Transformation is scary because the people above you are telling you it’s BS and not how things are done. They might even fire you.

Opinion: We are in a time when transforming the ways we live, work, play, move, earn and learn has enormous potential for the wellbeing of people and the planet.

From redesigning our cities to enable everyone to get to where they need to go, rethinking how our economic system can work in service to the environment, changing how we build and distribute housing so all people have a warm, stable home nested in vibrant creative communities, fully embracing the Māori intent of Te Tiriti o Waitangi to enable a place where everyone is valued for who they are.

To sum it up, we can have nice things! We absolutely know how to get them.

In some cases we have even started working towards these nice things – making transformation.

Our major cities are moving towards opening streets to people walking and biking in much larger numbers, while shifting people out of cars, Vision Zero is accelerating us towards a new system of transport that puts care for people’s lives at its heart, disabled people finally get their own Ministry, the health system has initiated a new structure to enable Māori to set their own course for health care, He waka e noa is building relationships to redesign our agricultural system for the climate, and the police are working to strike racism from their structures, practices and systems.

Transformation is underway (more of a slow meander than a sprint, but the journey has started). Because crises will inevitably produce change.

The big question is do the people and organisations tasked with transformations accept they are engaged in transformation? Because without embracing the concept of transformation a business as usual mindset will mean using the same tools, approaches, structures, and theory of change.

The risk being that transformations will get dialled back and people will choose instead to maintain status quo for the people who need change least – the last thing we need in the face of many slow moving (and rapidly speeding up) crises.

What we need is for people in organisations to embrace the reality of a transformative shift, so they can engage with necessary new approaches, new people, new skills, new mindsets, new theories, new evidence. And when I say new, sometimes I really mean old if we also embrace indigenous knowledge systems to lead us through.

First we need a bit of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Transformation is scary work for many people, especially in organisations where change is not part of the DNA. It’s important to normalise the emotions people have when they become responsible for making changes that make a big difference to people.

Ignoring our emotions doesn’t make them go away. We can pretend big grown-up professionals don’t have feelings that affect our decision making, but it is still utter garbage. So see the fear, and ask it to have a seat for a wee bit.

Acknowledgement that emotions impact our decision making will also help us identify the context that the fear grows in. In the public service or publicly funded organisations especially.

Transformation of policy and approaches and mindsets and programmes is scary because it is not what people in many large organisations are used to, or sometimes there have been too many of the wrong types of transformations (eg restructures).

It’s scary because transformative thinking is not what people are rewarded for, it’s scary because the people in the media will jump on you if you get it wrong, it’s scary because the political cycle is fast and Ministers might throw you under a bus, it’s scary because people who you have been told to listen to and keep happy (inside and outside of your organisations) get bloody angry at you.

It’s scary because the people above you are telling you it’s BS and not how things are done. They might even fire you. It’s scary because out of control change without a clear focus on improving public good, on care for all people, on compassion, has gone very, very wrong in the past.

Yet regardless of all these things, change and transformation are afoot. Denial of this is not going to help people achieve their shared goals for improving people’s lives and the planet’s health over the long term.

So let’s accept that transformation is happening in some quarters – whether the Labour party is in power or not, whether the PM says the word anymore or not. Across civil society, public and private organisations, let’s accept it is scary and commit to action and then plan properly for it because we care about the good of the public.

To pony up properly for this journey where we are going to make changes that make the biggest difference, we are going to need people across public and private institutions to develop new understandings about the process, structures, and skills that are needed to support people through change.

I suggest there are three big shifts we can start with – notably from people in the public service who have a mandate for delivering public good for us all.

Make popular what needs to be done

First up (well, after we have got deep and meaningful with fear of change) we need to understand the job has changed from finding out what is popular, to making popular what we need to do and needs to be said. In essence this is the work of understanding and shifting mindsets (not just the public, but our colleagues and leaders also) through deeper understanding of the problems and solutions we need.

Mindset shift is entirely different from a business as usual approach which too often can mean meeting people where their fastest, most shallow, most reactive responses to an issue and change are at.

Take climate change for example. In most climate change surveys, the majority of people clearly identify climate change as a problem that needs action. It’s a fallacy that people are still in climate change denial (though a few poor buggers are struggling to keep up). What people struggle with is understanding the changes that will make the biggest difference.

Recycling plastics still appears high on the list of effective actions people think are needed. Partly that is because no one is helping them understand more deeply the changes that will make the biggest difference. Not in a consistent and replicable and easy to process way. No central government department and no arms length publicly funded organisation either.

Worse are the stories told by those with the job to talk to the public, which are often focussed on individual consumer choice (the buy your way out of the climate crisis narrative). People know that is a load of cobblers given the scale of the problem. They, not surprisingly, feel that people in government won’t rise to the challenge, partly because people in government are basically saying, “nah, we won’t – how about you buy this shiny new EV though?”

There are grassroots movements, indigenous communities exerting enormous efforts to build public understanding of the big changes needed, but it’s a squirt gun of stories against the fire hose of industry sponsored media and advertising for fossil fuels.

Time for more effort from those with the means to deepen understanding and shift mindsets on the big changes we need. There are many ways to shift mindsets, using more effective communications, using different ways of engaging and consulting with communities on complex issues for example. In research we did with people about local councils we heard people talk about being over consulted. What they really wanted was to be asked about some core things they valued for the good of the public in a more deep discussion and have the local council tell them what they decided and what motivated these decisions.

Rethink who you listen to (and toughen up to criticism from opponents)

Transformation of systems, structures, relationships, who and what matters, by their nature mean changes to status quo. There will always be small groups of people who will never be convinced that such changes are in their best interest – especially if they are losing their current advantages.

The hard to convince, the steadfast opponents to transformative change, the resolutely ideologically opposed (as opposed to the scared but possibly willing) will get even louder and nastier when these transformations happen. MORE ROADS! NO SEPARATIST SYSTEMS! WHAT ABOUT THE ECONOMY?

They are the minority. We consistently find when we research people’s attitudes and beliefs and mindsets about big issues, that it is the minority of people who hold strong, fixed and oppositional mindsets. The 1.5 project looked at New Zealand’s people’s attitudes to climate change and found the same distribution.

It’s important for the people in organisations tasked with big changes, to understand and prepare for this inevitable response from the hard opposition, and stop building their response around those who only want to keep things the same – as if their reaction is a robust measure of social license for the evidence based changes.

Transformation will never get 100 percent of people agreeing, because changes that make the biggest difference are ultimately about shifts of power, looking at who is harmed most, getting them what they need, and moving the benefits of our systems from a few to the many. Anti racist policies, practices and structures for example are about improving outcomes for Māori, Pacific and immigrant communities, benefits that flow on to wider society because ensuring all people are valued and get what they need lifts everyone – the benefits of inclusion to the sum of all of us.

This thinking of who matters most is a shift in mindset for many public organisations, but if they can make this shift they can put in place strategies to manage it and protect themselves from backing away from the transformation in the face of bad faith criticism.

Collect new data on public responses (and stop thinking angry social media is “the public”)

Getting more comfortable with the idea that you will inevitably have strong minority opposition, also requires you to stop using their response as evidence of the impact of the work. Instead consider what you really want to know – are you shifting mindsets and understanding of those people most open to being better informed? Have you increased their support? The bulk of people reside in that middle of the road place of “not having deep understanding or strong opinions” on what should happen on big issues.

Are you measuring how those who are most harmed by the current practices respond to the changes you are making? We see what we measure, and we respond to it. If all we are looking at is the polarised and angry social media response we are doing a major disservice to many people. I would argue it’s also unethical when we consider what the job is of public organisations especially.

That is not to say any of this is easy. No one wants a media blow up, a them versus us story, because an organisation was seen to not respond to social media hate. Again this is about planning, getting strategic, making sure you have the right people to help, ensuring people in the media understand what you are trying to achieve and why and for who (transparency can assist when you know how to talk about what you are doing).

As I said at the start, we are in a time when transforming the ways we live, work, play, move, earn and learn has enormous potential for the wellbeing of people and the planet. Let’s not squander the opportunity.

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