Bronagh Gallagher: There's a revolution going on that you might not know about

Bronagh Gallagher says it’s time to reset what we think we know

YOU are living through a revolution. One you might not notice. One that may not be visible in the streets, but one which will, no doubt, have profound implications for anyone who wants to make change in the world. 

This is a silent revolution. One that takes place at a level which is so often unexamined that when first encountered it can leave you dizzy as some long-held assumptions are fundamentally challenged. I know it did for me. 

This is a revolution in worldviews, and for activists and social change workers, our challenge to is to get to grips with it as soon as we can so we can be at the forefront of it.

This is a revolution in worldviews, and for activists and social change workers, our challenge to is to get to grips with it as soon as we can so we can be at the forefront of it.

We don’t often think about worldviews, they’re probably not often even explicitly mentioned, even among close friends, but everyone has one. It’s how you understand the world and all that takes place it. 

For well over 200 years a dominant worldview in the West has been mechanical, evolving with Newtonian physics and industrial engineering. It says that within human society it is possible to say that A will lead to B, that events follow a clear linear, causal path and that by following steps we will achieve pre-determined outcomes. 

Not sure if this really has shaped our world? Then think about every institution or change process you’ve been involved with. Perhaps it started with an action plan, some agreed upon outcomes, even targets and a clear sense that we know where we are going and that we know exactly how to get there. 

Then, think about what actually happened. Did it go according to plan? Did you achieve exactly what you set out to achieve? The chances are there was at least a little detour. As a worldview, it is so pervasive we don’t even recognise that it is one because this is the way we’ve been doing things for so long. 

For anyone working in social change we are too familiar with the day-to-day reality of this. The constantly shifting policy landscape in which you try and make your work fit only to see policy evolve or be supplanted. The never-ending task of writing plans and proposals that we know aren’t really what we think will happen but will get us the money to do what needs to be done. 

For well over 200 years a dominant worldview in the West has been mechanical, evolving with Newtonian physics and industrial engineering.

Think of all the wasted resources on initiatives that didn’t work even though it was good practice or best practice because results are expected to be repeatable. All the policy that is handed down to be implemented even when those on the ground can tell you it won’t work.

Want to know how change really happens? Think about nature and ecosystems, not machines and clock parts. This is the worldview of complexity science. A genuine paradigm shift, it turns on its head long established understandings of how the world actually works. 

Gone are determined outcomes, long term strategic plans and commitment to rolling out interventions or approaches everywhere, at the same time. For every revolution, there is a call to arms and complexity’s is this - let go of certainties about where we are trying to get to and how to get there, and start the journey of experimentation, testing small ideas, learning from failure, and rapidly evolving the good ideas that work. 

Embrace new forms of leadership which are comfortable with not knowing the answer, which let go of long term views and which value failing, listening and learning.

Think about the world we are in now – Brexit, a second Scottish independence referendum, Donald Trump, climate change, austerity – now tell me you know exactly what to do and exactly how you’ll work and lead as events unfold. 

Want to know how change really happens? Think about nature and ecosystems, not machines and clock parts. This is the worldview of complexity science.

Of course, it is impossible, but by shifting worldview and adopting a complexity mindset and the tools and habits that go with it, we have a much better chance of doing work that makes a lasting difference to the people we are working with and for and of, better leading our organisations and helping them safely navigate the reality of these complex times.

Complexity may be emerging but it is no fad. It draws from natural sciences, adopts scientific method and will be transformative in much of what we do – from economics to governance – over the coming years.

This revolution may be silent, but I hope that I’ll see you on the front lines.

A two-day course on understanding and working in complexity specifically for voluntary sector and social change folks is being held in June. It will provide a basic understanding of what we mean when speaking about complexity, offer tools and frameworks to better work and lead in a complex space.

Find out more here.

Picture courtesy of photo fiddler

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