In 2018, during a residency about systemic change related to deep-seeded societal problems, I was asked to find a visual around which to tell the other participants a story of my work at the time.
Here is the backstory.
I had been working intensely with a team of brilliant and kind individuals in a community-based innovation hub to develop pilot services for neurodivergent individuals and their families. The idea was that through these initiatives, we could not only help hundreds over families per year, but also share our learning with others who might choose to launch similar services. Moreover, with demonstrated success, we would be able to better advocate with government to take on these services in the public sector for the long-term.
For two of our pre-school childrens’ services (diagnostic and navigation services), we had signed an agreement with the provincial government. The agreement stipulated that after a five-year runway during which we would develop and run these services with certain targeted outcomes thanks to our generous donors, the provincial government would: 1) ensure that no child would wait longer than 90 days for a diagnosis (as opposed to the 1+ years that people were waiting at the time); and 2) absorb the costs of the navigation services we were supporting into their recurring annual budgets. Those two services are the ones about which I was pre-occupied upon arrival at the residency.
We were 3.5 years into that five-year period of the agreement with the government. We were assessing and supporting close to 300 children per year for the diagnostic services alone, we were continuing to grow, we were starting to publish papers about the services in case others would find this useful, and we were working toward ensuring the sustainability of our work via the public sector, as per the agreement. It was an election year.
So I talked about eggs.
I presented what I found to be an exquisite photo of two eggs that you see here, one on top of the other. To me this was a photo about both beauty and fragility. My story revolved around my feeling that though our incredible team had come so far, the results always felt fragile, at times even on the verge of collapse. This is what kept us up at night … constantly.
Let me explain.
No sooner had we signed the agreement with the government in 2014 and celebrated this unprecedented moment, then the government announced a complete overhaul of the health system, throwing the system and network of public health agencies into disarray and making progress of our work difficult.
We succeeded nonetheless, albeit more slowly than anticipated, in establishing partnerships with public health centres for referral corridors. But they were sometimes paved with discomfort among these health centres with the idea of referring families to us, a community organization, instead of to the public sector. The same applied for referrals from us for follow-up services to local public health agencies once our services were complete.
We also worked hard to establish relationships with other community and public sector partners and then often had to start all over again as people left and new people came in. We were working closely and directly with the provincial ministry of health to reduce wait times for diagnosis more generally. However, this awkward partnership between a public sector body with a certain mindset and accountabilities on one hand, and a community organization with an entrepreneurial DNA on the other, was fraught with tension amidst the progress. We needed each other to advance and I truly believe that we both wanted things to get better. But we did not think the same way.
The list goes on.
What I learned in that moment of sharing this visual, and then throughout the residency and in other experiences since then, is that beauty and fragility are part of the inevitable story of change in complex and longstanding systems that seem to resist it.
I had spent so much of my career prior to this work in a mindset of “doing”, “problem-solving” and “finishing” one mandate before starting another. But I learned that when we enter into the world of systemic change, we agree to enter into uncertainty, imperfect knowledge and unpredictability. I had to let go of my reflex to pursue linear paths to planned outcomes, or “deliverables” that show you that you have “arrived” at some endpoint. We cannot just check off a box.
As Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton (2006; p. 161) have pointed out with respect to efforts to contribute to a better world, “success is not a fixed address.” We are working to improve a system we cannot and will never control. We are often walking into ‘’ways of doing and ‘ways of being’ that have existed for so long that they are simply taken for granted. And at the same time, we are walking into complex socio-political systems that are in constant flux, and in which everything seems to interact with everything else.
So, we have to continually adapt to the surprises that come our way, and continue to open new doors when one closes.
There is enormous relief and comfort in knowing that all of this is not only ok, but to be expected. And at the end of the day, the question I have come to regularly ask is: are we making a difference? If the answer is YES, we keep going.
Well, the election that we were anticipating at the time of the residency came and went. And a new party came into power. The landscape changed once again. And the story continued.
Westley, F., Zimmerman, F. & Quinn Patton, M. (2006). Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed. Vintage Canada.
Image- Courtesy: Geraldo Pace
Malvina Klag is a strategist working in the area of systemic change, social innovation and strategic planning in complex contexts. She is also a Research Affiliate at the J.W. Burns Leadership Institute, I.H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba.