On changing system behaviour from within

A growing number of people are today trying to make their voices heard in order to change the behaviour of a larger system. I have myself tried to do this since I was 10 or something. Sometimes it is a small number of individuals within a company. Quite often I meet these people as representatives for companies when they are trying to find external help in their crusade. Sometimes it is people organized in a political party or an NGO trying to change the ways of the political system.

Unfortunately most of these people get tired and move somewhere else because they don’t see progress. From blindly believing in the possibility of changing the system, they become cynical and even hostile and quit their jobs in anger.

To many of us thinking about the future it is evident that after a technical revolution, where many of the structures and institutions have been rendered useless and people are aiming for unsustainable and short term happiness, social innovation will emerge. New social structures and tools are humanity’s way of adopting to new situations.

If the old institutions and structures will prevail for a long time unaltered, there undoubtably will be a clash between the institutions and the changing social structures that are emerging. Maybe this is what we are seeing now when e g less and less people vote, and more and more bright people start their own small companies instead of working in large companies. Or is the increase in income gap, unemployment, individualism, micro violence and drug use in the western society more convincing signs.

If on the other hand the activists within the institutions are successful enough to gradually change the systems from within, we will have a much more smooth transformation process. Many of the useless institutions could gradually be effective again, and hopefully evolve into the new reinvented institutions needed in the new society.

What was Hari Seldon really doing in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy to decrease the time of decline until new structures grew up and created stability again? He provided key persons (seldom obvious individuals in power) with knowledge and hints to overcome the difficulties he saw coming.

If we don’t have access to a Hari Seldon, where can we learn how to manage this change from within? What tools are available? What knowledge are there? Here are a couple of valuable tools.

Some years ago I played a game called The Innovation Diffusion game at an IFTF workshop. It was based on what somebody called the “Amoeba Theory of change”. It is a role playing game about how change happens, and how social structures behave in situations of change. It could be a funny evening exercise at your next company conference you are arranging.

A popular method for administering good inclusive conversations with larger groups is The World Café. In the foundation and explanation of why this method really changes things you find references to biology theorists Maturana and Varela who tells us that by changing the conversations you are really changing the whole social system. Why not using this tool for your next strategy planning session?

Recently I found an article in New Scientist about parasites actually changing the behaviour of their hosts. These particular parasites live in grasshoppers or crickets and makes their host jump into the water so the parasites can live on for their next life cycle as adults. The mechanisms in action here are however still poorely understood, but maybe there are more to be learned about our social systems by looking into biological processes.

I think it is refreshing and reinsuring that small players within the system actually can and do change the whole system behaviour. In some sense aren’t we all small parasites sitting somewhere in huge host systems? Systems we are trying to change from within for the common good…