System Change: The Dance Between Planning and Action

Chris Corrigan’s recent blog post is entitled “We grow through what we go through”. It is a fascinating reminder that learning about change is not enough to result in transformative changes in how we think and behave, especially in emergent, complex and dynamic environments (think justice system for example). Instead, he says:

If I want to learn to think differently I need to put myself in situations where the constraints afford me different possibilities to act differently.

He explores this idea using his own experience of learning to play jazz. You can watch and listen to others playing jazz, but you won’t learn how to do it yourself until you actually pick up your instrument and play.

So how can we apply this in the realm of transforming the justice system?

Attending workshops and conferences on this topic is good – but not enough.

Reading inspiring blog posts and learned articles or books is good – but not enough.

Deeply listening to stories of those with lived experience in the system is essential – but not enough.

Early in our exploration with access to justice we heard the phrase “Think globally, act locally”. The phrase “think big, act small” has also caught on. Both these mottos imply that we start with thinking and move to acting. Yes, we must think, prepare and plan well in order to act wisely and strategically BUT we can also overthink and never act.

Legal professionals tend to focus on thinking and to be risk averse. It feels risky to take action until all the questions answered and there is a clear and solid plan into the future (and sometimes a report telling other people what to do to fix things). The problem is that this simply doesn’t work in complex systems characterized by uncertainty and emergence.

I don’t believe this is a binary problem (think/plan or act). We need them to work in concert. Many of you will be familiar with the “design thinking” PDSA cycle (plan, do, study, act). It is an ongoing cycle which is neither binary nor linear. This model can also be used in complex system change:

[ Source: NHS ]

For change to begin we need to actually try DOING something differently. We need to pick something (usually something small) and try it out. Study what happens. Get feedback (especially from those we are serving but also from others involved and those in different sectors). Identify lessons learned. Improve the service/product/process and try it again. Over and over. This will probably mean taking risks.

On an individual level that might mean trying new behaviours and developing new day to day habits. On a group level it might mean creating a mock up of an idea and seeking feedback from users (think pop-up shop rather than a full-blown pilot site).

Maybe this new something will have a positive impact; sometimes it won’t and we will need to start again with something new.

Regardless, each time we complete the cycle our experience will change how we think and, sometimes, who we are. And we will be primed for more.

We should be supporting this kind of considered action through updated funding models and ways of collaborating together (including intersectoral approaches). The recently launched Transforming the Family Justice System Collaborative is one great example.

If you are not familiar with Chris Corrigan, he is an inspiring leader, facilitator, mentor, coach and teacher in many areas including complexity science, the art of hosting and community building. Check out his blog.

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