We listened.

What is the experience of people who are working in community- and system-scale challenges? What are their challenges? What help do they need?

Our work is grounded in an intention to equip people with the fundamentals of systemic change, so these questions are of burning interest. What should we be prioritizing? What should we offer? What would really help?

In pursuit of clues, we recently interviewed twelve people who are hip-deep in multi-stakeholder situations: convening people across communities, systems, and organizations; moving through a process that embraces emergent outcomes; dealing with the tangle of relationships, personal difficulties, and power dynamics.

What did they say? What challenges do these people hold in common? 

Here is our report. It is composed entirely of quotes from the interviews, which we have edited to make spoken, conversational language smoother to read.

(Our response to these conversations takes shape in our offerings, which continue to evolve through more listening, more teaching, and more engagement with organizations, communities and systems.) 

"You don't wanna be a hero, but someone has to do it. Be a pilgrim, not a hero. Take the NEXT step. Don’t get overwhelmed by how many steps there are to take."

— Leader of a new social lab

Gathering people. Convening the system.

However you describe this work — multi-stakeholder, systemic, change-making, community-centered, social pattern-shifting,… — it necessarily involves inviting people to gather across differences and boundaries. As we heard in these interviews, this isn’t easy, and it can take a lot of time. 

Convening is key, but it takes time

“Dealing with complexity, we need diversity in the room so we can respond to it appropriately. This is the key to the future, and we need to get better at it.”


“What is efficient representation of the system that you’re trying to bring in? Is it okay if we can’t include every single person that would want to be there? How do you create criteria for selection?”


“It seems to be a fact of life that the convening cycle takes longer than you would like. We must buy the time to be painstaking about who is in the room. Who has  the clout to be able to invite the right people? For example, in Brazil there were people in the room who were antagonistic, who wouldn’t sit around table with each other. But because of the convener, they were able to step into the room, and that got it all started.”


“The ability to put enemies willingly around the table is important.”


Diversity, power, and equal voice

“Our team is white, which means we do this work as dominant culture group. We have no African Americans in our cohort. Even though we have Hispanic, Indian, and Asian team members, they see us all as ‘white’ — as people of means.”


“Leaders feel they need to ‘lead’. They want to ‘do something.’ It’s hard for us to shake that.”

Process authority is different than convening authority

“We’ve tried to structure so convening power doesn’t need to come from us. We’re outsiders. We set up a structure so we have a convening organization, which then convenes a process  / design team. The convener is the one that does the gathering, because they have positional power.”


“In convening, there’s a political question: who has the power to convene? Who has legitimacy to convene so that everyone who’s there is open to being there?”


“Where I’ve hit snags has been in either trying to have everyone there (which is unwieldy) or having selection criteria but bypassing them for some other logic and paying for it later. For example, in one lab our criteria were 1) has influence/mover and shaker/leadership. 2) willing to look at themselves — personal leadership is just as important as structural leadership. In practice, it turned out that they were straight activists aiming to shift the dial, who thought everyone else must change.”


Include the difficult people

“There are people you must have in the room. It’s helpful to not have too many, but critical to have difficult, opinionated people in the process. It can mean a more painful process and sessions, but having their  concerns addressed in the process, having their buy-in, was rewarding in end. If they’re part of the process, they have a stake in the outcome. They definitely have criticisms, but because they could say anything they wanted, they wound up becoming advocates.”

"As I begin, there’s a shaking feeling in me. Am I really able to lead people towards this process? Can I use these tools? Will they reject this? I have no support around me."

— Leader of a new violence-reduction effort

Start by listening

Across all the work we have studied over the last seven years, “Begin by listening” is a consistent theme. The depth, breadth, and openness of that listening is a clear marker of a participatory, emergent approach (as opposed to a group of “experts” doing “research”). So it was no surprise to hear this theme turn up in our interviews. 

“You have to spend time listening to people. Within this school system, it is really worth it. If you don’t do it enough, you’ll miss something. It pays rewards at the end.”


“If it is a trust thing, I can’t control it. If people don’t trust the system, it is essential to know why. What negative experiences have you had? How can I assure you it will be different? Talking, listening, dedicating time to one-on-one conversations got me a lot of traction across this organization.”


“Throw everything out. Before you do research, just go spend time on farms. Listen to farmers. Only then can you begin the next stage of the story. When you want to create change, trusting relationships are essential for the work to be sustainable. This is much more time-consuming than a top-down approach.”


“We spent lots of time informally talking to players in the city to discern patterns for needs, desires and latent potentials. Sometimes these were formal meetings, but mostly they were informal conversations. This was necessary for us to see a “problem space” we could enter into.”


“We come to these communities as outsiders. There are so many stakeholders. The systems view is complex. The methods are great, but unless we are able to listen over a long period,… well, how would you know what to apply the methods to?”

“There's no client, except for the idea. This helps us stay objective. It changes how we hold conversations. We try not to make statements, but to ask questions. We do not arrive with an agenda."

— A leader of programs to shift urban waste systems

Open, iterative, emergent approaches: essential, but unfamiliar

Systemic participatory efforts are different than problem-solving or “innovation” work. We’ve all been acculturated to move quickly to concrete outcomes. To “get things done.” But the move of a community to a broadly desirable, equitable, and sustainable shift in “the way we do things around here” requires an emergent process. For our catalysts, however seasoned, this presents a list of challenges. 

“We have a ground rule for this work: maintain genuine openness to outcomes. Be strict on process, but open on outcomes. We’re not going to say what healthy kids mean in your community. We won’t tell you how to launch your campaign, or engage your stakeholders. We WILL say you need to do ten interviews, that you need to listen before you act. And that’s an example of being strict on a people-centered creative process, but flexible on what people actually choose to create.”


“We have to set the expectation that this is all going to be iterative. When something looks like it’s working, it means we might be onto something but we still have to take next steps. We work with organizations that don’t have this culture. Sometimes it’s a non-starter — we can’t get people to agree to the process, so we have to walk away. We are small, and must be choosy about where we put our time.”


“Strategy is emergent. Strategy is created through dialogue. The people involved may not know where it will end up, but the rule is they cannot create a strategy for anybody else.”


“The challenge lies more in myself. When you propose a program and guide the process, a challenge can come when you find yourself pushing people through a preconceived program. People push back. When you can sense that, you can adapt and let go. People hold a deep-down desire for change in their situation. They want to connect with each other. Pushing your agenda can hold back that essential process.”

"If you’re constantly focused on things outside of you, you burn out. We try to help people develop regenerative practices, to bring them back to themselves."

— Coach and mentor of social change leaders

The work is conversational, relational, and often tender. It means facing history, difference, and even enmity.

In some disciplines, you grow by getting better at your craft and by expanding your kit of methods and skills. That is true of this work, but it is not enough by itself. Shifting social patterns puts us into intimate contact with the depth of human experience and relationships. 

“People need training on how to have more challenging conversations. My tendency is to be quiet and let it all get out there. That is not necessarily good.”


“We are navigating tides of personal history and stories. Community work means never starting from scratch.”


“I find it hardest, inside the room, getting through the layers of politeness or formality we take on when we are sharing space with people but not willing to connect with them on deep level.”


“I deal with a lot of people being there because they ought to, but not being willing to open up and find points of connection between each other. For me, a generation younger than the people I’m supporting, with less formal power and not a lot in common, what are the ways I can nourish a real relationship among these people? That’s a challenge!”

“A great challenge is to be continually functioning from a places of observation. Hyper-observation. I can’t get caught up in my own opinions. ‘Is he an asshole? Why is he asking stupid questions? Are we moving in the wrong direction?’ I have to be non-judgmental to build trust and engagement.”


“For me, here’s the biggest challenge. It is my job to work with people I disagree with. I must look for points of unity and connection with them. Some of these people have values that are harmful for the world. In the past, I would have defined myself in opposition to them. ‘I am not that kind of Christian.’ Now, it’s my job to be in community with these people, with beliefs that are personally abhorrent, so we can move the whole conversation and community forward.”

"When you deal with such big problems, no matter how much work you get done, and you don't sleep when you look at the world. This is an important question. How do we find a balance? How do we help people enter into space with optimism, energy, resilience?"

— Professor who trains students in systemic work

The importance of self-care and practices of personal resilience

Between group facilitation, relationship work, hard conversations and difficulties of power, on top of the sheer complexity and uncertainty of community- and system-scale goals, this work is TOUGH. So it’s crucial that we learn the skills and practices that will help us refresh our purpose, care for our wounds, and restore our creative joy.

“For myself, it’s about continuing to cultivate an interior spaciousness and resilience so I don’t get swallowed up by everything. There’s always more to be done.”


“I walked into the building wondering if I’m welcome. I’m the only white face. What am I coming with? What bias do I have? Am I being overly friendly with the janitor? (Well, it turned out the janitor is friendly with everyone and is the center, the heart of the whole thing.) ”


“How do we support the team? We’ll run a schedule of one week on, one week off. But I will be on every week. I might burn myself out. Continuously talking about the need for self-care is important.”


“My own voice of fear and judgement towards myself — when I think about it, that is my biggest block. I have a story in myself about people not liking me or my facilitation skills. I could write horror books of that story!”

The Interviews

We are so grateful. Thank you.

The interviews

Sara Cantor Aye, Greater Good Studio

Liddy Barlow, Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania

Sam Barry, New Zealand Foreign Ministry in South Korea

Zack Block, Repair the World Pittsburgh

Scott Boylston, SCAD Design for Sustainability and Emergent Structures

David Forrest, Integral Strategy Network

Agnieszka Golebiowska, White Horses Movement for Women Empowerment and Ending Violence, and Millennia2015

Marian Goodman, Presencing Institute

Kathryn Heffernan, Pittsburgh Public Schools

Josh Lucas, Work Hard Pittsburgh

Kristian Simsarian, CCA Interaction Design and IDEO Fellow

Dieter van den Broeck, Commonland

Supplemental conversations

Kerry Bodine, Kerry Bodine & Co.

Melissa Breker, Breker Group

Andrea Brown, Hennepin County Medical Center

Mark Busse, HCMA Architecture + Design

Dana Chisnell, Center for Civic Design

Samantha Dempsey, Hennepin County Medical Center

Christine Fish, SCAD Design Management

Jessica Friedman Hewitt, Design for Democracy

Erika Johnson, Union Project

Naz Mirzaie, Essential Design

Pragya Mishra, Dalberg Design Impact Group

Tana Paddock, Organization Unbound

John Payne, Moment Design

Lou Rosenfeld, Rosenfeld Media

Josh Seiden, Seiden Consulting

Rinat Sherzer, Of Course Global

Josh Treuhaft, Arup Foresight

Tiffany Wilhelm, Opportunity Fund

Christina Wodtke, Elegant Hack