essays & posts

System change is everyone’s job.

Paula Downey, downey youell associates

June 18 ∼ 6 minute read

Most of us think the fate of the living world has nothing to do with us. We couldn’t be more wrong. Our professional work is right at the heart of the ecological crisis.

The tone around our climate and biodiversity crisis is increasingly shrill. 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres tells us ‘we are digging our own graves’ and that business and government leaders who say one thing but do another ‘are lying’ about the scale and urgency of the crisis.

This is not the language of business-as-usual.

 

Eamon Ryan, Minister for the Environment.

Image: Brian Lawless/PA Wire (Irish Times)

 

At the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent conference ‘Creating Ireland’s Climate Future’, Eamon Ryan, the Minister for the Environment, was equally blunt. “The urgency for change is real and clear,” he said. “The opportunities of change are clear. The scale of change is beyond compare. It’s a leap.” 

He outlined a set of absolute targets that are eye watering in their ambition. “These targets are easy to write down,” he admitted. “Achieving them requires a transformation. We need a system change.”

When Ryan spoke of the planning necessary to achieve all of this, he didn’t dangle those distant dates we’re becoming inured to — 2050 or even 2030. He spoke in terms of months.

36, to be precise.

He gave us three years to figure out how to transform our energy, transport, construction, industrial, agricultural and land use systems.

That’s the pace of change Antonio Gutteres meant when he said, ‘It’s now or never.’

“These targets are easy to write down. Achieving them requires a transformation. We need a system change.”

The hidden human challenge

System change. Those words are as easy to say as the targets are easy to write. But we cannot address the enormous task facing us until we consider what these words really mean and speak honestly about the hidden human challenge beneath the plain-to-see technical challenges.

To illustrate, here’s a peek into a conversation I had just a few days after the EPA event with some people from one of the organisations Eamon Ryan was addressing.

We were discussing another recent conference about revisioning and redesigning urban spaces, and in particular the end-of-day conversations over dinner between the chief executives and senior leaders responsible for the necessary change.

These men — they were all men — instinctively diluted the challenge of large-scale change into managerial pragmatism.

‘We need to talk about what we control and what we don’t. What we can do and what we can’t,’ they said.

When asked ‘But what about what we can enable? What about what we can empower?’ they genuinely didn’t understand the question.

‘What do you mean by ‘empower’?’ they asked.

These are good people, and competent. I’m sure of it. But they have a problem. They’re trapped by an idea that’s pervasive, seductive and wrong: they believe themselves to be in charge.

All the signals within corporate culture tell them their job is to maintain control over their unwieldly organisational machines and to ‘deliver’ change.

That’s what they’re hired and paid to do. But deep down, they know they can’t. And they’re right. Because their organisations are not controllable machines and they are not actually “in charge”. They’re just ordinary people. Participants, like everyone else, in complex living systems that simply refuse to work the way we have been schooled to believe they should.

 

Most people are good people, trapped by an idea that’s pervasive, seductive and wrong: they believe themselves to be in charge.

Welcome to the real world.

Image: www.businessillustrator.com

Our system of education and leadership development has an enormous amount to answer for. Most of us, including most leaders, are working with a fundamentally flawed understanding of reality and how complex living systems work. We’ve been educated to within an inch of ignorance, and we’ve baked that ignorance into everything — all the industries, professions and practices that flow from these flawed ideas.

At a fundamental level, the many-headed crisis we’re facing is not about climate breakdown. Or bio-diversity collapse. Or waste. Or ocean acidification. Or over-fishing. Or plastic pollution… These are just symptoms. What connects this avalanche of issues is us

Our systemic illiteracy has led to system failure. Everywhere. We don’t appreciate how complex living systems work, so we don’t see how we break them. And we don’t know how they change, so we don‘t know how to help them heal.

This same illiteracy is baked-in to organisational life and preventing us from doing what we urgently need to do. Our destruction of the living world and our failure to meaningfully address it are not separate things, but two sides of the same coin. All over the world, good people are swivelling inside mechanistic organisational structures and processes that keep everyone busy, going nowhere.

Gordon Johnson

Image: Gordon Johnson / Pixabay

Facing Reality

That the world is complex is not a problem. Just a statement of reality.

The problem is that we bury ourselves beneath organisational structures and processes that pretend it’s not.

Instead of learning to work creatively and skillfully with complex systems, we translate complexity into processes that create the illusion of control and busy ourselves with business-as-usual routines that guarantee nothing significant will change.

At the EPA event, the watchword was collaboration. And it is. We need a level of innovation unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed, the kind that’s impossible from within our corporate silos. I believe we need whole systems working together, in processes that support bigger and faster shifts

We have to learn how to change entire systems — and no one has ever done this before, intentionally, at speed, and at scale. That’s the truth of where we are. Can we be honest about it? Because if we can, we just might have a serious shot at the deep changes we must make.

Changing the system is a massive learning challenge. And the biggest structural change we need is in our understanding of how living systems work, how they change, and our role in these processes. 

Image: Felix Mittermeier / Pixabay

Most of us think the fate of the living world has nothing to do with us. We couldn’t be more wrong. Our professional work is right at the heart of this crisis. Banking, insurance, law, education, technology, manufacturing, marketing, advertising… you name it.

Just by going to work to make a living, we’ve broken the systems that make life work. Now we have to use our work to make life on Earth viable again.

Just by going to work to make a living, we’ve broken the systems that make life work. Now we have to use our work to make life on Earth viable again.

John Hain

Image: John Hain / Pixabay

The new work of leadership

System change is not a project, separate from our day-to-day work. We urgently need to support people to change the system at work — to use our Monday to Friday, nine-to-five work as the place where we experiment with changing the system and learn our way into the future.

System change is not someone else’s job. It’s everyone’s job.

System change is not someone else’s job. It’s everyone’s job.

It challenges every one of us to redefine our professional role and purpose, including those of us responsible for developing the people who do the work and those of us who lead them.

It challenges us to make space for much larger conversations. It offers us the possibility for professional reinvention.

More than that, it opens the door to many of the qualities organisations say they want: engagement, wellbeing, collaboration, thriving relationships, meaningful work.

As for leaders, relax. You don’t have to ‘deliver change’. Your job is to facilitate change by creating the conditions in which change becomes possible.

The new work of leadership is all about empowerment. Creating the conditions in which change becomes possible.

In a climate-changed world, the new work of leadership is all about empowerment, convening processes in which the intelligence of the entire system can be brought to bear on this mother-of-all challenges, empowering people to take risks on behalf of the future, and supporting them as they learn how to change.

This is what system change looks like.

 

Paula Downey is a co-creator of CultureWork and The Climate Action Sprint.

This article was first published in the Business Post.

 

 

Now and then we observe the world through the lens of living systems and our CultureWork perspective.

If you'd like to know when our new essays and posts appear online, do subscribe. 

Yes! Keep me posted

CW logo

We're so glad you'd like to stay in touch.

Let us know what interests you:

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This
Online-Conference---chris-montgomery-smgTvepind4-unsplash

 

What worked in the physical world can work online too. Sometimes, even better!

 

And what really matters hasn’t changed.

 

If you need a process to help people think, talk and work better together online...

Moving your meetings online?

Let's talk!