August 2014

Forget about controlling or shaping transformative change! – An interview with Johannes Krause

CSOs are very good at managing projects: planning, managing, evaluating. But are these competences useful when it comes to the need to support systemic change? Can transformation be defined, planned and controlled just like most projects NGOs usually deal with?

Johannes Krause, founder and board member of Impuls — Agency for Applied Utopia, recently wrote an essay in which he digs deeper into the topic of transformative change theories and our scope of action to bring about system change. We have conducted an interview with Johannes where he summarizes the basic arguments and insights of his essay. To read his full essay, you can download the German original or the translated English version.

Johannes is leading the action learning process Competences for the Great Transition and is part of the Smart CSOs team. He holds a PhD in political philosophy and has worked as process facilitator in Global Citizenship, Leadership and Citizen Participation.

Starting this month you will lead the project Competences for the Great Transition, an action learning process for civil society change agents in Germany and linked to the international Smart CSOs Lab activities. What is your conception of the Great Transition or transformative change?

Humanity is currently facing a fundamental crisis: the time frame to counteract climate change before systemic tipping points are reached is closing but the international community seems incapable, even apathetic, to curb global warming in a joint effort. Global resource consumption continues unchecked despite earth’ limited resources because our economic system needs more consumption and more growth in order to function stably.

The complexity and correlation of these problems have increased and the human abilities to react have rigorously dwindled. What’s new about the current situation is that we continue to live far above our means. The dynamics of the system have become faster, unclear and unpredictable. It seems as if we’ve lost control.

An increasing number of people share this or a similarly serious assessment of the situation with a growing discomfort: When the current system has brought about all these crisis phenomena, when it becomes obvious that overcoming problems through incremental improvements inside the system does not work anymore, then it may be time for fundamental change. When our dominant civilization model has brought us into the dead end of an elementary threat, we may need a new model, a new system. System in this sense describes the entirety of the social structures and institutions, the cultural values and world views, the individual thoughts and behaviours that characterise our society. The change process from the old, formally stable, system to a new system of different shape is what we refer to when we talk about transformative change, Great Transition or system change.

How did you personally come to realise the need for transformative change? What has been your personal journey to this point?

I grew up in the context of system opposition in German Democratic Republic. Being part of a minority which was against the system and lived in its niche was my everyday childhood experience. After the collapse of state socialism and the quick reunification with West Germany it was not difficult to realise that the West was not the paradise either. I remember I was irritated in the early nineties by the invasion of adds, consumerism, the importance of money, competition, career etc. I did not feel “at home” in that new system. This was not the better society we had thought of under political oppression in GDR.

I guess my Christian socialisation plays a role, too, in my personal journey: the dream of the “Kingdom of God”, the possibility to live together in solidarity, justice, peace. Although my world views might have changed over the years, I have always kept the inner commitment to that vision. It is probably no co-incidence that I co-founded an “agency for applied utopianism”.

In your essay, Transformation – approaching a theory and practice of system change, you have compiled different theories and models of change, from Joseph Campell’s Hero’s Journey to the Smart CSOs change model. What common patterns of thought about transformative processes have you drawn from these different theories?

Transformation is initially an unsettling process of destabilisation and disintegration of the known and proven. The structures and institutions, frames and patterns of thought, which have worked so well until now that they became dominant, even self-evident, are no longer suitable. This process implies pain, internal and external conflict, disorientation, depression and similar distortions. There is no transformation without crisis.

A second point which the different theories and models of transformative change show is that, before the transformation occurs, it is neither possible to know when and how it will take place, nor what the new system will look like. The characteristic of transformative change is that “afterwards” different rules of the game, different linguistic categories, different system logics will apply. Within the perspective of the old system or paradigm the as yet unknown “New” cannot be imagined or described.

In other words, the transformation process can only be described ex post. Its development and outcome cannot be predicted and much less be managed or controlled. Theory and practice of system transformation have to allow for this fundamental openness and unpredictability of the transformation process.

You hence argue that transformation is in principal infeasible. Can you elaborate on that?

We are not capable of thinking the transformation process of our social system in an anticipative way. Much less can we bring it about and shape it.

What is specific about system-transformative changes is that they cannot occur within the familiar patterns of thought because transformation itself changes these patterns. It is highly demanding to even perceive the structures of our present system because they are inherent in, they shape, inform and determine our thinking – also our critical thinking. We should get used to be skeptical towards our own perceptions and thoughts and also treat our conceptions of transformation processes with caution knowing that they themselves flow from the old paradigm.

Transformative processes can only be described meaningfully in retrospective: from the perspective of the new system having come into existence, within its patterns of interpretation. As long as we are in the process we don’t know which meaning the present moment and its incidences will have had from a future post-transformative view. We will possibly have to accept that one cannot bring about transformation, but only let it happen. The demand of shaping and facilitating transformation is hence a contradiction in itself.

So if we cannot manage and control transformative processes and their outcomes, then, in your opinion, what can we do to support system change?

We may not be capable to bring about system transformation in an intended and controlled way. At the same time transformation can occur through none other than us. After all, it is us who think and conduct discourses, it is us who generate and consolidate meaning, it is us who carry, create and change institutions. We are the system and we are its constant change, its transformation. We contribute to system change and we can do this consciously – not as its managers, but as mindful participants who put themselves in service of the whole.

In my essay I identify more concretely four ways on how we can fundamentally change our mindsets and ways of living for a more humble and less controlled approach towards transformation. First of all, it seems important to me that we “loosen up mentally”, that we recognize common thinking and perception patterns, question them and become open to alternative thinking – examples being holistic vs. dualistic thinking, cyclical vs. linear thinking. This will also be about creating new thinking spaces and recognizing knowledge and wisdom that exists outside of the dominant western paradigm.

The second point is a kind of “gentle dissidence”: To acknowledge that we are part of the system and self-critically and self-reflectively question our actions and behaviour – as individuals, as organization, as society – and change them accordingly. Dissidence in a system in which power and opportunities are linked with very unequally distributed property and in which relationships are increasingly commercialized and monetized, could mean: Finding ways to give up on the ownership of money and private property, to use and maintain the commons, to use alternative currencies, to practice generosity, to share, to give, to receive…

This links to the third point, “lived alternatives”: We can experiment with and build new forms of living from which a new system can develop. What’s important is to support and connect these movements, cultivate them in their diversity and innovative capacity and ensure that on their way out of the niches they do not banalize, recommercialize or get co-opted from the mainstream consumption culture.

The last point is what I call an “undogmatic spirituality” which can serve as a support in handling the double challenge of losing old orientation patterns and values and acting nonconformist in a very powerful system. The experience of unity with a greater connection – the cosmos, the divine – brings about decisiveness, clarity and agency to advocate for what is felt to be right, even in the most difficult conditions.

How will these insights of theoretical and practical approaches to system change be applied in the German action learning process Competences for the Great Transition?

Currently civil society organisations are lacking transformative literacy, which means they lack the knowledge and capacity about the conditions for a profound system change and about possible strategies for the Great Transition. The organisational structure and the abilities of staff are usually not geared towards system change. What’s more, sustainable alliances and networks for the Great Transition are lacking just as much as forums where approaches and strategies can be developed across organisations and sectors.

The action learning process aims to change this by strengthening the transformative literacy of CSOs and establishing within the German civil society a community of practice for pioneers of the Great Transition. The participants will gain knowledge about transformative change strategies and get trained in their competencies as change agents, by using approaches of system thinking, values and frames, self-transformation, collaborative leadership etc.

Over the course of a year, the participants will implement an action research experiment within their respective organisation. Depending on where the participants identify the transformative potential in their organisation, the experiment may relate to a specific project or campaign, or to the institutional structure. The experiments serve both to test transformative practice and to disseminate the idea and strategies of the Great Transition in the participants’ organisations.