Power, Innovation & Systems Change

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

Date: 27t

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Power, Innovation & Systems Change

I think power and authority play an important role in systems change, however, I don’t think it has been sufficiently addressed as to how a systems changer should go about dealing with them. Changemakers will inevitably meet resistance from members that are deeply invested in the existing system and have the power to resist or halt any change process. I am sure there is research out there but no short answer to summarize it. 

I think Buckminster Fuller got it generally right when he said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” This is a great quote, but it is a bit up in the air, there needs to be some more concrete thinking around it and maybe even one day some more concrete methodology. 

Here is my thinking on the subject. My basic premise is that creativity is the antidote to power. Let me explain. When I talk about power I mean systems of control that can force people to do certain things, for example, governments, security forces, CEOs, etc. I think if we look we will see that forceful action is predicated on linear cause and effect. The person having the power exercises that power and that causes someone to do something that otherwise they would not do.

The “powerful” are nothing without a system of control for exercising it, for example, parliaments have no power without their administration and security forces to execute on their decisions. These control systems operate through linear cause and effect, based upon past and predictable behavior. If we observe we will see these systems of control come into effect and have relevance primarily in the context of a certain mode of human behavior; what we might call operating from our “lowest self” – when we take the cause of least resistance when we take short cuts or search for something without paying the full cost of it. For example, the person who is always looking to get something for nothing in life will find themselves constantly bumping up against authoritative structures, in the extreme case, bumping up against the law.

That person who operates in the opposite mode of behavior will find that those systems of authority are largely irrelevant to them. The creative person that wishes to contribute will rarely find themselves colliding with the law and will likely create their own patterns of organization without authoritative structures dictating to them.

Systems Change

So that is a little about power and authority on the personal level but let’s extrapolate that out to the systems-level. For better or worse, our societies are full of power structures that will resist systems-level change. Thus it is a key question in systems change, what do we do about this? How do you deal with the powers that be? In a very generalized way, I think the answer lies with creativity. I think power and authority are always predicated on an absence of creativity; we can only control based upon the past, not the emerging future. In this context, dealing with power is about creating the future to render the existing patterns of control irrelevant. 

Let me illustrate. Take for example a student flat, where the five students share a common kitchen. Out of laziness many of them avoid washing up after themselves, leaving their dishes in the sink for weeks – yes weeks, I have seen it happen. After a while, the sink fills up and the landlord comes and threatens to kick them all out if they don’t clean up after themselves.

The landlord has the power to make them leave and is here exorcising her authority. Say then we are one of the students in the house and we don’t want to get kicked out. We may be happy enough to clean our dishes to avoid that eventuality, but we are not so sure the others will, what do we do? We might take a naive approach, focusing on the parts, telling everyone to be “creative” and do their washing up, however, it is unlikely that will work because we have no authority and we have not changed the structure of incentives they are operating under, all we have done is a little pleading.

So what would systems change look like in this situation? It would be about shifting the equilibrium of incentives to realize the emergence of new behavior – as a default not imposed through authority. As a side note, I think a key feature of systems change should be that it is a commitment to non-dictatorial modes of operating. 

So we take the initiative to get a dishwasher placing it just beside the sink with a funny sign encouraging people to put their dishes in. We gamify and socialize it so that it becomes an attractor for them to add their dish to the dishwasher. By gamifying and socializing the activity it could become psychologically easier for them to add their dish rather than not, e.g. people think that everyone else is doing it and they are contributing to a team effort. We might even create some innovative funding mechanisms to purchase the dishwasher, e.g. some party game every week where there is money generated.

I think the approach we should take as systems changers when it comes to power is not to fight it, ignore it or even disrupt it, I think it is more about rendering it irrelevant by creating a system that engages people in patterns of behavior at a higher equilibrium; the emphasis being on the word creating. This is why I think innovation is a key aspect of this whole change process we are going through today, it is not just about changing systems, as that can be done through many different modalities, but about innovating on the systems level. This involves a degree of creativity in designing new solutions that take our systems of organization to a higher equilibrium.


Systems Innovation

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