How Do You Change a System That Doesn’t Want to Change?

There were two recurring P words throughout the New Local ‘Stronger Things’ event in London’s Guildhall.

Permission: give it.

Power: share it.

The Guildhall was built in the 15th century to demonstrate the continuing power of the merchants of the City of London who regulated trade, and to ensure they preserved that same power. A fitting venue then to bring together the boldest and brightest thinkers at the forefront of the Community Power movement.

Community Power is the idea that local communities should have much greater influence and control over the plans, decisions, and public services that affect their lives. It’s an alternative to the status quo where big business and the state have the greatest power over the lives of communities rather than communities themselves. 

So the recurring motifs of permission and power are important:

Will our organisations and institutions give us permission to do things in radically different ways?

Will our organisations and institutions show themselves to be power sharers or power hoarders?

Based on recent history we can probably take an informed guess to answer those questions.

Will our organisations and institutions give us permission to do things in radically different ways?

Radically? Probably not

Will our organisations and institutions show themselves to be power sharers or power hoarders?

Not without radically different leadership.

What does radically different leadership look like though? Prof. Donna Hall spoke of us needing a different style of leader who has read Radical Help by Hilary Cottam and fully understands community power and the urgent need for us to give power away.

Leaders who have all read Radical Help? Perhaps we are being unfair but my colleague and I were musing about how many senior leaders had even heard of it, never mind read it.

Donna went even further, suggesting that every CEOs performance appraisal should be based upon what radical transformation they have overseen in the past year, with remuneration adjusted as a result. How do we transform a system? ‘We need teams of rebels within organisations, across systems’.

I agree with all of this but when power is pooled so heavily at the top of the system I think we need more than teams of rebels.

Dominic Campbell tweeted that perhaps we need more creative destruction if we are to truly transform. He’s correct that very little time is devoted to organisational or system design and its role in perpetuating the system. I feel that you could completely replace the leadership of most organisations and the system would keep running as before.

In another context I was struck by comments of Brendan Marsh talking about the challenges of introducing progressive structures – in this case Big Consultancy attempting to do a copy-paste of the Spotify Agile model, into an established hierarchical organisation. He says it’s like ‘trying to introduce modern technology to an Amish community’. The shock to the system is like electroconvulsive therapy, so of course the system will reject it.

Perhaps I’m wrong though, and you can change the leader and subvert the system. Certainly Mark Adam Smith showed the power of leaders simply removing barriers for people and freeing them to innovate (“They were pissed off but didn’t really know why”). As he said “We didn’t start by trying to improve services, we started with people. We didn’t try to do things better, we try to do better things. We’re not going to assess people, we’re going to understand them.”

In Gateshead he has promoted “a liberated method” for colleagues on the frontline, freeing them up to be more creative in the support they provide to people providing they stick to its two rules: do no harm and stay legal.

“If you give people freedom they will innovate”.

It seems a lot of the time it’s the very institutions that are supposed to be helping that are actually getting in the way.

So, how do we practically change a system that doesn’t really want to change? Because once you truly understand a system determining how to change it can quickly overwhelm your capacity to comprehend it, let alone act.

Perhaps practically we can have more conversations about another P word:


Paternalism is characterised by a dominant attitude of superiority, “We know, you don’t”.

And the visible signs of paternalism are meetings where community is never mentioned and has no seat at the table.

Perhaps if we brought the community to the table ( or better still, took the table to the community) we’d change the conversation and by changing the conversation we’d change the system.

Ultimately we do need both a different leadership behaviour and a different system.  People who carry a lot of power don’t always realise what it’s like to walk around in a place that’s not made to operate in their favour. 

Tony Benn once said there were five questions to ask people in power which indicated what kind of democracy was in operation.

  • What Power Have You Got?
  • Where Did You Get It From?
  • In Whose Interests Do You Exercise It?
  • To Whom Are You Accountable?
  • How Can We Get Rid Of You?

They sound like good questions for any organisation to answer if we are to build momentum with this movement. With perhaps the addition of one more:

Will You Give Your Power Away?

Related: Technology Is Not Innovation