Barriers to the buildback

It's 2021 and you want to build back better? Here’s a few watchouts to keep you on track.

David GunnJanuary 2021

It's 2021 and you want to build back better? Here’s a few watchouts to keep you on track.

Way back in the distant past of March 2020, amongst all of the mess and strain of early covid, there was also a sense of positive potential - the prospect of grabbing that moment of dislocation to break some of less-than-healthy habits we’ve picked up as a society over the last few decades. Heady times. The phrase “Build Back Better” and Arundhati Roy’s “the pandemic as a portal” tussled for the honour of becoming 2020’s most popular alliteration. You couldn’t move on LinkedIn without falling over think pieces on new patterns of work. Political debate was filled with language about the green revolution (even when the investments didn’t quite match up). 

But now it’s 2021. And as we all forget to remember - change is often harder than you think. So whether you’re on a mission to reinvent our world or retool your organisation, here’s a few clues from the literature of barriers you might encounter - and how to navigate them.  

Basic Assumptions - When the group doesn’t work
Group theory remains a great source of reference for aspiring changemakers, defined by two broad camps. In one corner - the radical optimism of the Foulkes school, and in the other, the mystical miserabilism of WB Bion - a thinker haunted by the idea that groups are almost always undone by themselves. Sample quote: “the individual is a group animal at war, not simply with the group, but with himself for being a group animal”. Go Bion. 

Both of these schools of thought have their advantages, but when you’re trying to avoid what goes wrong, Bion’s acid pessimism can be a helpful reminder, particularly his “basic assumptions” -  a series of behaviours that keep the group from working effectively on its task - dependency, flight, flight and pairing. 

It's easy to leave Bion’s books with the sense that we’re all basically screwed, but his work does hold some clues about how to change effectively. Look out for early signs of flight (disinterest) and find ways to get the group to stay focused on the problem rather than avoiding it. Got a charismatic leader? That’s great, but keep an eye if their energy seems to be cultivating dependency and disengagement in others, and find ways to get the leaders to step back. Got a dynamic pair of voices that sound great but allows everyone else to sit back and listen without doing anything? Find a way to bring others into the conversation and make it clear that the whole group needs to be part of the answer. 

Second horizons - when hard work doesn’t help
At the end of last year we had the good fortune to meet Bill Sharpe from ITFT and hear his 3 Horizons workshops first hand. We’re big fans of 3H and have blogged about its general contours before. In the context of building back better, it's worth paying particular attention to his ideas of H2+ and H2-. In the 3H framework, the second horizon is a space of opportunity and entrepreneurial change - bridging between the Third Horizon world you want to see, and the First Horizon world you find yourself in today. Which makes sense, but can feel misleadingly neat. Enter the ideas of H2-, which basically say it's easy to try and make changes that feel attractive but actually don’t move you closer to the world you want to see. To take an obvious example - for a climate change policy maker, popularising electric vehicles might help with the immediate reliance on fossil fuel, but in doing so it also strengthens the dominant H1 reality of personalised transport that is probably unsustainable in any energy system. And there’s the danger of any h2- action - spending time and hard work making changes that actually make your long-term goals harder to achieve, not easier. 

Unlike Bion, avoiding these kinds of barriers is less about watching for group dynamics and more about the systems implications of what you’re doing - what are the longer-term consequences of the changes you’re making? Who wins and who loses?

We like tools like these, not because they are inherently “right”, but that they help you to look at the world a little differently, find those irksome gaps between the world you want to see and what’s happening right now… and find a path forward. Here’s hoping those paths reveal themselves to all of us in 2021. 

David Gunn

David Gunn

Participation specialist. Major projects for Tate, World Health Organisation, Museum of London and Franco Manca. Co-founder of Something More Near.

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