Making Change That Matters

“You never understand a system until you start to try to change it.”

— Lewin

“It is easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting.”

— *(See Footnote)

These two quotes rounded off the interview I got to do on The Human-Current Podcast and they are RedQuadrant favourites, tracing back to my former business partner, Dennis Vergne, doing the excellent coaching and consulting for change course at Oxford Saïd/HEC Paris business schools. More importantly, they chime so well with my experience, and some of the bigger lessons I have learned in my career.

I started off studying philosophy, as we discussed on the podcast – however I also studied politics, and was involved in politics from a very early age, doing leafleting with my mum from the time I could carry a bundle of leaflets, and joining a political party at the ripe old age of 16. Back then, I believe that policy was the main driver of change, and even though I edged more towards social movements and ideas at university, I’m glad that I had two experiences which started to knock that idea out of me. First, straight out of uni, I had two very operational jobs – admin for a youth development charity, and co-ordinator for an advice centre. So I saw something very different – the critical importance of ‘operations’ to make a difference in the world – the primacy of the quality of service and the experience of the organisation, both for the customer (or citizen) and for the employee.

Still, when I got a fancy job as Adviser to Leader of the Council (or Adviser to Mayor – the title changed a bit, but the bloke I worked for stayed the same!), I was still convinced that politics made a difference. And it did – but I also saw the compromises, and more importantly the many, many times when not acting was the only way to reduce risk and maintain power and influence for the future. I was a non-political council officer, but working directly for political leaders with a thin majority, both in the electorate and within the ruling group. It was paralyzing.

Still, when I moved on to a fancy consultancy (PricewaterhouseCoopers, as it was then called – PWC), I still thought that the power of my intellect and insight could change the world. Working with a sublimely talented, competitive, and capable team of colleagues in an organisational structure I ultimately wasn’t comfortable with, we produced brilliant reports. Clients were (sometimes) duly impressed. However, it slowly began to dawn on me that… nothing was actually changing. Either we were hired to perform some organisational ‘pantomime’ – a great display of effort for change, without the actual pain of change – or the intentions of our sponsors just weren’t enough to mobilise change. We did some great work, don’t get me wrong. But more often, we produce high-quality shelfware.

The rest of my career has largely been a downhill spiral – the reports got shorter and shorter, the action plans rose to prominence, rapid improvement events were the focus, then the action plans faded a bit too and we started to primarily just focus on real action – have a look, make a hypothesis (predict something that will improve things!), make a change, regroup and learn, and do it all over again. And keep doing it. Some dismiss this as tinkering – not theory-led or vision-led or big-bang enough. But I’ve never learned more about the actual organisational systems, and never got bigger change done, than now. We still sometimes write reports – sometimes nice ones – and I get to talk about big ideas. But the real work is making change that matters…

So when I was asked what action, what next step, I would recommend, I jotted down: ‘Learn! Explore! Think! Have a laugh…’ The final step is doubly important – a huge risk in all of this is coming to take yourself too seriously, and coming to lose your joy in the work.

And you couldn’t learn more, and make a bigger change for the better, than making an experiment on your culture: in your organisation, try to find the stories that encapsulate the gut reactions people have had to organisational systems, symbolism, and leadership behaviours. Try to predict what change in the latter would change the former positively. And predict what the response will be – and how you’ll respond. If it’s in your power, do it, and see what happens.

*this quote is attributed to so many people I’ve given up looking, though a Facebook friend kindly traced it on Google Scholar to Albert Mehrabian (he who didn’t prove that non-verbal communication makes up 93% of the meaning), in his 1970 Tactics of Social Influence. He’s a cool dude so I’m happy to leave it there unless anyone has an earlier citation!


You can listen to the HumanCurrent podcast here and don’t forget to subscribe in iTunes. This blog was written by recent guest, systems thinker, and business evolutionary, Benjamin Taylor. Benjamin is a Managing Partner at RedQuadrant, Chief Executive at The Public Service Transformation Academy, and a non-executive Director at SCiO. He is a frequent contributor on, an online forum for system thinkers, and a moderator on the Linkedin group System Thinking Network.

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