"This is the kind of talk that destroys academic careers", Duncan Green launches his new book 'How Change Happens'

Nuwan Peiris

10 Apr, 2017

NGOs operate in complex and dynamic environments where ‘disruptive changes’ are the norm. It has become a well-referenced term in the aid and development vernacular. But how do we capture how change has happened? And how can we better make change happen and become more effective in our own practice?

This is the challenge taken up by Duncan Green in his new book ‘How Change Happens’ and is the topic of a new course developed by ACFID and La Trobe University which unpacks and applies this thinking.

Senior strategic advisor at Oxfam GB and author of Oxfam’s blog ‘From Poverty to Power’, Dr Duncan Green, is promoting his new book ‘How Change Happens’. For anyone interested in change or theories of change, the book is a must-read. It is grounded in application, and avoids the pitfalls of a theoretical, academic tome. It draws upon real-world examples, case studies and tools for practical application in the aid and development sector.

Central to Green’s writing is that change is not linear. It’s messy and unpredictable. In dealing with this, Green uses ‘systems thinking’ examining how problems interrelate and correspond, and how a set of elements can be coherently organised in a way that achieves something.

Secondly, he applies what he describes as a ‘power and systems approach’. The approach identifies who holds what power in any given system, and what might influence them to change. Whilst he is not prescriptive, he sees this as the new lens for understanding and predicting change.

Applying his thinking to aid and development, he likens the current model of aid design and delivery to a cake and the process of making it: follow the recipe - it is attributable and predictable. However, the complex places in which aid is delivered do not work like a standard oven. Systems are so complex that genuine attribution and prediction are considerably more difficult.

His advice: change-makers are important, but we must recognise that we are not the primary drivers of development. There are greater external political, social and economic factors at work. Offering a wealth of experience, Green proposes several ways that we can become more effective agents of change.

Be iterative, rather than using a master plan. Look for existing positive outliers in the systems of a country or context, rather than overlaying a program. Experiment and test to see what works, and learn to shape it as it progresses. Green likens this to venture capitalism, where several approaches are funded and tried simultaneously and winners are picked, scaled-up and developed.

Overall, Green advises that we should “dance with the system” by utilising the power and relationship dynamics of the different actors which constitute it – governments, media and civil society. We must also be prepared for critical junctures of change - wars, crises, elections - and have a system in place to respond.

His book is a hotbed of ideas for the sector to examine and develop. It is clear that there are many ways that change be initiated and stimulated. It was from this premise that the professional development course “Making Change Happen” was born.

The course, developed by ACFID and the Institute of Human Security and Social Change at La Trobe University, looks beyond conventional development approaches. It looks at the environments we work in, how they change and how we must adapt to remain effective. It examines how our current ways of working are not always well-aligned with the need to innovate, reflect, and adapt, and offers alternative approaches for uptake.

The final unit in the series – ‘Organisational Development in an Uncertain World’ – is targeted at senior managers and focuses on what styles and approaches to leadership are necessary to address some of the key challenges international NGOs currently face. It looks at: what kind of business models and fundraising might be more appropriate than current approaches; what forms of governance and accountability are required for NGOs to remain relevant; and what changes to management practices are required which reward effective development practice, innovation, and risk-taking.

We have a long way to go in what could appear as daunting shift in how we work. But we must imagine how we can adapt now to remain relevant into the future.

Download Duncan Green’s new book for free here and read more about Making Change Happen on our events page: acfid.asn.au/events.

For further information on Making Change Happen, contact Elisabeth Parkin in ACFID’s learning and innovation team.

You can also listen to the lecture at Australian National University on DevPol's SoundCloud page.

  • Nuwan Peiris
    Nuwan Peiris

    Nuwan Peiris is currently studying for a Masters in Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development at the Australian National University. Prior to this he had 5 years of work experience in human rights and economic development. Nuwan is currently an intern with ACFID.


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