Lesson 5: Shift systems with humility
The interviews showed that one of the most powerful approaches to systems change is to make the process of social change “flatter” – namely, to devolve leadership and decision-making to the communities most impacted by the issues themselves. This approach, which goes far beyond the strategies for consultation and participation that most social-sector organizations embrace, is not a one-time event or even a process. When done correctly, it reimagines what a social enterprise looks like: who leads, who manages and who profits.
As already seen, complex social problems defy conventional approaches to problem-solving. The dynamic and distributed nature of social systems, with many actors making decisions separately but simultaneously, makes outcomes nearly impossible to predict. Linear, top-down approaches to problem-solving are often disconnected and time-consuming, with slow feedback loops. As a result, decisions and policies often take too long to implement and are obsolete by the time they reach the ground.
As systems scientist Yaneer Bar-Yam reflects, “Centrally controlled or hierarchical organizations are not capable of highly complex tasks.”1 In the last two decades, hierarchical organizational and leadership styles have been slowly dismantled in favour of “flatter” or “networked” styles; yet, social enterprises and the social sector generally seem to be slow to adopt these new organizational forms. Furthermore, many of the popular business frameworks for leadership and organizational development are designed to promote the longevity of organizations themselves; they exist to help organizations adapt to a changing world, rather than to help them fundamentally change the world.
All the organizations interviewed are working to incorporate and learn from the experiences of their clients (or, to use a less-than-ideal term, beneficiaries). Nidan has taken this approach to leadership and learning the furthest. In his initial efforts to mobilize street vendors, Singh quickly realized that a traditional, top-down approach to community development would only perpetuate the plight of these informal workers, creating dependencies that could be exploited further if basic rights were not addressed. Therefore, building on the examples of other community organizers in India, Singh developed a model to help informal workers organize themselves, creating advocacy platforms alongside sustainable businesses to grow markets for their products and services.
Nidan incubates these organizations by identifying common needs across informal worker groups, working with them to develop a sustainable business model and assisting in the process of democratically identifying leaders. These organizations are registered as a range of legal entities, including non-profit organizations, for-profit companies and cooperatives. Regardless of their type, all share the same philosophy of including informal workers in board and leadership positions, and as shareholders. Once the organizations are operational, Nidan provides supportive services to them, including financial reporting, audits, training and governance, as well as ongoing access to the broader Nidan network. The aim is to create self-sustaining entities that will exist in perpetuity, even if Nidan were to close its doors.
Nidan is reversing the traditional “command and control” approach to development by bringing together groups of informal workers and allowing them to create a collective identity and shared understanding of their problems. It is breaking down the transactional relationship that many social enterprises develop with their clients or customers. Creating the momentum for self-organizing requires intensive investment in communities and leaders. Nidan invests heavily in the capacity of leaders among the informal workers who are their constituents. While this could easily become an exercise in name only, Singh insists that it is, in fact, the primary purpose of their work: “If you have respect for all levels of participation, leaders will emerge. And if we have done our work correctly, the organization will have a life of its own.”
Margaret Wheatley, the writer and systems theorist, describes this evolution of leadership as “the journey from hero to host”. She writes: “Heroic leadership rests on the illusion that someone can be in control. Yet we live in a world of complex systems whose very existence means they are inherently uncontrollable.”2 By distributing power and decision-making more widely, and particularly among those who have the most to gain, organizations like Nidan are responding to complexity in the most humble way possible – by letting go.
This style of leadership can be deeply uncomfortable and can even produce feelings of vulnerability, particularly for social entrepreneurs who are used to knowing the answers. Rather than seeing control as their main function, systems entrepreneurs engage in continuous learning, becoming deeply embedded in the communities where they operate, while also working to integrate thinking across many sectors and geographies. They are curious, fostering an environment that inspires people to learn and empowers them to act. Most importantly, they are quick to acknowledge others; they realize that the end goal is not to gain credit and promote their solutions, but to substantially change the way the system works for everyone.
A powerful insight about systems change is understanding that the system is everyone. Social systems are complex because human beings are complicated, with myriad perspectives, motivations and beliefs. And while this diversity is a strength, as the world grows increasingly interconnected, the complexity grows. However, by finding new ways of working together, organizing and distributing power and resources so that communities become stronger and more resilient, people have the potential to harness complexity for substantial good.