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Evolving Systems: What Role do you Occupy?

October 14, 2011 by Jonathan Gilburg

So my dad, Alan Gilburg, went down to "Occupy Wall Street" last week to "Support those kids."  As he has often done in my life, he got me thinking about what was happening with this Movement.  I believe we are witnessing an important shift between an older, dying system and new, yet to be fully defined system.  

What brings me to this conclusion actually comes from the confusion and criticism leveled at the protestors, which revolves  around their lack of clarity of purpose: if you ask 100 people why they are there or what they want, you will get 100 different answers.  This lack of clarity or common voice is the strongest clue about what is really happening.

Model adapted from the work of Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze at Berkana Institute

I believe we (in this country) are all riding on the downward slope of a dying economic system.  The fundamental assumptions and infrastructures that support this economic system are no longer true and adequate to the challenges of our society. While not all may share my perspective about this topic, as leaders we can all learn about systems and change from this example, and the diverse and important roles that need to be "occupied" in order for deep change in any system to occur.

For the sake of argument, a few examples that, for me, point to the failure of the dominant economic system in the United States include:

  • Inability to adequately account for environmental impacts: the bottom line of production and distribution costs do not account for the cost of clean up, restoration, or long term environmental impacts
  • Equality, fairness and social justice is not part of the equation: to win in this economic system you have to be able to buy your way in.  An increasing number of us are less able to do this and many of us have never been able to do this.  The story that "everyone has the same opportunities to succeed" is less true now than it has been in the past
  • The system is devoid of a moral compass: if money can be made by doing something that is technically not illegal, than it is okay to do it—regardless of the other consequences. In some high profile situations, legality is not a barrier either and the consequences seem inadequate
  • Health of the system is predicated on increased consumption and growth: this assumption presumes unlimited resources and capacity for growth, which might have felt true 50 years ago, but on our increasingly small planet, is not viable

And to compound these challenges, we are all (or most of us) intimately invested in this system.  Our political and corporate leaders are the most entrenched and have the most to lose from wholesale change, but if you own a car, have a mortgage or heat your home with fossil fuels—you, too, are part of it.  

The (mostly) young people "Occupying Places" throughout the country have the least to lose and the most to gain from change to our economic system.  The challenge is that there is not a new ship to jump onto.  The new system that would ideally account for the deficiencies of the old is not yet established.  

The energy of the protestors is born from extreme dissatisfaction with an existing system.  The fact that they don't have the "answers" to what the replacement should be is not a good reason to discount the efforts they are making.  The anecdotes from the Occupy Together Movement actually convey a certain sense of pride around not really knowing the solution—rather upholding an ethos of self-organization around the needs that people bring to the table—or in many cases, the park.  

In our work we are aware of many failing/dying systems that need significant upgrades or wholesale changes to be effective in delivering their purpose in this day and age.  And we work with leaders and influencers who are playing diverse roles in that system, all of which have value and help systems to evolve. To explain the Map above, I've describe some of the key roles below, and offered some examples of who might be playing these roles with respect to the US economic system.

  • Protect and Hospice the declining system: in its most virtuous sense, these people provide cover for emerging ideas and concepts to take root and build critical momentum—to allow the new ship to be built before the old one sinks.
    • President Obama and Ben Bernanke are good examples of Protectors, as they struggle to keep the existing economic system from collapsing
    • As a consumer with an inverted mortgage, car payments, and a few untenable spending habits  I recognize how I am providing Hospice to the system, because I am playing into the outdated assumptions, even though I know it has to change.  I am striving to "buy my way out" of the system and establish a more sustainable course of economic prosperity
  • Midwife and Pioneer new ideas: these are folks who are willing to dream big and act in ways that are counter to the dominant system, to experiment and pilot many efforts that may or may not work, all with the quest of finding a better way.
    • In many respects, those people like my dad going to "support those kids" are Midwives, because they are striving to support and birth something new and unknown.  They have energy and passion for making something different and better
    • The micro lending movement exemplified by organizations like Kiva and holistic humanistic initiatives like the Harlem Children's Zone are Pioneering efforts to affect lasting positive change to the socio-economic realities of perennially underserved populations
  • Illuminate what is emerging: people who are building bridges and demonstrating jumping off points that help people to see other, better ways and to move to those new paths when the time is right.
    • The Occupy Wall Street "occupiers", organizers, and journalists are helping to Illuminate the impending change—naming the deficiencies and inviting people to discover other ways of thinking about the problem and the solution
  • Champions name the reality of systemic change from a place of power and influence: they provide incentive, motivation, and credibility to the those people efforting to create new systems of influence.
    • Warren Buffet and his "Billionaire Group" are good examples of Champions, willing to speak and act from the "inside" of the power circle of our economic system, inviting change that does not necessarily benefit them directly, but has potential positive impacts on the greater good.

Regardless of the systems we are in, be they cultural, organizational, national or local, the challenge for many leaders is recognizing the role they are occupying, why they are in that role and what other role(s) they might aspire to in order to help the process along; to adapt.  They need to recognize that the discontent of people/employees (low morale, low trust, low productivity) and the lack of a clear solution is a symptom of this larger systemic evolution — and the lack of knowing or being able to act upon a solution is actually a sign that we need to Occupy that space of not knowing together.  The first step to solving the problem is not a policy, but a process of engagement.

The people Occupying Places together are keyed into that real need.  The need to come together to figure this stuff out.  The need to try something bold and counter to the dominant culture to see what sticks.  They are occupying a crucial role by giving us the heads up that this system is changing, illuminating that what's to come will not look the same, no matter how hard we may choose to cling to the sinking ship, and they take collective comfort in this even as the future remains murky and unclear. 

So what role are you occupying in your system? What are the symptoms of change in your organization? As a leader or influencer, where do you need to be?