Here I am, back thinking about intention, intentionality, preferred direction of change, who is setting this direction, etc. A tension that is not going away and is worth pondering and writing about regularly. And I'm anew standing in the middle of that tension with the new job I just started.
But let me explain. I am talking a lot about Theories of Change with my colleagues, and how we at Fondation Botnar can formulate viable ToCs so that they are actually evaluable and we can at some point say that we are making a difference for the people we aim to make a difference for, and how we can learn and adjust to make that difference we make more significant. Now I am not an adherent of a very structured, linear-causal way of approaching theory of change. To start with, I tell people to write down what the current situation is, what they want to do, why or what for they want to do that, and how they know it worked or not. Based on that, we can then go and start to add detail and think about how to measure certain things. We do that on different levels (organisation, systemic arenas, thematic portfolios) and then weave these different levels together.
Behind every ToC is of course an intention, an idea of how a 'better situation' would look like. This is informed by our understanding of the world, by our values. And then there is an idea of how to get there.
The other side of the tension is an article I read recently, written by Nora Bateson based on a series of conversations between her and a group of Warm Data practitioners (Bateson 2022), titled "An essay on ready-ing - Tending the prelude to change." The essence of that article, if it is possible to summarise it in a few sentences, is that the most important (or indeed, only possible way) of changing systems (assuming one wants to increase the systems' vitality) is to work on ready-ing the system for change. The idea of ready-ing is based on the insight that before one can see change in living systems, before anything emerges, things have been shifting and readjusting to each other for a while. In an earlier paper, Nora called this phenomenon aphanipoiesis (Bateson 2021). This shifting and readjusting then coalesces into visible change. Depending on the type of shifting and coalescence, the change can be towards more vitality, or it can be insidious. Yet since the realm in which this ready-ing is happening is (necessarily) hidden, one does neither know whether the change that will eventually emerge from it is towards more vitality or insidiousness, nor what shape that change will take. Yet, it seems one can tend the possibilities in the ready-ing, so that whatever actions unfold do so less destructively (but isn't there also an intention behind that?).
A few quotes from the paper:
Before the change there is a coalescence of factors and experiences that produce a undeterminable ready-ing instead of action.
While linear managing or controlling of the direction of change may appear desirable, tending to how the system becomes ready allows for pathways of possibility previously unimagined.
The opposite of ready-ing is to force a single-purpose outcome upon a system that is oriented and shaped around pathways that do not correspond to the desired ‘change’.
To dictate an action change upon a living system that is not ‘ready’ brings contortions of false and unrooted ‘change’, which falter, splinter and become grotesque.
Instead of isolating cause and effect, goal and strategy, to produce a particular change that is explicit and perhaps measurable, there appears to be a realm of potential change, a necessarily obscured zone of wild interaction of unseen, unsaid, unknown flexibility. The potency of this change is easily dismissed because it does not show up on the report with coherent analysis.
The irony of this is that the most pernicious problem facing humanity at this time is the habit of attempting to respond to living, non-linear, multi-causal issues with responses geared toward specific outcomes. To do so is to produce actions that are fundamentally out of sync with the livingness of the problems ... But what if the change precedes the action? ... What if the more significant aspect of systemic change were in fact a prelude to the inputs and actions, something more like a readiness through which an unforeseen action can become?
Especially in times of urgency, like these, the habit of envisioning a solution to a ‘problem’ pulls most of us into a linear imagination. ... [Yet] Is it possible to imagine the necessary change? ... From that pool of experiences and relational limitations, a hypothesis can be made as to what ‘change’ is required. But the imagined goal or direction of change is dripping with existing presuppositions; some obvious; many are not obvious.
In the face of the current urgency, it may be necessary to explore outside of the realm of the familiar and into a realm where flexibility for potential change is produced. ... [Whereas] Flexibility may be defined as uncommitted potentiality for change.
I could go on, please read the paper.
So here I stand in this tension, being part of an organisation that has a clear and well-formulated intention to support the well-being of young people, while at the same time understanding that even the holding of such an intention is problematic in the awareness of how change happens in living systems.
Yet is it possible for us humans not to hold any intention? Every action we take is based on some sort of intentionality, is it not? It is after all purpose and intention that make us get out of bed every morning. But there can be different ways we live this intentionality. For me three critical areas of further probing are crystallising:
Our intentions are steeped in our own contexts and experiences. " ... the imagined goal or direction of change is dripping with existing presuppositions; some obvious; many are not obvious." Hence, we need to constantly check them against the lived realities and intentions of the people we work with or for. This needs to be part of our aim to work relationally. But do they know what direction is 'better' for them, as they are also themselves caught in "a scaffolding of ideas that reproduces itself"? Bringing in practices like Warm Data Labs might be an entry point to work on such tensions. Bringing our presuppositions side-by-side with other people's presuppositions will reveal gaps and blind spots. It is in these gaps – according to the Bateson paper – that possibilities lie. The gaps are bigger the further apart the cultural and lived realities of the people involved in the side-by-siding are.
Can we somehow probe a system to find out what it is ready for now, what is the current 'adjacent possible,' what is within reach? "The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed" (William Gibson) and "... new ways of being are bubbling between and under, and to the side and out of reach of the organisms' habituated perceptions ..." (Bateson 2022). What step is within reach of the currently imaginable yet stretches that imagination enough to open up new possibilities to perceive and imagine and for subsequent next steps? So we need to scan broadly, probe, go to the edges in what we try. We need to find mavericks, outliers, cynics and listen to them.
The means of achieving change in human systems are not obvious or linear, what we want is hardly ever first order change or something that can be tackled with a direct corrective (this is a bit of a tautological statement because I would say that any change that is first order is not systemic anyway). Hence, instead of aiming at directly changing something we identified as a problem we need to aim to shift the conditions that hold this problem in place. We can work on the constraints, affordances, conditions, determinants, etc. in the system, identify which ones we can influence, and shift them to see what new things emerge or how the ecology of the system readjusts to create a different type of ready-ing from which, eventually, different solutions can emerge.
Enough for today, more to ponder. Including the question "What's love got to do with it?" But I'm curious about your thoughts.
PS: I'm experimenting with new formats and posted this article first on LinkedIn.
Bateson, N. (2021). Aphanipoiesis. In Journal of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, Proceedings of the 64th Annual Meeting of the ISSS, Virtual (Vol. 1, No. 1) (also available on Medium)
I missed posting anything in my Paper Museum recently, so here is something for this week. I am currently reading through the Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin and the following quote is from the second book, The Tombs of Atuan:
What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveller may never reach the end of it.
With no further comment ...
The photo is a quote from Jean Tinguely taken by myself in the Tinguely Museum in Basel, Switzerland.