A Theory of Change: Two Loops

We stood all around the edges of the room, alternating between looking down at the masking tape shape on the floor and the story of it that flowed from our hosts. We were learning Berkana’s theory of change: Two Loops. My messy sketch of it (or a slightly cleaned up version is here):

The theory is that as a system nears its peak, the new system starts being born. People drop out and walk out, innovating something new. Not everyone walks out of the current system, not everyone can. Some are needed to stay behind and maintain excellence as best as they can. I think of school teachers who know so painfully that the system is broken yet return day after day to do their best to support the kids. The leadership role here is to name what is going on with the walk outs, and the realization that others who have also walked out are also doing this contributes to the energy of emergence.

While pathfinders work in close relationship with members of their community of place, they may be unaware that they are part of a global community of practitioners. And because they are so busy doing their work, they often fail to notice that their efforts have importance beyond their community. Reports of loneliness and exhaustion are frequent. It is essential to name the good work of these individuals and organizations, and to recognize it as a contribution not only to their communities, but to the future.

The next leadership role in nurturing the emergence of the new system is to connect; to network and build social capital, to build community. What we have learned from living systems is to create a healthier community, connect it to more of itself.  To make a system stronger, we need to create stronger relationships.

In nature, if a system is failing, the solution is to create more connections. This is also true of initiatives. Working intentionally to develop stronger connections both within a community and trans-locally is key. This may mean creating gathering spaces—both real and virtual—so that people can meet, exchange ideas and resources, and develop enduring relationships. These gatherings are a rich source of ideas, inspiration, consolation and confidence. They infuse pathfinders with clarity and motivation to keep experimenting and discovering solutions to their most pressing issues.

Next comes the role of communities of practice, of experiments and rapid learning. Failing forward and upwards as the new system continues to emerge. The leadership role here is to nourish:

If pathfinders are to persevere and be successful, they need to be nourished with many different kinds of resources. We’ve discovered that two of the most essential sources of nourishment are relationships and learning. As trusting relationships develop, we’re more capable of thinking boldly and taking risks. In this strong web of relationships, individuals learn from one another’s experiments, encourage each other to be inventive, discover what works and make visible the roadmap of change and transformation.

To help turn the corner, the leadership role is to illuminate, to make visible and share the stories.  Illuminate what is possible. There is also a role here of protecting what is emerging so the current system doesn’t oust it; like antibodies forcing out a perceived threat.

Many times, efforts that are based on new ways of thinking are either ignored, misperceived or even invisible. When they are noticed, they are often labeled as inspiring anomalies that do not cause people to change their basic beliefs, worldviews and practices. It takes time, attention and a consistent focus for people to see them for what they are: examples of what’s possible, of what our new world could be like. Illuminating, making visible and sharing the stories of these pathfinding efforts is vital as we encourage others to step forward on behalf of the issues that most concern them. These inspiring examples have helped to show that the future we yearn for already is coming into form in many places around the world.

And while this is happening, there is also the important work of hospicing and building bridges. There’s a big gap between when the new system has stability and the dying system. Making it less painful for those on the edges and who are falling through. Working with power. Helping the old system die, harvesting from it what we have learned, relationships, people; what do we want to remember? What is still needed in the new that will serve us well? And inviting the old over to the new.

A great soul, Lynda, recently described some hospice work her organization is doing, supporting the passing of the old and the possible emergence of something new. It’s so important (and enlightening!) to know where you are in the system and the context; that informs the conversation you need to have – right conversation, right time, right context. I know Lynda’s will be a rich conversation and can’t wait to hear what is harvested.

PS Here’s a great video of Deborah Frieze explaining the two loops theory.

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