A New Approach to Leading Change

6 reflection topics for leaders in pursuit of change

DSC01032 copy.jpg

By Michael Brennan

Civilla is a non-profit design studio dedicated to changing the way our public-serving institutions work. We wake up every day with the goal of improving one billion lives through institutions that are more compassionate, more effective, and less expensive to operate. There is no way we’ll be able to do this alone. It will take a community of leaders and change makers to rally around a new way forward.

We believe that the path to activating change requires leaders to reconsider the way they approach their work. Here’s our point of view on six leadership topics that we feel are worthy of earnest reflection:

Theory of Change

Enduring change efforts require a strong perspective on how change happens

We’ve become surprised by how many leaders lack of a point of view on how the human condition changes. Each year, billions of dollars are distributed into institutions that deliver services without changing the underlying condition. The result is that we often “rent” change with a short term fix. Not only is this type of impact unsustainable - but it also cripples the effective use of resources and can at times cause harm to the very community an institution is working within. At Civilla, we seek a long term view that moves solutions from the fringe through system adoption. This approach requires leaders to adopt a different mindset and pursue a different set of questions from the very outset.

Courageous leadership

Change requires leaders to stand with courage

Most of the momentum and resources in institutions are dedicated to supporting the status quo. Changing the way things have always been requires an enormous amount of courage. Courage can look like: moving in a direction that doesn’t yet have broad support; leveraging your personal credibility to place a bet on exploring a new way forward; taking action with a long haul view; creating air cover so that others can step into ambiguity and risk; arriving with the willingness to say “I don’t know.” At Civilla, we seek to partner with leaders who are committed to fostering courage in themselves and those around them in order to see change all the way through - no matter what. 

Working capital

The most powerful dollar invested in change efforts is a small, unrestricted bet on a team that knows how to produce value 

Most of the money invested in public-serving institutions is restricted. The intent of restricted money is to ensure that resources only get spent on work that delivers results, yet the opposite often happens. Restricted funds rarely cover the actual costs of bringing about change and typically limit a team’s ability to rely on intuition and judgement in an increasingly complex landscape. At Civilla, we see flexible working capital as an important component for navigating change. We seek opportunities where teams have the resources they require to maintain patience and go all in as they pursue meaningful work.


If change is going to scale it must draw upon the principles of emergence

One of the main reasons that change efforts don't scale is that they were never designed to do so. We see this often when solutions are rooted in programmatic frameworks and resource intensive delivery models. Not all solutions are meant to scale, and that’s okay. But for those leaders who are looking to go wide we believe that the most scalable and enduring change is rooted in what nature has discovered over the past 3.7 billion years: emergence. As we navigate change inside of institutions, one of our top priorities is ensuring that solutions are rooted in a deep understanding of the way change scales in living systems. 

Tiny teams

Small, networked teams are particularly well suited to drive change

Over and over, many of history’s great change efforts originated from small teams. Think of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Lab, Apple’s founding team, the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet, resources are often diverted to large organizations that continue to deliver projects that are wildly expensive and fall short of expectations. As the world moves towards open and distributed networks, organizations that deliver closed, heavy, and proprietary solutions are not going to deliver the change we aspire to see. At Civilla we’re actively designing our organization to fit into today's context. Our team leverages networks to bring together capabilities that deliver greater value, more enduring solutions, at a cost that is a fraction of the comparable industrial model.

deeply human

Change must be guided by the voices and experiences of real people

Enduring change will not emerge from packaged personas, customer segmentations, or a set of user stories. It requires deep relationships with the people who are most directly impacted by the work. At Civilla, we’re committed to closing the gap between public-serving institutions and the communities they work within to ensure people's stories and experiences guide decisions every step of the way. This enables community wisdom to arrive with enough strength to disrupt institutional inertia and deliver the depth, insight, emotion, and momentum that is needed to guide change.

Adam Selzer