Organising the Critical Yeast of Change

by Sean Andrew

October 2, 2023

Sean is the Learning and Practice Partner Lead at the School of System Change. This article, Organising the Critical Yeast of Change, is part of a series exploring our intentions for inquiry and storytelling through six key themes as we live into our new way of being at the School.

How we organise internally is just as important as how we organise for change in the world - if not more important. We - Anna Birney, Louise Armstrong and I - have previously written about how governance is a place of untapped potential for change. At the School of System Change, we are inquiring into how we are organising internally; this article shares some insights and reflections on the journey thus far.

Why do we need to consider how we organise? While systems change can often be seen as an outcome, we also believe it is a social process of learning and adapting amongst those working together that contribute to the changes we’re aiming for in the world. Further, it’s a practice: a granular everyday practice of attending to the deeper ways in which we think, act, relate, and ultimately are, as we work to shift and shape patterns toward a desired future.

The emergence of a new pattern of organising or systems structure. Credit: School of System Change

Pioneering environmental scientist Donella Meadows defined a system as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something (function or purpose).” Change initiatives and collaboratives are themselves systems with big goals (or purposes). But how often do you consider how we might coherently organise their anatomy and patterns in order to contribute to our desired function or purpose - the change we are trying to make in the world?

Beginning with the School Enabling Circle, in this article I’ll share with you some of the experiments we’ve been testing out at the School as we commit to a deep process of exploring how our internal organising efforts might support us to work towards the impact we wish to see in the world (as well as to be more effective in our day-to-day work and to feel more connected in our teams).

The fractal view: a note on relationality

Before we dive in, I want to provide a bit of framing on relationality - the critical yeast of organising (see more on ‘critical yeast’ from John Paul Lederach). If you want to get to the practice then by all means jump ahead.

Meadows’ definition of a systems (above) recognises that at the heart of change is a web of relationality, and that this web is nested at multiple levels, each contributing to each other. We must attend to all levels all the time, understanding their interconnectedness. It is our tendency however, as we organise for change, that we focus only on the outer level - where we want to have impact. Whilst there is the more subtle inquiry of how we organise in the microcosmic experience, as a joyful, lived, embodied reality, for those of us coming together. This is where the coherence and entangled miracle and mystery of life organising can be lived. Seeing it as a mathematical equation risks taking an instrumental approach of causality.

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” - Mahatma Gandhi

These are the actual words from Gandhi which are usually misquoted as ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. Through them we can unearth the essence of this relational worldview. As such, I encourage you to consider Gandhi’s invitation to a different paradigm of the miracle of life (mysterious coherence) that we experience in our own bodies and the living systems we are a part of. This means we cannot lead change in the world if we are not doing the inner and relational transformation.

Our nested network structure

There are three layers within our network structure we’re concurrently experimenting with as we continue to evolve how we organise at the School:

  • Enabling Circle
  • Wider network of international facilitators and partners 
  • Our ecosystem of contributors, alumni and wider partners
Draft of layers within our network structure. Credit: Abdul Dube, Graphic Recorder/Facilitator at Visual Confidence. Drawn at the School team away days in Berlin, June 2023.

I’ll introduce the Enabling Circle layer in this article. It’s not comprehensive, but it hopefully gives you an idea of where we’re starting from and where we are heading.

Layer 1: Enabling Circle

Our journey into how we organise and govern at the School breathes out from the essence of our Enabling Circle. This small team (get to know us) supports and elevates the work of the School. We show up Monday to Friday to keep our collective heart beating so that the network keeps thriving. Without this team, the School of System Change would not function. Therefore, it is crucial to consider the health of these individuals, our relationships, and how we organise together. This is all situated in developing a relational culture of well-being and mutuality for our individual and collective growth.

In practice, this looks like bridging the gap between what we espouse, enact, and ultimately experience in our work together. As shared, we’ve been doing this by iteratively weaving together experiments including:

  • Figuring out when and how we meet and our roles
  • Determining how we make decisions (for example, proposing and testing out a text template to enable team decision-making and logging)
  • Sharing our individual ways of working (see the template we use below) and personal inquiry questions
  • Interrogating capacity and resourcing so we can work in a healthy balanced way
  • Cultivating a transparent culture of agency and accountability that builds belonging
Individual ways of working template. Credit: School of System Change

At the beginning of 2023, we set an intention to build on all the governance work started in the School as we began to enter a new phase of evolving the organisation’s structures, processes, practices and culture - our governance model and ways of organising.

Right off the bat, we were conscious of the need to balance boundaries around resourcing, capacity, and headspace across our work with our ambitions to gradually improve our shared experience, centre well-being in our cultural practices, and work more transparently and effectively.

What brings us joy at work. Credit: Abdul Dube, Graphic Recorder/Facilitator at Visual Confidence. Drawn at the School team away days in Berlin, June 2023.

With this in mind, we set off with an incremental iterative approach of designing, testing and embedding new ways of organising in the School through small experiments that could weave into our everyday work. Our aim was for these experiments to feel supportive for individuals, the team and ultimately the work we were doing in the world. We decided to hold this lightly, collectively sensing into the shared priorities that feel most alive and useful to us to adapt our existing structures in a way that is ‘right-sized’ to what we can hold between us.

We see this as a space to consolidate the ways of organising that we want to ripple through our budding network. Adopting a systemic action inquiry cycle was core to this by determining what questions we have, what actions we might take, observing and documenting the experience, and reflecting on what new questions we had.

Action inquiry cycle. Credit: School of System Change

Eventually, we aim to develop a School ways of organising handbook (learn more about handbooks in this great podcast by Greaterthan) but we are wary to jump right into creating this output, as we want it to unfold in a way that meets our team's needs and ability in context. However, plans are afoot, so watch this space.

Our first experiment of 2023: our working rhythms

The School has been tending to multiple governance entry points over the past years. More recently, we have focused on a few elements based on the needs of our people and working context. I want to zoom in on the first experiment of 2023 as it feels like the most alive and opens up the conversations about the other facets of how we organise: our working rhythms.

I love how Richard Bartlett calls our working rhythms a “tempo” and how through these “rhythmic encounters,” we can build togetherness. Organisations are full of meetings; figuring out how they all come together in a way that supports open flows of information and shared meaning-making can be a logistical headache. So while we are currently restructuring our internal School team into a circle structure to bring a supportive form that devolves decision-making, we’ve begun with exploring when and how we meet about what in our Enabling Circle.

The approach has a few key features:

We meet quarterly to discuss and agree on priorities. We then meet in six-week cycles with one meeting per week to support our ability to live into these priorities. This becomes roughly 2 cycle per quarter.

The first meeting of this cycle is a ‘planning’ meeting where we articulate two things:

  • Our team objectives for the next six weeks that support the quarterly priorities
  •  Ways of organising experiments we want test and cultivate (see the gold stickies pictured below)
Ways of organising experiments. Credit: School of System Change

We then have four weekly ‘doing’ meetings where we check in, build an agenda together while articulating if this is a sharing, deciding or sensemaking item (we crowdsource items the week before). As the cycle closes we have a ‘reflection’ meeting, also known as a retrospective, where we look at both what we’ve done and our experience of working/organising together by looking at what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what changes are needed as we move into the next cycle. To get super systemic with this we (sometimes) use an I/You/We fractal framing.

All of these meetings are accompanied by a distinct meeting agenda that we’re continuously adapting as needed, using an adapted sociocratic meeting format as inspiration.

A key feature is we rotate roles each six-week cycle. With clear role briefs, we have a Host and a Harvester for each cycle who hold it all together and then hand over to new people at the close. This has been a fantastic way to build our collective capacity and distribute accountabilities so that we all feel a part of this approach.

What’s next?

We are hoping to keep documenting and sharing our ways of organising and governance experiments; and are aiming to document our internal ways of organising learnings and practice along the way. We’re particularly excited to share more on our blog about how the three layers of our fractal network structure weave together and influence one another.

In the meantime, we invite you to explore this inquiry with us through our new governance and ways of working programme, Constellating Change, running Oct 2023 - Apr 2024. At the first session on Wednesday 4 October we will navigate 'Learning in relationship' with contributors John Nkum and Jen Sandler - we’d love for you to join us. Learn more about Constellating Change.

To keep inquiring with us as we explore our themes for 2023, subscribe to the School newsletter for reflections, articles and resources, and read the opening article, Our Seeds for Storytelling, to learn more.

by Sean Andrew

Learning and Practice Partner Lead at the School of System Change

  • #Relational
  • #In Practice