “buy in” and “motivating” them through rewards and punishments.

Emergence is the process by which all large-scale change happens on this planet.

How Large-Scale Change Really Happens By Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, The School Administrator, Spring 2007

Highlights from the article:
Traditional change theory includes several sequential steps. You create a vision, develop a strategy, write a policy, design an implementation plan, structure a timeline of activities and desired outcomes, design assessment and evaluation tools, then parcel out the work. In terms of relationships, you seek allies and change champions from senior leaders, use policies and legislation to enforce the new behaviors, develop rewards and enticements to achieve buy-in, punish those who don’t buy it, and develop a communication strategy to create good press. This has been and remains the primary way we do change in all types of organizations.

This theory of change has several embedded assumptions:
• Change is top-down and requires top-level support
• Change requires careful planning and good controls
• Change happens step-by-step in a neat, incremental fashion
• Behavior can be mandated
• Rewards and punishment motivate people to change
• Large-scale changes require large-scale efforts

To facilitate change we don’t need to convince large numbers of people to change; we need to focus on connecting those kindred spirits who share a common vision of a better future. Large-scale changes that have great impact do not originate in plans or strategies from on high. Instead, they begin as small, local actions.

If these local efforts remain separate and apart, they have no influence beyond there locale. However, if they become connected, exchanging information and learning, their separate efforts can suddenly emerge as very powerful changes, able to influence a large system. This sudden appearance, known as an emergent phenomenon, always brings new levels of capacity.

Emergence has a life cycle. In each stage, connections become stronger and interactions more numerous and diverse.
• Stage One – Networks: Networking connects people who are often so busily engaged in their own efforts that they have no idea what’s happening beyond their own sphere of influence.
• Stage Two – Communities of Practice: The second stage is when people realize that they can create more benefit by working together. Relationships shift from casual exchanges to a commitment to work together in some way. Personal needs expand to include a desire to support others and improve professional practices.
• Stage Three – Systems of Influence: This is the sudden appearance of a system that has real power and influence. Pioneering efforts that hovered at the periphery suddenly become the norm. The practices developed by courageous communities become the accepted standard.

For any issue, the solutions we need are already here. If you’re looking to solve a problem, look inside the organization or system and you’ll find someone who’s already worked out a solution or created the needed new process. Change via emergence happens through a strengthening of connections and a linking together of these disparate efforts. With emergence, it’s not critical mass we have to achieve. It’s critical connections. Anything that strengthens connections is important.

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Emergence and the Importance of Networks

Emergence violates so many of our Western assumptions of how change happens that it often takes quite a while to understand it. In nature, change never happens as a result of top-down, pre-conceived strategic plans, or from the mandate of any single individual or boss. Change begins as local actions spring up simultaneously in many different areas.

Networks are the form of organization used by living systems on this planet. These networks result from self-organization, where individuals or species recognize their interdependence and organize in ways that support the diversity and viability of all. Networks create the conditions for emergence, which is how life changes.

Because networks are the first stage in emergence, here are some guidelines to help us catalyze critical connections:
• Name - focus on discovering and recognizing pioneering efforts.
• Connect these efforts to other similar work on a larger scale.
• Nourish this network in many ways, but most essentially through creating opportunities for learning and sharing of experiences and shifting into communities of practice.
• Illuminate the work of these pioneering efforts so that many more people will learn from them.
By working intentionally with emergence we can help small, local efforts become a global force for change!

See the related article Using Emergence to Take Social Innovations to Scale by Wheatley and Frieze

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