Letting Go Of Power To Unleash Real Change

Revolutionising organisations through participation, social movements and human centred networks

Look inside any modern organisation and the chances are that power remains in the hands of a select group of people. These legacy, top down structures have kept their legitimacy for hundreds of years, but are they still fit for purpose in the 21st century?

D/SRUPTION spoke to Esther Foreman, Chief Encouragement Officer at The Social Change Agency (SCA) and co-founder of Losing Control, about the need for participatory and collaborative power.

Frustrated with how social change was being held back, Foreman set up the SCA to help revolutionise organisations by building social movements and human centred networks.

“Large scale social change happens in a much more participatory way than it used to. Partly that’s because the internet has given people this extraordinary capacity to communicate across distance in a way that was inconceivable just 50 years ago,” she says. “On a deeper level, it also has to do with the rise of representative democracy and the political climate we’re now living in: people expect a say in their own lives. Because they can expect this from government, why should they not expect it from businesses, civil society and every other area of life?”

“SCA is a product of our times, working with charities, businesses and community groups to unleash the collective power of their networks and build people-powered movements to innovate and create change.”

This approach is innovative, ambitious and can be intimidating. With the centuries-old culture of centralised power and top down decision making deeply rooted in our institutions and society as a whole, losing control can be a frightening prospect. The SCA team help organisations work through these challenges to achieve transformative social impact.

Why change needs to happen

Today, big brands are starting to get on board with the idea not just of corporate social responsibility but of pro-actively trying to have a positive impact on the world. Increasingly this has become the norm because it’s responding to what people actually want, not just in terms of a product but the values they identify with. Foreman predicts this trend will only grow with time.

“You can see it in the really big brands like Nike, where the heart and soul is bigger than just corporate social responsibility. You can have a purpose to a brand, but if people are taking part in something and feel like they’ve got no power, it’s not genuine. Businesses need to think about how they involve customers, consumers and members in a meaningful way, or they’ll just get left behind. It’s about willingness to be held accountable, to listen and to co-create.”

The government has encouraged businesses to do exactly this in its Civil Society Strategy, published in August this year. The Civil Society Strategy holds that thriving communities are reliant on five foundations of social value: people, places, the social sector, the private sector, and the public sector. By working together, they can achieve far more than when acting independently. However, these groups struggle to interact.

The challenge for social change agents is to find a common dialogue between fundamentally different organisations. By setting up Losing Control, SCA has provided an environment in which these difficult conversations can take place.

“The idea is that if you are really genuine about creating impact in a participatory way, you need to leave your egos outside the room, understand underlying power dynamics, use the right language and be creative,” says Foreman. “If you don’t bring those into the style of learning, things will just carry on the same.”

Lose control, gain collaboration

The first step is to start conversations about collaboration and how it can help organisations abandon limited power hierarchies. One of the ways that UK organisations can learn to harness this power is through SCA’s Losing Control event and network. After a promising debut in 2017, Losing Control will return on the 5th – 6th February next year. The peer led conference brings together delegates from across industries to tackle difficult questions about how to start – and sustain – real change.

“Losing Control is our flagship conference, bringing together a whole different range of organisations from across sectors to look at what happens when you take a participatory approach to change,” Foreman says. “We ran it last year, had an amazing response, and got funding for another event next year from four foundations who are interested in finding out how the participatory approach works.”

Over the course of the two day conference, attendees will meet people from across sectors who are wrestling with the same questions around power, authenticity and control. The Losing Control conferences aren’t just events, either – there is a network of learning in between.

“We’ve got a whole range of delegates coming, from the Cabinet Office to the MS Society, to small social enterprises. This conference is not a veneered version of the truth. It’s going to ask what has been done, what has been learned from it and how it can be done better.”

Having the needs of customers, campaigners and members at heart creates a closer connection to end users and makes for better business. But to unleash its full power, the participatory approach must run even deeper than this. Changing the distribution of power and working collaboratively is vital to building better businesses. Power, says Foreman, is about decision making. If decision making is limited, then so are the decisions.

“If you want to fuel creativity and create disruption, take a completely different approach and involve loads of people. We’re not saying every organisation needs a completely horizontal structure – that might not be appropriate. But power over others is no substitute for power with others, and your power – as a CEO, a trustee, whatever – has to be quite transparent, otherwise it builds a sense of mistrust. This is why public trust in civil society, media and government have fallen to historically low levels.”

“Honesty, humility and trust really are the key elements. Without that, people won’t give you their best: not your colleagues and not your clients or supporters. And without that, you can’t give people your best either. The best way to ensure your product or service meets the needs of your clients is to find ways to involve them in the actual design process.”

For more information about Losing Control, visit https://www.losingcontrol.org/ .

The Social Change Agency helps organisations to achieve change through access to a range of resources including market research, power analysis, community outreach, data, and rebranding. The consultancy can assist organisations with business process planning, mergers, restructuring and leadership support, providing spot consulting and ad hoc advice. Instead of charging a flat fee for everyone, clients can pay for what they need, when they need it.

To learn more about The Social Change Agency, visit https://thesocialchangeagency.org

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