Learning on the Road to Renewal

By Sue Pritchard, Margaret Attwood & Mike Pedler

18th May 2020

Twenty years ago, we wrote a book together, called Leading Change - a guide to whole systems working. Written from our experiences as practitioners and academics in organisation development, it was well received. Yet looking back, our ideas were rooted in their time, with particular assumptions about where and how change happens - a project or process, led by managers, in organisations.

Things look very different now. The emergence of a tiny microbe has suddenly transformed human life across the planet. Whilst some of this may be temporary, it is clear we will not be returning to how things were in 2019. Alongside the fear, isolation and personal tragedy, Covid-19 has revealed how quickly we can adapt how we live and work. There is much talk of the need for a reset, but the crisis has also enforced a ‘recess' which - potentially - creates space for fresh questions, and an opportunity to re-think assumptions about what’s possible. How we adapt and learn now can be in some senses both an experiment and a practice for how we respond effectively to further and even bigger challenges ahead.

It is this that prompts us to get together again now. Our work then, in contrast to much of the leadership literature of the time, encouraged managers and leaders to acknowledge a sense of ‘not knowing’ in the face of wicked and intractable problems and to look for new ways for learning together across the whole system, as ‘comrades in adversity’ (to paraphrase the father of action learning, Reg Revans). If ever there was a time to admit our ‘not knowing’ and that we have no blueprints for the future, it is now. Yet we must respond to the huge and global issues we face - the climate, nature and health, and now the Covid-19 emergencies.

Change in complex systems

So how do we think about change? Do we see it as a left-to-right progression from one place to another via a planned process? Or, as something that emerges continuously, sometimes unpredictably and often beyond our control? Kurt Lewin's model of Unfreezing -> Changing -> Refreezing, first formulated in the 1950s, still appears to underlie much change management and policy thinking. It was the language used to great effect by Michael Gove in 2017, to describe the ‘unfrozen moment’ of Brexit. An alternative is to look to how living things adjust in complex systems, where change is a continuous, adaptive cycle of growth, maturity, breakdown and re-organisation. For some changes Lewin’s model works, but for others, it is inadequate. So what unfrozen moment are we facing now? Is it a Lewinian one? Or is it more like the unfreezing of the Antarctic, threatening to unleash transformative and unknowable change on the world and unlikely to refreeze again in our lifetimes?

Designing for emergence and resilience

Twenty years ago, we argued that a narrow focus on single organisations was not enough, because these apparently discrete units were embedded in wider networks of trading, policymaking and community engagement. Instead we talked about leading change through working with whole systems. This thinking underpins the work and recommendations of the Food Farming and Countryside Commission – making explicit the connections between what we grow, how we grow it, what we eat and how we eat it; and how people’s health and wellbeing is intimately connected to the health of the natural world.

Much of what we wrote about whole systems working still holds true. The guiding values and principles of optimism, humility, learning, collaboration, valuing local knowledge and facilitating self-organising whilst keeping the big picture in view, remain true for the Covid-19 world. The current challenges of change reflect the imperatives laid out by economists like Tim Jackson (one of our FFCC Commissioners) and Kate Raworth: how to create a social and ecological foundation, giving “everyone”, including all living things and generations to come, the necessities of life in ways that keep below the ecological ceiling of the earth’s life-giving systems.

What next?

This period of lockdown can be a recess, a pause to think through our assumptions, ideas and practices for a new reality. We do not trust simplistic notions of "reset" which implies a new equilibrium when we are back to normal. A changed reality demands adaptive learning and resilience. As a society, we have come to understand the need to support the NHS to ensure it is not overwhelmed. On the bigger canvas this means working to ensure that the resilience of the planet is not overwhelmed. There is no vaccine for the climate emergency.

Meanwhile, FFCC is itself in transition, moving from our former base at the RSA, to independence, and focusing resolutely on our core mission and purpose. In this time of transitions – personal, organisational, social and global – we know that we are not alone in asking fundamental questions about what’s happening and what to do next. We’ll use this space for reflection, conversation, learning and shared action.