activism books

Book review: How Change Happens, by Duncan Green

how-change-happensThere are so many different people out to change the world – activists and campaigners, politicians, academics, business people, community groups. All of them have their own understanding of change, although the chances are that many will never have given it much thought. How Change Happens seems like a pretty important topic then, and Duncan Green is a good person to take on the challenge. As the senior strategic advisor at Oxfam GB he has access to a global network of change agents, and his book is informed by a huge range of activists from all round the world.

Green has a distinctive philosophy behind his work, which draws on systems theory. He refers to it as a ‘power and systems approach’, grounded in the observation that change is not a linear process: do A, and B will follow. Society is complex and often unpredictable.

This is actually quite countercultural. “I was told that good campaigns require three things: a problem, a solution, and a villain” writes Green. “Systems thinking, on the other hand, suggests problems are multiple, interrelated, and complex, solutions are unknowable in advance and likely to emerge through trial and error, and at least some villains are likely to be indispensable allies in bringing about change.”

Alongside systems theory, the other big element of the ‘power and systems’ approach is understanding and analysing power. There are various kinds of power, and it’s important to know how they function in any given situation. Most activism aims at the visible power structures of government, but the ‘invisible power’ of social norms can be just as critical. There’s the ‘power within’ of self-confidence that allows people to act, the collective power of joint action, and rights and freedoms that let people make decisions.

Power is often held in institutions, so the book has chapters on law, government, corporations, political parties, the media, etc. Each chapter shows in broad brush strokes how change happens through each of those institutions, how they affect each other and how they can be influenced. Some of this will be familiar, especially to those involved in campaigning, but it’s an engaging overview with lots of good examples.

Those examples and case studies are one of the book’s big strengths, as Green reports from situations all over the world. A book like this could be very academic and full of theory, but this has a real world, boots on the ground sort of feel. There are references to thinkers and influencers, but you’re just as likely to get a pithy quote from a local activist somewhere. You’ll get Gramsci or Durkheim on one page, and on the next a Filipina activist, balancing the role of grassroots and government action:  “How do you cook a rice cake? With heat from the bottom and heat from the top.”

There’s a humility here, a recognition that good ideas can come from anywhere. Accepted wisdom is put aside and Green is willing to examine unexpected changes or counterintuitive findings. We all need to remember our place. “Progressive change is not primarily about us activists: it occurs when poor people and communities take power into their own hands; shifts in technology, prices, demography, and sheer accident can be far more important that the actions of would-be change agents.”

The last section of the book attempts to apply power and systems thinking practically. Given that it’s not the normal campaign approach, it’s worth mentioning a few of the principles. Observe first, is one. Be a ‘reflectivist’: look for where change is happening already, look for ‘positive deviance’. Resist the lure of top down solutions. Cultivate “curiosity, humility, self awareness, and openness to multiple viewpoints.” Start multiple projects on slightly different lines, and let them compete. Get feedback fast, and listen and adapt. “At least to a certain extent, the best activists make it up as they go along.”

Instead of creating masterplans, we should try things, learn, and adapt as we go. The power and systems approach “views failure, iteration and adaptation as expected and necessary, rather than a regrettable lapse.” It sees economics as more akin to evolution than to physics, a changing and dynamic process rather than one of fixed laws. “Rather than thinking of strategy as a single plan built on predictions of the future, we should think of strategy as a portfolio of experiments that competes and evolves over time.”  (These have been encouraging words this week, as it happens. My brother and I are currently designing a pilot project for a large charity, and this has been the week that our loose and freewheeling vision has met the immovable object of the standard project planning template. We will see which one prevails.)

How Change Happens is a very practical book, though the author insists it’s “not a manual.” That would imply a checklist of things to do, which is the opposite of the power and systems idea. What it will give you is all sorts of tools to analyse your situation, questions to ask, and case studies to inspire. Most of all, it complicates easy answers and encourages fresh thinking in activism, and that’s a fine thing in my view.

Whether your organisation will let you entertain these ideas or not is another matter of course, but there’s more to discuss on the website, so it’s worth having a conversation about it together. And the book is available to buy or to download for free, so there’s no excuse for not colouring in your mental diagram of how change happpens.


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