Learning from the places where informal and formal change activity meet — Part One

Our story is about being in the uncomfortable place of holding new ways of doing things, and how that feels, works in practice, and our experiences of doing that.

Nour Sidawi
10 min readFeb 15, 2021

by Clare Moran, David Buck, Nour Sidawi

A photograph of snowy woods in Bath (UK), untouched by humans: sometimes, you need to forge a new path, or take the first steps of a path, that others can follow.

This is the first post in a three part series which will look at our work on the human side of relationship building across the

. This first post is about our reflections as change makers trying to work in new ways with old systems, where we have each tried to bridge between strategic aspirations and real-life practice.

As we start to write this, we’re wondering if it is a good idea. Whilst the work we do is practical and important, sharing it involves unpicking the complex, confidential, and conceptual aspects of our everyday work. We feel that this is a story that needs to be told.

So, we’re going to just start writing and see where we get to.

Where the “formal” (hierarchical) and “informal” (networked) meet

The three of us share experiences of working in, with, around, and through the ‘centre’ of government. We are reflecting on working with and in the centre of government in a sustained and prolonged way. We are trying to make sense of some of our experiences, as individuals working across organisations and in systems.

We have been working on the human side of relationship building across the

, from the inside out, bottom up and top down. We have tried to nurture the ‘systems as relationships’ mindset, and figure out how networks, communities, and movements fit into this. Or, as our dear friend Carla Groom calls it, the “distributed, decentralised collective intelligence and sense-making.” We like to call it holding space for, “where the formal meets the informal.”

Here, we are referring to the “formal” as: governance, programmes, hierarchies, formalised change, teams, roles, functions, tasks, and positions. For us, the “informal” is: groups of people who get together because of their interests, concerns, ideas, passions, differences, and commonalities, rather than through formal organisational structures. These are situations where there is a real human-to-human connection, and often the space to figure them out.

Where the “formal” and the “informal’’ meet are the spaces where communities meet with formal governance structures, for example, communities are invited into formal spaces to provide diverse perspectives, challenge, or fresh energy, as

have been.

In the spaces where communities meet with formal governance structures, we have noticed a set of dynamics — sources of productive tension, and occasionally destructive conflicts of ideas and approach — that emerge. These are:

  • change makers as insiders and outsiders (in part one);
  • the use and misuse of change communities (in part two); and,
  • reflections on making change with the centre of government (in part three).

We’ll explore some of our observations and reflections about these dynamics over parts one, two and three of this blog.

Gif: Bilbo Baggins, from The Hobbit, saying, “I’m going on adventure!” You’re going on one, too, with Clare, David, and myself for the next ten minutes or so as we reflect on our travels!

Change makers as insiders and outsiders

There has recently been a focus on organisational change as a movement or as a platform, and on change makers as networks and self-organising communities. However, these are ideas and models — what happens when they interact with messy real-life practice? Without reflecting and surfacing the experiences resulting from this approach, we risk continuing to promote or perpetuate approaches that we have found to be challenging when applied.

These different experiences share common threads that will be familiar to those who have:

  • worked in consulting — which is being brought into a space and commissioned to deliver against a purpose defined by your commissioners, usually problem-based;
  • developed reflexivity as leaders — which is developing the self awareness to be able to reflect on, learn, and modify action in real time as an adaptive response;
  • carried out action research — which is a form of problem-based social research where theory based insights are applied to a problem and results are evaluated, iteratively;
  • practiced ethnography — which is a type of qualitative research that involves observing and analysing the practices of individuals, communities, or organisations;
  • explored the idea of ‘self as instrument’ — which alerts us to the various roles of the self as a mediator of change in human systems, used in organisation development.

In the

, it would also be similar to the work of:

  • knowledge brokers — who are people that act as links between different ideas, groups, and individuals that might not have a relationship with one another; and/or,
  • policy entrepreneurs — who are people with the knowledge, power, tenacity and luck to be able to try out combinations of ideas ‘to find the one that replicates’.

The common thread between them all is the use of agency in achieving organisational goals, the intertwining of personal and professional, and the call on so many aspects of the self — all in the service of the task or the ask. This makes the work deeply personal.

As change makers trying to work in new ways with old systems, we have each tried to bridge between strategic aspirations and real-life practice:

In our work, we have seen three themes emerging from our experiences as ‘insider outsider’ change makers:

  • difficulties of negotiating access to formal spaces;
  • importance of people who are willing to give others the space to make change; and,
  • the conditions required for this work.
Gif: Captain Olivia Benson, from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, saying, “We’re just trying to make sense of things.” Yes, we really just are.

Difficulties of negotiating access to formal spaces

*If you haven’t done this type of work before, this section is really, really important.*

Our work is about making spaces — intermediary spaces to bring the informal and formal together. It is about getting the formal to make space for the informal, and those who think they ‘own’ the space, to recognise that they don’t. It takes good strategic discipline to identify spaces for the informal to operate in, courage to take the risk of opening the space, and deliberate design that enables both sets of people to interact in a way that generates the best from both. The challenge is often in understanding and identifying, and then opening up, spaces to operate in and spaces to play.

Much of our work isn’t well understood and happens in places where we are uninvited. This requires negotiating access to the work to be done or creating an awareness of work to be done — as ‘outsider’ activists and radicals, or as ‘insider’ helpers and enablers, or a mixture of the two. Negotiating access relies upon being seen as an insider who understands what counts as credibility and legitimacy in a particular context, and being able to tactically deploy that in a skilful way. High credibility can come from:

  • being seen as trustworthy;
  • having extensive experience, expertise, authority, or presence in an area of interest
  • able to translate, coordinate, and align between perspectives; and/or,
  • having good relationship-building skills.

There is an interdependent relationship between credibility and legitimacy: you can have legitimacy that builds credibility, or credibility that builds legitimacy, to:

  • influence the development of a practice, mobilise attention, and address conflicting interests;
  • link practices by facilitating transactions between them, and generate learning by introducing into a practice elements of another;
  • operate in a different way in a new space — legitimacy that is often lent by powerful actors (and, by implication, can be taken away).

Credibility is often our currency in the

. This can feel exclusionary to those who are newer to the culture, feel excluded from it, or who feel unable to adopt its cues. Leveraging credibility requires a high tolerance for risk and failure, as learning how to exercise judgement and gain these skills often involves getting it wrong, a lot of the time, and sometimes in high consequence ways. Risk appetite is one of the biggest determinants of being able to do this work well. In the , it means putting yourself on the line, in a world you need to be fully invested in, knowing you will get hurt and when you do, it can feel like heartbreak. It took all our boldness and bravery to take the chance to operate in this space.

We have been invited to play in some spaces — both as individuals and as people of

. We have primarily found those spaces by people stepping forward and offering them, often senior leaders who have understood ’s purpose and passion, and advocated for its involvement. This is true in areas where has already been agitating around the edges, making a role for ourselves, before space and permission were given and pushing the informal right to its limit — our work on leadership is a good example of this.

Importance of people who are willing to give others the space to make change

This work on leadership started with the Collective Leadership team and has continued with its partners. In some formal spaces, there is no traction and no possibility to open up; it has been hard to find people who are willing to give others the space to make change. At times, we have relied on operating in the grey spaces of our own delegated authority, based on knowledge of institutional procedures and individuals’ authority or agency. Support from people like Sandra Armstrong, Louise Wheeler,

, Tracey Waltho, and , who understand the ‘systems as relationships’ change approach, has given us access to changemaking opportunities and made our work on leadership possible. They hold a space that invites challenge and radical ideas, making us bolder, braver and more creative by design.

Gif: Captain Gabriel Lorca, from Star Trek: Discovery, saying, “We get one chance to get it right.”

The leadership work has allowed us to hold space for senior leaders across government, bringing process insight, and paying attention to the nature and history of relationships. We have asked the people in the room how they want things to work, how it might work, and how it could work for them. We have found it incredibly powerful to help people think through the ‘how’ and ‘why’. We are defined by how we create the difference, not just the difference we create. We have been able to bring challenge, a vision of self-sustaining change communities, and interaction designs that build those communities.

The conditions required for this work

Yet, even with access, purpose, legitimacy, and skills, working as ‘insider outsiders’ has been challenging, calling on us to track contexts we can’t access and judge interventions through instinct in the absence of transparent collaboration. We wondered how we could support others in this work, how to build forms of legitimacy to find opportunities to experiment and play, and build trust with others to take those opportunities.

Building and sustaining informal communities, and negotiating and collaborating with formal partners, are long term, resource-intensive tasks that few roles have space for, especially when it is additional to the day job. We have realised that even with the right skills, there might not be chances to intervene in systems because access is such a barrier and it is often hard to judge what will make the most difference. Even when there is the right combination of individual credibility and skill, opportunity, and the openness of a formal system, this is still really challenging work. When change communities are offered chances to effect change, these can set people up to fail unless the right conditions are in place. These are:

  • an uncrowded space to experiment and play a role, where there is a willingness to hold the tension between the opposites of competition and collaboration;
  • something tangible to do, and realistically deliverable;
  • in complement to or in the absence of formal actors operating in the same space; within a manageable time commitment for self-selecting volunteers; and/or,
  • with support from the formal ‘owners’ of a space, who provide permission, cover, and hold the space.

We know we are of the few to hold these experiences of bringing the informal into the formal. Not many have experience of getting into something that they are not already in, of accessing a space to intervene that they are not formally a part of. However, accessing the space and understanding the written and unwritten rules, codes, and language that is used there requires social capital. People need social capital and licence to go to places they have not done before — to break the ground and start somewhere. The deeper you go within the system, the harder it gets. Until all this changes — and there is a willingness in the “formal” space to allow the “informal” in — it will remain a blocker to making change happen.

Gif: Two people jumping over the edge into the unknown on their adventure.

So what?

We are starting to think about what all this means — and in the next post, we’ll explore that further. We have shared some reflections here to expose our experiences and observations of working in the liminal spaces between formal and informal change, between insider and outsider roles, between present and future ways of organising transformation work.

We have ploughed our hope and energy into growing the ‘systems as relationships’ mindset, focusing on the human side (culture, relationships, and behaviours). We have sought to make collaboration across government more systemic, rather than just organic. We have focused on building capacity for embracing ambiguity, emergence, and letting go of the illusion of being in control of any change process within complex systems. In doing so, it has been a micro-experiment about the places where formal and informal change activity meet.

There is a real need for organisational change efforts to think deeply about the process insights needed to create genuine participation. Implicitly, formal systems seeking to bring in the informal will need a much greater appetite for embracing and working with complexity, particularly within existing systems of government. These are not things we are known for in the

. Our systems, methods, and we as individuals, will need to continue to mature into these new ways of working.

In the meantime, our quiet change work behind the scenes will continue.



Nour Sidawi

Reflecting on the complexity of systems and making change in government @UKCivilService . Part of @OneTeamGov