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.