The art of rule-breaking

From Annie Smits, CEO

 

I consider myself a ‘seasoned rule-breaker’ having dedicated much of my life to challenging systems that don’t work. I spent 10 years as a minister pushing up against one of the biggest institutions entrenched in tradition: the church. What comes to mind for me when I think about Piscasso’s quote learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist is the journey to mastering a trade – from novice, to apprentice, to journeyman, to master of a craft.

 

 

So, what does this have to do with social entrepreneurship and innovation? Well everything!

As social entrepreneurs we desire to break the rules, rearrange the system, and to change how we treat people and planet.  To see the true change in a system, we need to apprentice with the problem before we can shift it or break it.   ‘Apprentice with the problem’ is a saying of the late great Pamela Hartigan.  By this she meant we need to take time to understand the problem before we could truly be of any value as part of the solution.

 

I think a great example that illustrates this for me is how KeepCup apprenticed with the problem of ‘wasteful coffee culture’.  I remember once sitting with Abigail Forsyth, the founder of Keep Cup, who wanted to change peoples’ behaviour around the use of disposable cups.  As a café owner and barista, she spent many years studying people’s relationship and behaviour to takeaway coffee culture – I remember being fascinated by this.  Abigail was confident she could convince people to buy a reusable cup, but that wasn’t the entire problem, it was also continual use of it.  The biggest question she spent her time answering was how do we incentivise people to remember to bring their reusable takeaway cups with them every time?

 

 

Why are we breaking the rules in the first place?

 

For me personally, the most powerful reason for systems-change is exclusion – someone is being left out or not able to participate in a system. I think of our finances system in the West, where bankers and finance experts have created a system of intimidation and closed knowledge that excludes people through the language they use.   I think of equality ‘trade-off’ debate: women can have more power and a voice, as long as it doesn’t leave the guys out.   As a mother of two young boys I don’t want my sons left behind, but I also have a daughter and want her to grow up with equal opportunity in the system.   In fact, some of the most outrageous reasons for exclusion we’ve seen, have been through our work with Indigenous people – for example, laws that don’t acknowledge the rights of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people?!

 

At TDi, much of our work to date has been about helping the excluded to participate in existing systems (for example, our work through YuMi).  But I don’t think in any of these issues its just about helping someone to participate in the current system.   More and more, I’m asking myself the question what if we need to build new and inclusive systems, create a new language and a new centre?

 

If we’re creating a new system, it requires all of us to think and act differently. Who is going to own this problem?  The most powerful place for change is when we own the problem, take responsibility in how we’ve been complicit in that system.  This requires us to be changed as a part of the process, not just a passive expert facilitating someone else’s journey from the outside. An expert comes with all the answers, all the knowledge and all the power. Instead, we need to approach problems from a position of vulnerability, empathy and be open to the process of change, changing us.

 

Be patient grasshopper

Change requires a thoughtful, patient process.  There’s a youthful energy and enthusiasm that comes with rule-breaking that I love, but it also needs to be tempered with patience, to get the long-term or scalable change we are looking for.   We need to observe, participate, practice, practice, practice in a system, before we can make it our own.  There are three qualities that I dig deep for to help me on a patient journey: humility, curiosity and most of all an ability to sit in the messy unknown of a situation before you jump to the solution.

 

Humility: our ability to say ‘we don’t know’ is a constant gift.  It opens space for new ideas, further discussion, and others to contribute to the conversation providing new points of view.

 

Curiosity: our greatest friend. As kids we are born with a great sense of curiosity, constantly asking ‘but why?’ Many of us lose this as we grow older, or it’s considered a childish trait, but I would argue it is through a sense of curiosity that we master a situation.

 

Sitting in the unknown: our ability to suspend judgement is critical to arrive at a solution for lasting change.  At TDi we call it ‘the messy middle’ where we sit in the mess and the unknown before we can come up with a solution.

These three things are hard to do when you’ve got pressure from external stakeholders to ‘have the answer’.  But a true response will take time and thoughtfulness.  This isn’t the easy journey, and might mean that, like Abigail, you sit alongside the problem or behaviour you are looking to change to understand the levers and relationships which affect long lasting change.

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