Change a Person or Change the System? Yes.
Like so many of you, I have been thinking a lot about change over the last month. In several of the discussions I’ve facilitated or participated in, it often comes around to individual change or system change. Whenever there is an either/or feel to the choice in front of me, I know that it’s most likely a false dichotomy. Not ‘either/or’ – but ‘and.’
The Person Should Change
There are good arguments for why individual change is good. I bet you’ve heard that you can’t change another person, you can only change yourself. Individuals who are now aware of unconscious bias are only beginning to figure out how they can move forward differently to improve themselves as well as improve their relationships with others.
Our individual efforts are good but alone may be insufficient or even detrimental if those individual efforts keeps us from demanding, organizing, and implementing systemic change.
The System Should Change
System change is tricky. A small change may not create the desired outcome. It may be that a system reform might only provide the illusion of genuine change. Behind the scenes, the original system that is in place may continue to operate uninterrupted. A total system overhaul requires that people are willing to replace a whole structure. That can overwhelm even the most enthusiastic change agent and create concern on the part of some of the folks who built the existing system.
So a system change can only be truly brought about through the coordinated efforts of individuals. Instead of an ‘either/or’ choice (either people change or the system changes) or even a top-down edict – a system change is more like a voyage. It starts with the individual, becomes a sea change that gains momentum, and then moves to examining and changing the system.
Steps in the Process
1. Pay attention and become aware of the problem, challenge, or situation.
2. Take time to really understand the situation and its context
3. Do something about it in your own life
4. Call for and bring about change in others.
With a clear and concise definition of the problem, developing understanding, having the right set of circumstances and possessing good organizing ability, you can become an active part of a collective that in turn aligns with other collectives. Together we can all coordinate a push for system change or even replacement.
Most systems have increasingly high barriers of inertia and proactive resistance so it can be disheartening to see that the entrenched power structure is so strong. Your change efforts may not result in what you had hoped for. But if the collective change is strategic, coordinated, multifaceted, and persistent over time, it can bring about system change and, maybe even system replacement.
Real system change is possible when enough people share an understanding of a problem, have a similar view on what needs to change, lock arms, and take the coordinated voyage in the same direction. (These people also need stamina – patience and persistence.)
Awareness is always the first step. Articulating that awareness clearly is the next one.