This post is part of a collaborative series of reflections on doing systems change work. Read the other posts in this series by Isadora Collins of Maude Consulting and Steph Jacobs of Trailblazer Leadership.
When I reflect back on my experiences that have shaped how I view change, I remember hearing the Serenity Prayer as a young person:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
More recently, I have come across this quote from Angela Davis:
I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change.
I’m changing the things I cannot accept.
What I notice in both of these influential perspectives is the power of self within change. To have courage to change what I cannot accept. To boldly step in and step up in a change effort. I find that acceptance comes a little slower for me these days, but it is a helpful practice when a desired change feels slow or wrought with complexity. It takes resiliency to face that kind of change. I also believe there are times in my life when I knew I did not have the energy or know-how to step in and step up so I stepped back or stepped out of a change, for better or for worse.
I have been fortunate over the past decade to be involved in systems change work. This often means there has been some acknowledgement that the way things are being done no longer, or never have, served the needs of those who connect to the system, whether that be around technology, social services, or long-standing institutions. I have witnessed the compassion, courage, and commitment humans who care for other humans are capable of and I am deeply grateful for that experience.
Systems change work is humbling and complex work. Change in systems often requires a change within self. This requires us to see ourselves as part of the systems we are trying to change. That can be challenging to do sometimes. That is why my colleagues and I created the Systems Simulation. To provide an opportunity for individuals to experience being part of a system and to reflect on what shows up in the room and in themselves.
There are so many behaviors that show up when we facilitate The Systems Simulation. One that has always fascinated me is when a group of strangers seem to quickly build a sense of team identity and loyalty to each other. In the beginning, a small group works together to complete a challenge. Then, the next challenge they are faced with requires that they work with others in the room (the system). In the transition between those moments, some teams begin to compete with the other groups in the room. Especially if the team is one of the first to complete the initial challenge, there is often a sense of team pride and a spark of competition is lit in the system. The last challenge involves the creation of a collective piece and some of the teams interpret “collective” as their group and not the whole. There is no right or wrong in this choice, but often, there is that conscious choice. Sometimes choosing not to participate is an act of resistance or a way to practice self care.
Consider what that looks like in a system change effort. How often do we isolate ourselves or narrow our focus such that we miss seeing the whole system and the impact we have on it? I believe that is actually a very common experience. A system is like a rubber band. It takes conscious awareness and effort to change its shape and without that, it quickly goes back to the way it was. The more complex the change or entrenched the system, the more difficult it is to make change. Yet, change is possible.
We are often holding two systems - our current way of being shaped by our past and our emerging way of being based on an unknown future. This is a space of presence. To stand in this moment and reflect on the changes you are experiencing or want to make. How does courage and acceptance play in that change? How will you choose to show up to consciously impact the systems you are in to make change?