The RSA’s Future Change Framework … How can we use the recovery from Covid-19 to create real, lasting change?

July 21, 2020

Many people – from future-looking corporate leaders to business academics, hapless politicians and passionate social activists – have asked how can we use the recovery from Covid-19 to create real, lasting change?

We have seen dramatic change during the pandemic. The shift to digital living – work, school, entertainment, healthcare, shopping, and more. But the status quo is often resistant to meaningful transformations.

The UK-based RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) believes in a world where everyone is able to participate in creating a better future. It’s new “future change framework” is a way to think about how we have responded to Covid-19 and how that can drive positive change.

The RSA’s framework seeks to help leaders to think through what you’ve stopped, what you’ve paused, what you’ve put in place temporarily, and how you’ve innovated. Focusing on these areas will help you discover the most important actions to take into the future for your organisation, local community, team, or network.

Many of the people and organisations that have already used the framework to host conversations are seeking the same exploration: to make sense of what’s going on and think about their journey to the future. These conversations can occur at a variety of levels – from the individual to the community, the organisation to the system. Being clear about where we are looking and why will make it more likely that we are engaging the right people in better conversations.

Are we looking at a team’s response to Covid-19 or are we looking more systemically? If so, how are we defining the system? Of course this is not a one-off exercise, but a tool for continuous learning.

The RSA offers the following approach to using the tool:

Scan 

The first challenge is to see what’s changing. Drawing on some principles of systems thinking, we start by spotting events – the actions and activities that people are taking, the events that are happening, the trends that are emerging. These are the most visible and obvious signs of change.

Digging a little deeper we can see how individual and collective behaviours, relationships, networks, rituals and so on are changing. Underpinning these are structures such as rules, policy, laws, incentives, many of which have changed significantly post-Covid, of course. At the deepest level of our systems are the mental models, thinking, principles, values and assumptions that form the existing paradigm within which everything else exists. To ‘think the unthinkable’ is to challenge these accepted norms.

To shift the paradigm is to open up the possibility of more fundamental, lasting change. In scanning these different levels within the system, we should also consider different scales, from the local to the global.

Map and evaluate

Next, as we collect these examples, we map them on the future change framework. This starts with the top row being those things that are new as a result of the pandemic, and the bottom row being those things we’ve stopped. The former will inevitably be more visible. Crucial to the latter is to see what is no longer there – what’s fallen by the wayside, whether by accident or design. What does that tell us about the importance and value of each activity during – and after – the crisis?

For now, of course, we may not have enough information to accurately allocate the things we’ve found to the four quadrants. We may need patient experience or user feedback, cost or performance data alongside contextual information in order to determine whether an intervention is one we want to amplify or whether it was specific to the crisis response. Waiting until we have such information is an important point in avoiding knee-jerk decisions – and speaks to the importance of the time dimension.

Track

To get to the required level of detail requires us to track changes over time. The actions we take in the systems we work in and the changing context we are responding to mean that we are continuously ‘course-correcting’ and responding to the presenting issues. This stage is therefore crucial in order to determine what, over time, we might see as a temporary or lasting measure, and whether other work and approaches become redundant as things change.

It is entirely likely, as some have found, that certain measures shift category over time. Something that was innovative and seemed worthy of amplifying into the future may be rendered a temporary measure as time moves on. Measures that were relevant in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown may not be those required to meet the demands of the next phases of opening up society. In any event, society itself is in a different place to where it was eight, ten, twelve weeks ago.

Respond

The toughest phase may be the next one – determining how (and when) we best respond to the resulting challenges for each quadrant. How might we…

  • end temporary measures in ways that enable us to learn from the experience?
  • amplify innovative measures in ways that lead to systemic change?
  • let go of obsolete activity in ways that avoid regression to the norm?
  • restart paused activity in ways that add most value?

Previously the RSA has undertaken research into new ways of addressing complex societal challenges such as these, defined as the imperative on public servants to move fast and fix things. In the study, they identified a range of methods that support work in complex settings where traditional approaches are not fit for purpose.

We can’t address questions such as these through linear processes of planning and delivering solutions – we are not working in areas where reductionist thinking and presumptions of direct causation are helpful. Instead, we advocate the combination of systemic understanding, entrepreneurial activity and commitment to impact that underpin theapproach to change.

Reflective learning

Of course, models are only helpful if people find them useful. The way people have used the RSA future change framework in a variety of contexts has been enlightening. Organisations and teams have used it to frame conversations (both internally and systems-focused), often in an impromptu fashion or as part of existing meetings. The value of these conversations may never be known, but perhaps, alongside other models and tools and with inspirational leadership from people across systems and communities, such conversations are helping shape a more positive future.

We live in a world of constant change that emerges from the interactions of the various parts of complex dynamic systems, now longer can we assume stability and direct causality.  As a result, we can’t predict, mandate and control events with any degree of certainty in order to bring about the kinds of change we want to see nor manage the kinds of change we don’t. No amount of centralisation, command-and-control management or prescription can achieve that.

Working in such uncertainty requires leaders who “ask the right questions rather than provide the right answers, because the answers may not be self-evident and will require a collaborative proves to make any kind of progress”. The RSA says that such leadership is less about pulling levers of hierarchy and power and more about taking human approach, leveraging the power in co-operation, humility and empathy. And it is those who are able to host open, collaborative conversations in this spirit – with families, teams, organisations, communities – who will be the kind of leaders we’ll need.

With thanks to theRSA.org