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

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.

by Clare Moran, David Buck, Nour Sidawi

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

This is the second post in a three part series which will look at our work on the human side of relationship building across the Civil Service. Last time we talked 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.

When we wrote the first post, we didn’t know whether our reflections had an audience, who that was, or how they might respond. Much to our surprise and delight, many have taken the time to reflect on the blog and share their responses with us. In addition to the conversation we have been having in the open (on Twitter), we’ve had wonderful conversations about our first post with:

Finding a language for the work we do, revealing often invisible work, and articulating implicit dynamics in the liminal spaces between formal and informal: “Reading this was like reading about all my experiences since I joined the UK Civil Service, and that in itself was powerful” (Alice Holmes, DWP)

In part two of this blog, we’ll explore some of our observations and reflections about:

  • the use and misuse of change communities.

Welcome (back) dear reader,

In this second blog we’re stepping back from the individual focus to look at change communities within systems. Our last blog was all about what individuals might need in order to operate at the intersection between the formal and informal. This blog is all about what formal initiatives might need to consider when bringing in the informal, whether designing or operating. We have the same intention to share our experiences, and by doing so avoid the risk of continuing to promote or perpetuate approaches that we have found to be challenging when applied.

We are taking a critical view of something that’s often promoted as an unassailable ‘good thing’, from the experience of seeing it operate in practice. We advocate for process insight and honesty to identify where, when, and why participation in formal change activity would be helpful or welcome, and the extent to which this will make a demonstrable contribution.

Where our blogs came from

These blogs have their origin in our experiences working together where the formal and informal collide. Since July 2018, One Team Gov has been agitating around the edges, making a role for ourselves, and pushing the informal right to its current limit in our work on leadership. At the time, Clare Moran, who had formal, hierarchical accountability for a strategy that had a complicated set of (evolving) aims and involved a complex mix of stakeholders, was finding it hard to make space for One Team Gov’s work, whilst recognising it was valid exploration. This work meant that Nour Sidawi had the good fortune of crossing paths with Clare Moran — the resulting conversation was constructive, reflective, and nourishing. From there, a seed was planted.

Nothing ever grows without a seed, and sometimes, those seeds take root and grow. Time allowed for emergence, development, and adventure. The three of us were brought together once more when DavidBuck convened a cross-government network created from the Cabinet Office as part of UK Civil Service Reform. Clare Moran spotted a risk that the same challenges she had experienced when in Cabinet Office were being generated, and reached out to explore them further.

The original conversation between Clare Moran and Nour Sidawi sowed early seedlings and two years later…they flourished in the unoccupied space.

A new language for this work is slowly, quietly developing

There are unexpected possibilities in the liminal spaces between formal and informal change — indeed, limits are formed in the mind, as Stefan Powell simply puts it. Our work can sometimes feel — and look like — nothing is happening. However, it is fundamentally about noticing things, and paying attention to noticing things shapes our thoughts, actions, and behaviour. It means sitting in the mess for a while and using this time to get more comfortable with uncertainty and more humble in acceptance of the limits of our knowing.

We are finding that a new language for this work is slowly, quietly developing. Language comes with philosophies and ideas that can support a practice. However, how this new language is used will make it either a barrier or an enabler, by using it to define ‘others’, or by welcoming others in. Not everyone will welcome this new language. Some will see language as a way of describing and sharing these practices, helping people to name and identify the work they are doing, and so to find those doing similar work. Others will view language as itself a formalising device — codification that can constrain progress — feeling that when the work you are doing can be defined by a shared language, you are no longer at the edge of that practice; and when you can understand the language you are no longer at the edge of your own practice.

We believe the fellow-feeling is more important than the words we use to describe the work; the work is more lively and playful when we recognise different languages for the same things. In our first post we made links between similar practices, each with their own language, to make this work more inclusive. There is a common thread between them all, and we have sought to recognise both their commonality and their differences.

Gif: “Certainly a bold interpretation, sir.” We believe in boldness, with an attitude of proceeding until apprehended.

Unpicking the dimensions about the liminal spaces between formal and informal change

There is more we can do to unpick the dimensions of the spaces where communities meet with formal governance structures. We reflected on this after we saw how the first post was being shared. Clare Moran developed a simple 2x2 matrix to start to tease out a typology of those spaces where the informal and formal, collective and hierarchical are combined. These dimensions refer to organisational forms rather than social dynamics between individuals, which have different dimensions and forms of authority, some of which we touched upon in the first blog. Whilst models can often feel too simplistic to explain complexity; every once in a while, a model comes around, and in its simplicity, you find answers.

We’ve populated the matrix with a few current examples of activities across public service, to ground it in practice. These are tentative, and others may classify their activities in different ways.

The matrix helps to make sense of complicated systems. We used it to identify that the practice is about working within the quadrants and on the diagonals between them. Reflecting on our experiences, we each started from different places within the matrix above and have worked in several of the different quadrants. We’ll explore some of our observations and reflections about these different dimensions in this blog.

The use and misuse of change communities

We feel an important part of transforming systems is understanding our own and others’ patterns of thinking. People with user experience play a key part in systems change, particularly in influencing and contributing to the design and delivery of systems change activities. They provide a powerful, authentic voice and unique insights that can challenge and motivate organisations to do things differently. The impact of their involvement in systems change can be effective and result in sustained change.

More and more, we hear senior leaders talking about involving people’s individual user or lived experience in the transformation of their organisations. There is a trend for working with change networks, communities, and movements — we use the shorthand terminology of change communities here. The idea driving engagement between formal change activity and informal change activity is both to access an aggregate of individual user experience, and to harness the energy, motivation, authenticity and legitimacy of user-driven change. This is partly driven by greater awareness of exclusion, inequality, and inequity, and also a desire to improve change outcomes.

The problem is, the contribution that change communities can make to formal systems change often lacks clarity and has ambiguity about purpose. This risks engagement trying to be all things to all people, and ending up being none. Three implicit individual engagement models can each become problematic when they hit the organisational scale. These are:

  • instrumental use of change communities;
  • using change communities for consultation and sampling; and,
  • implementation or change champions.

Instrumental use of change communities

Change communities can create powerful momentum for change, driven by passion and insight. They have long-term potential for creating bottom-up change. However, when these interact with formal change activity, the tendency is to co-opt these groups for instrumental or performative purposes: to get something done or to appear participative or representative. They may be used to provide diverse attendees at events, as proxy representative samples of staff, to provide challenge, or test ideas.

None of these things are inherently problematic in and of themselves. However, it is when formal organisation structures try to create interest communities that the result is often an uncomfortable blend of something that is narratively and rhetorically self-sustaining yet driven by and to serve an instrumental purpose, to get something done or delivered. This risks the goodwill of group members, potentially creating disillusionment and detachment with the entire cause of transformation, and affecting the degree to which they’ll invest in future change initiatives.

Recognising that all change is fundamentally about people, we are working in human systems, and that this is emergent: “We talk about change like it is throwing a stone, and will progress in a linear trajectory, but it’s more like throwing a bird” (Rachel Bennett, DWP)

Using change communities for consultation and sampling

Members of change communities are individuals with subjective views who rarely provide a valid sample for consultation or testing. Yet, these individuals are often (mis)used in this way. Self-selecting groups rarely provide a sufficiently representative sample of specific characteristics to be valid for consultation in developing or implementing any particular change initiative. Using these groups for consultation can be further complicated as self-selecting groups are often driven by strong personal interests, which makes them by definition atypical. However, group members may claim to represent wider groups they identify with, e.g. specific grades or career stages, geographic location, or protected characteristics.

Caution is needed about treating those with user or lived experience as being representative of others with the same characteristics. User experience is valid at the scale of an individual and their subjective experiences. Their data is illustrative, but these individuals cannot ‘speak for’ others. Similarly, when change communities are used to cascade information through hierarchical organisations, it confuses the formal hierarchical messaging with an informal networked structure. In the process, this may bypass those with formal responsibilities who need the information . In both cases, careful work is needed to understand what processes and patterns are relevant and necessary.

Implementation or change champions

The default assumption in most organisations is that bottom-up staff led change is an unassailable good thing. Over time, it has been promoted as such. This is because bottom-up staff led change is seen as having magical properties of self-organisation and adaptability, particularly where an unmet need is recognised.

Where informal networks are drawn into change processes, it’s often by more senior or more central actors, for example by leaders’ forums or the centre of government. Issues arise when individuals and change communities are tasked by these actors with driving or implementing change within their organisations. For this to happen, it relies upon:

  • individuals having built relationships within their own organisations; and
  • individuals identifying what role they can helpfully play alongside those who have formal accountabilities within the organisation in the relevant areas, including expert professionals working within the relevant corporate functions, and existing change or transformation roles.

Individuals in change communities sometimes seek more authority or authorisation directly from their executive team to gain parity with those who already have formal accountabilities within the organisation. But experience suggests that will be actively unhelpful in practice: not only legitimacy from authority, but also legitimacy from credibility and demonstrated utility are required to create a role for yourself in a change process within your organisation.

Being a member of a change community usually doesn’t confer automatic credibility or utility onto network members. Attempting to bypass the process of building credibility by seeking borrowed legitimacy from senior actors can create resistance to change, by alienating those in the organisation with formal accountabilities who will be crucial to enacting transformation. The practice of conferring top-down legitimacy — from formal, senior actors — as a substitute for relationship-building is an ironic way of operating for initiatives seeking bottom-up staff-led change.

Gif: Oksana Astankova / Villanelle, from Killing Eve, saying, “I don’t like to be challenged.” Always tread carefully, this work is hard and the landscape is constantly changing.

Those who have formal accountabilities within an organisation are often operating in a complex context that’s often outside their control. They may perceive change communities as being unaware of the context, constraints, and dependencies that they operate within — be it legal, procedural, policy, financial, organisational politics. This leads to a tension in which corporate actors may perceive change communities as suggesting ideas that are impractical to implement and adding more pressure onto under-resourced areas, whilst change communities may feel frustrated, unheard, and excluded from change activity. They are then more likely to try to lobby or deploy senior actors to hear their cause, potentially creating an unhelpful and self-perpetuating circle.

There is no substitute for bringing process insight — which would help to identify where, when, and why participation in formal change activity would be helpful, or welcome. Where are the places in a change process where insight, dialogue, and deliberation are actually useful, and who needs to be represented there?

The importance of making the difference

In reflecting together, we have reinforced the importance of context in creating interventions that work. We want to emphasise that what works in one context isn’t guaranteed to work in another, and the temptation to ‘lift and shift’ is strong; the question ‘tell us how’ is one we frequently hear. This work is experimental and emergent — it evolves as it embeds. Where it does work, as Thea Snow has pointed out, it’s not always easy to identify why.

Humans are good at noticing when something isn’t working in systems, especially those we have daily interactions with. Some of that noticing takes place in the depths of our consciousness, making it incredibly difficult to report. The challenge is finding a way to notice what is and isn’t working about an intervention in the moment. We rely on understanding what has and hasn’t worked in hindsight: sometimes it’s visible to us… and sometimes, it isn’t. It’s difficult to discern as much of this work is intuitive — it relies on feeling, sensing, judging, learning, trying something else, thinking into the space.

We are defined by how we create the difference, not just the difference we create; yet the important thing is to actually make the difference. The risk with the ‘action inquiry’ mode of much organisational development work, where the process is privileged as the means of creating the change, is that the application and implementation can then be neglected. Whilst the journey and process matter deeply, it is the difference that matters most.

In transactional terms, the laws of supply and demand work together to determine the marketplace, and determine how time and energy are utilised (amongst other things). In the resource-scarce environments that we operate in, it is difficult to justify ‘process’ alone when there is the strong, counterbalancing pressure of value creation. It is easier to show value creation when operating in a space where you supply against demand, either by finding and following the energy to identify a demand, or following a commission that identifies it for you.

However, much of our work happens in spaces where we are engaging in market creation, where neither demand nor supply exists yet around an issue, but there’s a hope, a feeling, a fleeting glimmer of something to pursue. Instead of looking within conventionally defined and accepted boundaries, it involves systematically looking across them for new and unoccupied spaces that represent an opportunity to operate in a different way. That market-making relies on having the skill and social capital to balance between process and output, and to move along the spectrum between them in a way that meets the needs of the specific context.

Taking a step back from the detail and experiences: “It hit the sweet spot of being applicable but also giving a philosophical and intellectual view of the kind of work we do” (Carla Groom, DWP)

What now?

We believe approaches working in the liminal spaces between formal and informal change are unique to each organisation. They are entirely context dependent. It will take time for change to work through, and there will be a lack of certainty about the emergent process. There is no blueprint here. We have offered our insights and reflections as things to think about when operating in this space.

We’re not aware of places in the UK Civil Service where the change communities approach has worked at scale and in a sustained way. Paul Maltby described it as summiting the mystical mountain peak in search of examples… and finding nothing there. This is why we’re writing these blog posts.

We see our time spent writing these blogs as generative learning. We hope it helps others to be more effective and to sustain themselves whilst doing the work, by reminding us all that these are new ideas; their applicability, and the limits of their applicability, are still being worked through in practice.

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