Scaling, pacing, staging and patterning… Navigating fractal change through space and time

Change, change, change!

Going up the scale of change

Going up the scale of change

So many clichés about change, so much ado about a big thing, so many ways to look at it and so many barriers to it!

And just so it’s clear: I’m talking about social change (see some pictures about this concept), i.e. change that involves humans and their behaviour, as opposed to changes in e.g. engineering or information systems.

The much desired and (our most loathed) change is at the centre of a lot of agile KM and also development work. We want to understand it, track it, make it happen, or stop it. As a formula. In a box. 100% fail-proof.

The bitter deceit…

Perhaps because we may be overlooking one of the most important dimensions of (social) change: it is the bizarre fruit of the dance of time and space along various factors. There is no direct and pure causality between activity A and change X. Complexity theories have helped us understand this intricacy. But not necessarily helped us find ways to address this.

Here’s a shoot post about a change management toolkit of sorts: Using hidden dynamics to realise how to look at and work around change, with four lighthouses on our journey: scaling, pacing, staging and patterning.


Social change has both roots and branches across space and time. Understanding scaling is a precondition to achieving change. What other geographic scales are at play in a change dynamics? What could be other beneficiaries or victims of change: other teams? Organisations? Projects? Communities? Districts? Regions? Think upstream-downstream, centre-edges, power groups/marginalised groups What mechanisms are intentionally or involuntarily titillating other scales? What are the tradeoffs and what is the aggregate ‘return on investment’ then?

Similarly, what could be long term as opposed to short term changes or effects? We tend to apply a tunnel vision to the scales we are focusing on, but understanding how a given initiative brings about change that affects people differently over time helps us get a bigger picture of the change we are looking at. This is at the centre of the reflection on time scales in social learning for climate change.

Of course we cannot predict all these changes, but joined-up thinking such as collective visioning exercises give us glimpses of these longer term changes… Don’t consider change without careful attention for scales.


Time is of the essence in change, as we’ve seen above. Because behaviour change takes time, all the more so when someone else wants you to change.

Considering longer term effects begs us to examine the speed at which we hope change will happen and the one at which it really happens. As much as a common breathing pace brings people together, pacing activities according to the local context’s normal pace also raises chances for change – remember organic, civic-driven KM?. No need to rush, you might be leading the pack but no one may understand you. Going too slow on the other hand may jeopardise potential for change, time has to be just right. And our pace affects this…


No ‘intended’ social change happens overnight – unless by some miracle all elements are just ready for it and one extra drop takes care of it (ha! the results of edge effects Alice McGillivray is brilliantly talking about). So no change happens in a fingersnap.

And because of the complex interdependencies, no change is likely to happen at (extended) scale right on. Pacing helps us find the right rhythm of each activity, staging activities helps us align them. It gives us liberty to use effective safe-fail probes (more about that in the video below): We can thus explore how change happens in smaller iterations, using the feedback from each iteration to inform the next loop of activities. Like gardening, this is the key to let change grow and become part of the local fabric’s dynamics. Staging is the drip irrigation of change…


Discerning fractal change from any pattern

Discerning fractal change from any pattern

The last but not the least dynamic of the four, and for good reasons: The complexity of social change requires us to sharpen our senses and (ideally collectively) recognise patterns that make up change. Both in the centre of our attention and at the edges… With patterning we can identify the fractals of change, and by continually doing so we can recognise where in the bigger picture of change a certain fractal belongs.

How do you do patterning? Through learning conversations around a theory of change of sorts, and whether formalised or not, continually exploring the ramifications of that change.

In a lot of agile KM projects – and more conspicuously in a majority of development projects – we tend to zero in on specific changes induced by a given initiative. But we are chasing a fish pack and the way the fish pack shapes and shifts, moves and mixes, appears and disappears tells us much about that ever elusive change. Scaling, pacing, staging and patterning are instruments at our disposal to understand the fish better and, occasionally, to fish it better.

Navigating change: better do it with caution

Navigating change: better do it with caution

Since change might look like a shark, we might as well be apprehend it better, don’t you think?

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Go organic, go civic! #KMalreadyHappensAnyways

It’s the last week of my work at IRC and it’s a crucial moment to reflect on various aspects of the almost 10 years of experience I’ve had at IRC. More than a week ago I had a wonderful farewell party with my amazing future ex-colleagues; it gave me an opportunity to reflect already and I gave a speech. In that speech I mentioned many things but here I want to zoom in on one aspect of it: the importance of local perspectives – NO, the fact that it is ESSENTIAL, if not vital, to start any development initiative with local perspectives; in other words, to go for civic-driven KM in development work; and to preferably do so in an organic way that reflects their pace of change.

An Indian advocate/weaver once showed us the way... it's time for civic-driven change! (Photo credits: Aditi Pany / FlickR)

An Indian advocate/weaver once showed us the way... it's time for civic-driven change! (Photo credits: Aditi Pany / FlickR)

KM is about change. Behaviour change. That is granted (isn’t it?). And behaviour change, we know, doesn’t happen if the change is imposed on the people that have to adapt their behaviour. Recently again, in a WASHTech consortium meeting, a famous thinker in the WASH sector, Richard Carter, referred to the immense efforts made to improve hygiene behaviour through informing people about the risks of unhygienic behaviours… Only to conclude that it didn’t work and that years of efforts and millions of dollars went down the drain. The trick to flip the behaviour though was deceptively simple: to focus on the perceived benefits of smelling good and being socially acceptable.

Well, with KM the issue is the same: rather than pushing information systems down peoples’ throats and forcing them to adopt certain behaviours (systematically saving documents on the intranet, sharing information from events with their colleagues, taking the time to reflect about what is going well or not), isn’t it more effective to simply observe how they get their job done? Their deep motivations and capacities? Here’s a hint to the personal effectiveness survey I blogged about earlier.

Isn’t it better to praise what they’re doing well and question their perspective about what’s blocking them? Isn’t it better to perhaps give them some inspiration – by showing the way (‘Be the change you want to see’ said an infamous Indian cotton weaver) – and letting them know how it transformed our life? Isn’t it better to let them decide how they will make sense of it and to let them find their own pace to adapt their behaviour?

It’s certainly worth a try, don’t you think? In the broader development work paradigm, this means it’s time to go civic – as in civic-driven change initiatives – because a change is only as valuable as much as it can be followed and embraced by people (as much as an idea is only worth the extent it can be shared as rightly suggested in the small infographic video of that post). And nothing beats movements founded from the motivation of people’s own choice. This change of perspective also means that change should follow an organic development, going through small iterations of trial and error and critical questioning to learn to improve. Because a forced pace will fail just as much as a forced change, and it might even put people off in the process (read: even less likely to change in the future).

The consequence for all of us (development) knowledge workers is that we should not keep on setting initiatives that start and end with our ideas. It’s time for us to LISTEN, to lend an ear and a hand to those that have the willingness to change and are already trying things out. And perhaps to buddy up with nay-sayers and finding out what’s hitching them and preventing them from changing their attitude…

Although I can’t talk of 100% observance of that rule of thumb, I can safely say that IRC has been lending that ear and that hand in its work – which is what inspired me in my work and in my speech – and I certainly hope to contribute to stimulating civic-driven change at ILRI. If KM is a light, let it be a candle that everyone can find and let them make magic happen with that simple spark!

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