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

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
15 min readMay 28, 2021

by Clare Moran, David Buck, Nour Sidawi

*If you have not read our first and second blog posts, it would be helpful to read them first before continuing on to read our final blog post. We’ve included the links below*

This is the third and final post in a three part series in which we look at our work on the human side of relationship building across the UK Civil Service. Last time we talked about our reflections on what formal initiatives might need to consider when bringing in the informal, whether designing or operating.

In part three of this blog, we’ll explore some of our observations about:

  • our reflections on making change with and within the ‘centre’ of government.

Hello (again), dear reader,

We really didn’t expect to get this far. None of these blog posts have come easily. We feel like we are only beginning to scratch the surface of the things we want to say.

We’re continuing to write, and we’re reflecting on how it helps us explain what our story is, how it works, and what it means for how we should build relationships. The threads of our work — all three of us — shape how we each begin to answer questions at the centre of change making within existing systems of government.

We’ve noticed that our blogs have found different audiences of different sizes. The best sense we can make of this is that it mirrors the way people respond to ideas and concepts in organisation development work, across three levels of analysis:

  • micro — individuals and individual-level interactions of various kinds;
  • meso — groups, including teams, units, networks, and organisations; and,
  • macro — political-administrative environment, including systems and cultures.

We have observed that it seems to be cognitively easier to understand change at the micro level, as individuals relating through our own experiences, and at the macro level, where concepts remain high level. What seems to be harder is conceptualising at the meso level, organisational or institutional, where mechanisms and processes play out. We all recognise this from attending workshops where we come up with lots of ideas, but no practical actions or plan for what to do next. The meso seems to be a harder place to think into intuitively.

So, we’re just going to continue writing about our sense making practices as an attempt to understand parts of our change making experiences.

Gif: Jake Peralta, from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, saying, “How is that possible?” We often ask ourselves the same thing…

Our reflections on making change with the centre of government

Our reflections on making change with the centre of government are difficult to unpick. We have found it to be, well, a complicated place. The simple fact is that there is no ‘centre’. There are parts of government that identify as the ‘centre’ but where these organisations and systems are on a diagram is more of an ideological point. However we will continue to use the term ‘centre’ throughout this blog post.

The centre of government can feel like a collection of islands on different tectonic plates. Sometimes these islands pull in opposite directions, and sometimes they collide with one another. The dynamism of the centre of government is not inherently a bad thing: the methods for handling these situations are well trodden and, in some cases, written down. However, it is not inherently a good thing either; it leaves less space for the “informal”, or it at least makes the informal spaces crowded with competing actors. Informal spaces become defined by, and vulnerable to, the organisational politics at play in a given moment. Operating here requires judgement about the timeliness of investing and intervening at any given time within an iterating, oscillating cycle of change. Will interventions be washed away by the next tide of change at the top? How imminent is that tide, and how sure can you be of that?

Gif: Elizabeth Swan, from Pirates of the Caribbean, on a desert island reading a compass with a puzzled expression.

It’s hard to turn energy into real, enduring change. There is no silver bullet to changing a system; it requires change at all levels. We need to work with the way the world works. We haven’t yet found examples in the centre of government of places that have been successful in transforming themselves to think and act more systemically. We are all learning as we go along.

In our work on making change with the ‘centre’ of government, we have seen five themes emerging from our experiences as ‘insider outsider’ change makers:

  • the realities of delivery versus the expectations;
  • old or existing ways of thinking cannot address complex problems in a real world that is organic and adaptive;
  • the slow, non-linear path to change;
  • fear has a paralysing effect on change; and,
  • change is deeply personal.

The realities of delivery versus the expectations

System: a set of things interconnected in such a way that they produce their own behaviour over time.

Delivery is complicated. The closer one gets to senior decision makers in any field, the greater the pace and the apparent consequence of the decisions. In the centre of government, this can drive a relentless pacy cadence, with a restlessness to deliver solutions which is in stark contrast to the idea that the centre of government is a place for deep contemplation, strategic foresight, and system omniscience. Instead, a presumed omnipotence can undermine efforts to tackle the thorny challenges of overseeing a huge and endlessly diverse system, governing the most complex problems of the past, present, and future, by reducing this granularity to the lowest common denominator of solutions. There is the assumption that strategy X will lead to result Y. This is the context for some of the strategic efforts we’ve been involved with, which blend long-term narratives with demands for quick solutions and demonstrable impacts, creating risks for the projects and those who lead them.

Jason Brewster’s tweet about cathedral thinking or projects: “Cathedral Projects are driven by “Values of the people who make them, and faith in the human value of collaboration — always about people working together. They dare to imagine something that can’t quite be defined yet. It’s opposite to managerialism” says Margaret Hefferman

When we have been invited to play in some spaces — both as individuals and as people of One Team Gov— we have invoked cathedral thinking to grow the ‘systems as relationships’ mindset. Whilst we may see the sparks of our efforts to make collaboration across government becoming more systemic, rather than just organic, much of the impact of our efforts may outstrip our involvement with the work. We seed things today, and nurture those conversations, connections, and understanding in the hope they will sprout more conversations, connections, and greater understanding. We may not see changes within the duration of our involvement, but we still look to a future beyond ourselves.

Our approach of invoking historical cathedral thinking (or cathedral projects) contrasts starkly with the mindset of most organisations, who are hyper-focused on satisfying the needs and wants of the immediate future. The combination of the realities of delivery, inundation of change, and how we perceive time greatly shrinks horizons, keeping us from giving greater weight to the future. Our inability to build bridges to the future from the present makes it risky to undertake long-term initiatives, and our reluctance to sit with that discomfort, or create structures that enable us to do so, keeps us and our organisations from truly transforming. This, combined with the impatience to see results and the restlessness of leaders, means that change never has time to bed in. We all think we are creating change, but in practice we are often creating assets, which accrete at the centre and rarely create the intended impacts because they are so quickly replaced. In other words, the impatience to deliver a ‘thing’ undermines the time it takes to absorb and embed things. In this context we have seen others try to invoke cathedral thinking but this has been quickly undone by the combined pressure of pace, politics, and personalities.

Time is the currency of change: in our work, we can give it away or we can try to create more of it.

Gif: White Rabbit, from Alice in Wonderland, saying, “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.”

Old or existing ways of thinking cannot address complex problems in a real world that is organic and adaptive

“Everyone who is part of a system holds a different perspective on its nature, purpose and boundaries. No one person holds the whole truth (including us).” — Lankelly Chase’s beliefs about systems

We often try to make sense of delivery by drawing boundaries around problems, without a particular purpose, to make them actionable. This means we are always solving a complicated problem in a complex system, where everyone and everything is in relationship with each other, and with a shifting natural and human environment.

There is limited organisational and institutional knowledge about how to hold the ‘whole’ well in the centre of government, both tacit and explicit expertise about how to do this. We often encounter a ‘systems as machines’ mindset, whereas we see the world as a complex web of living systems. The persistence of the machines mindset alone generates difficulties, in particular, the illusion that an organisation exists separately from its people. Yet the simplicity of the model and the solutions it offers are attractive, making it hard to resist slipping into the machines mindset, particularly when frustrated by the complexity of organisations as messy, lived systems.

Complex systems can’t be changed by control; they won’t yield. The motivation for change needs to emerge from within and it needs to relate to its own unique context. However, the relentless, pacy cadence at the centre of government means it has traditionally found it hard to understand or adopt a systems approach. This, coupled with the illusion that organisations can move from one stable state to another stable state, can limit the centre of government from taking a keen interest in those invisible intangible dynamics that drive so much of the behaviour in our systems. As a result, we have observed the centre of government trying to reach outcomes from above the system, not through, with, or alongside it. We have wondered, “Where is the engine for this approach and why does it happen?”

Gif: Diana Trout, from Younger, saying, “Just fix it.” If only it were that simple.

Reaching outcomes through simple solutions has consequences for the way issues are addressed, and for the people addressing them. We have experienced working with and in the centre of government in a sustained way on change initiatives to be a challenging experience. As we touched upon in our first blog, it takes an adaptable combination of credibility and skill to navigate the space and develop context for your own work, whilst understanding enough about how to integrate that work into activity elsewhere that you cannot see. We have also felt out of place as ‘insider outsiders’, even though we are internal government specialists. The centre of government is a place where brilliant, well-intentioned, and intelligent people go to make their name and get things done. In the rush to deliver, there can be an undervaluing of specialisms needed to do the work well and in a nuanced way. This rush to deliver is exacerbated by high turnover and short project timelines, which means capability, capacity, and skill can be overlooked in favour of energetic generalism.

Nobody alone can tend to the whole system. It is interconnected, and its webs are largely invisible to us. Working in complex systems requires understanding solutions as temporary means to ask better questions, not as an end. The centre of government is the place where people need this delivery insight to help them think about the problems they are seeking to address.

“Working in complex systems requires understanding solutions as temporary means to ask better questions, not as an end.”

The slow, non-linear path to change

“Relationships move at the speed of trust, and social change moves at the speed of relationships” — Jennifer Bailey

The process of change in existing systems of government is slow, messy, and social work. In some of our work, it has involved embracing, and helping others embrace, the big cultural shifts needed to move past the centre of government’s traditional unwillingness to share power with others. There is a collective energy we have sought to harness to develop very different models that recognise and hold the complexity of evolving systems. In our blog posts, we have described the challenges of applying those models to create change, yet they remain important because they recognise the human, relational, and distributed nature of change in practice, and challenge the ‘systems as machines’ mindset.

Gif: Catherine of Aragon, from The Spanish Princess, saying, “You must hold your courage, and your strength, and fight for what you want.” Always, no matter how hard it gets. Be bold.

In our first blog, we talked about courage and tolerance required for this work, particularly when sitting with uncertainty and emergence. Emergence is:

  • a property of complex systems — it is the new dynamics that arise when parts of the system interact with one another; and/or,
  • the product of systems — it is the change that emerges from the way the whole system behaves in practice.

By its nature, emergence is unpredictable. We can work with this emergence if we evolve our organising structures, mindsets, and expectations to help us work with complexity. Yet this sits uncomfortably with a common approach in government to manage away uncertainty, to reach for readily available answers and actions. One way of working with emergence is to see change work as creating conditions, rather than solutions. Rather than pushing ideas out, the centre of government can work to create the relationships that set the boundary conditions for people to operate within. There are examples of this approach already in use at the centre of government and beyond. In our work, we have held space in a way that creates a container for exploration, helping people (often senior leaders) develop the capacity to figure it out together as they go.

We have talked about the influence of restless leaders and shifting organisational politics on determining the impact of change; we will also emphasise the role of individuals here, too. We have observed in organisational change efforts that there is very little change beyond the people leading it. In the UK Civil Service, we think of roles as fixed and people as movable. Civil Servants, in our myth, are cogs in a policy and delivery machine, roles to be fulfilled by interchangeable skilled professionals. Yet, in the centre of government almost the opposite dynamic can be seen: despite best efforts, reforms and change initiatives are rarely fully institutionalised. They tend to live and die on the power and presence of their champions, and when either reduces, the system moves quickly to cannibalise the remnants and adopt the next idea. Very little outlasts the champions that introduce it, and even when major structural changes remain as a legacy, their rationale and rationality tends to fade quickly.

Fear has a paralysing effect on change

“Change work needs to happen at the level of belief.” by Emma Stace, Department for Education

Change takes time — and in the space between the old and the new there is a sense of fear. It is often (mis)represented as loss of ‘something’, like control, power, or familiarity. Fear is one of the most common reactions to change in any situation. It is a powerful motivator, providing momentum like nothing else. It drives powerful risk-reduction behaviors that can hold us in place, leading us to prefer the status quo and conformity over the change. In the words of our dear friend Carla Groom, ultimately “change has to be manageable.”

Fear can be particularly triggered by the culture of transformation programmes, which often purport to bring about change by getting it done to people, rather than with them. Often they fail to result in any deep, meaningful, and sustained systemic or cultural shifts, and can lead to a cycle of fear, resistance, and blame. This means places can feel as if they are in a seemingly unchangeable state, and organisations and institutions can end up living with layers and layers of unfinished change initiatives. In the words of our dear friend Emma Stace, “change work needs to happen at the level of belief.” We need to invite people to explore our future together, painting a picture of that future, and inviting them on the journey. This necessitates greeting people as they are, wherever they are on their own journey.

Gif: Michael Burnham, from Star Trek: Discovery, saying, “The only way to defeat fear is to tell it no.”

Change is deeply personal

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

There is a temptation to see change as a technical process. This is only telling half the story. We are in constant change, in our bodies, relationships, lives, and ecosystems. It is about the people in a system, thus what is systemic is also deeply personal. We are not neutral observers of change. It is our relationships, values, motivations, and behaviours that shape whether and how change will occur.

In our work, we are discovering that it is ultimately about the ways we are with each other, every day. Unpacking that sense of ‘being’ is not simple, as it is about thought, behaviour, practices and so much more. We all come to, into, and at systems with our personal baggage. What we bring is conscious and unconscious, and those unconscious patterns make it harder to embrace different ways of being. In our first blog, we talked about the reflectivity and reflexivity we need to practice new ways of working, and the deliberate, sustained effort it takes to understand the effects and effects of change. In the UK Civil Service, this is uncomfortable work we must do. It requires us to focus our energy, spend more time, live and breathe those mindsets and behaviours, and go deeper than we ever have done before.

The reality is, our work is deeply personal. It is worth dwelling on for a moment. This is not merely about the tools and methods of facilitation; the inner condition of the person holding space is crucial here, too. There is hard work required for deeper growth and learning, and it starts with ‘self’. This is unavoidable work if we’re to give freely of ourselves for the common good. We don’t talk about this enough when talking about change making: we cannot just expect others to change whilst demanding nothing of ourselves. We are not separate from the reality we seek to change. We are not separate from the system, we are the system. Whatever is dysfunctional within it operates within us as well — we are a microcosm for working out the issues in the whole system. The problem is not “out there”, but “in here”. It is vital that we attend to how we are as ‘beings’.

Gif: Chrisjen Avasarala, from The Expanse, saying, “You’re damn right it’s personal.” Yes, it really is.

The work we do on ourselves is integral to change making: it is hard to do, takes time, and is never ending. You have to choose change work day in day out, in the knowledge that the work will likely never get meaningful recognition, has very limited rewards, and potentially massive pitfalls and penalties. We cannot underestimate how much effort it is just to stay afloat. We must acknowledge the emotional dimension to our work. For people who are expected to implement or lead organisational change, they can experience this when:

  • they are holding all the uncertainties, fears of others and self, and inherent tensions; and,
  • they are having to do the meaning-making for others about the change.

How much of the emotional aspects they need to shoulder depends on the organisation’s affective culture and the support structures in place.

Here, we mean the emotional dimension to be the effort of showing care, of caring about the people and environment around us, and the ability to also step back. It comes from deep within us. In some of our work we help people (often senior leaders) tap into those feelings themselves, and it takes skill to get senior leaders into and out of these conversations, whilst surfacing the deep philosophical differences and tensions. For those leading or implementing change it is a substantial amount of time, effort, and energy to care about all the moving parts, noticing that something has changed, attending to the role of emotions in change, and balancing between needs. We don’t put enough value on this work.

Like others, the three of us have made decisions to do the work, and to keep choosing it. We are mindful of the toll that it takes on us: it is easy to lose yourself along the way. We have recognised the emotional costs and decided we were prepared to shoulder them. At times, the dynamism and cyclical nature of working at the centre of government has highlighted those costs: where the systems need huge investments to create change but are incapable of giving a return, or at least not for very long. When the costs have been high, we’ve felt the costs of inaction would be higher. We’re each still learning, and learning to step away.

“We cannot just expect others to change whilst demanding nothing of ourselves. We are not separate from the reality we seek to change.”

Where to from here?

Well, now we’ve written this, we’re not really sure.

There is no prescription for work such as this: there is no one-size-fits-all complexity toolkit (let’s stop pretending there is). Transforming organisations to be adaptive and complexity-friendly is quiet and humble work, facilitating and enabling behind the scenes, in ways that are often invisible. It takes time, and sponsorship. When we took micro-actions to make things better, we were also creating space and permission for others to do the same.

In all our work on the human side of change, we have encountered strong countervailing winds. We have reflected on how much we have put into this work because it is fundamentally personal work to build bridges to the future — and we think it’s worth it.

For now, our work and chats with each other continue.

Gif: David Rose, from Schitt’s Creek, saying, “It was worth it.” We absolutely think it is.



Nour Sidawi

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