YOUR PLACE - Social Context and Starting Points

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What sort of ‘system’ are you in?

There is still one more important piece of the picture that is missing: the people! Who are they? What sort of social grouping are we looking at? How many? How are they related to one another? Does the need for change apply to some or all?


Change never occurs in a social vacuum; there are always people to consider, different people with different needs, related to one another in complex ways. Thus, the very first step in a change process is  recognizing what the system really is. In the most general sense, "system" just means a number of things that go together: elements, molecules, cells, organs, organisms, or whatever. Social systems are merely bunches of people that go together in some way. Just who are the social elements, how they go together, and how well they go together are crucial questions for the change agent.

“Systems” come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. What sort of system are you in? What sort of change agents or teams needed will depend heavily on the nature of the system for which change is contemplated.

Seven Levels: Large to Small

There are at least three dimensions to consider. Most obvious is size, the shear numbers of people involved in the system, as members, users, clients, or stakeholders omn one kind or another. A second dimension is structure, the extent to which members are held together and  constrained by pre-specified roles, relationships, and expectations. These may range from very tight or rigid to very loose or vague. A third dimension is complexity, signifying the number of different roles and the number of interconnections among members as well as the diversity of system goals.

  1. Community: a large (2,000 to 200,000) group of people co-located but with diverse interests, jobs, and circumstances.

    Formal leadership may be through structured political leadership, but there are many subgroups, schools, police, fire depts., churches, and businesses, all variably linked in a complex open structure in which leadership is dispersed and largely informal

  2. Large Organizations, differentiated into many departments, may be dispersed geographically but with coherent established leadership, division of labor, and hierarchy

  3. Coherent medium-sized organizations: schools, medium-sized businesses (100 employees), government departments, local governments, medical facilities.

    Coherent leadership

  4. Small organizations: small (often family) businesses, under 50 employees, school classrooms, university departments, local offices of larger organizations, often with a very small or singular existing leadership.

  5. Very small organizations, families, couples

  6. Individuals

  7. Specific behaviors of individuals

Regardless of size,  or structure of the system undergoing change, The Havelock 7-step change model applies.


For each types  the rules and the focus changes somewhat but the basics stay the same, regardless of the size, the scope  of the project, or the type of problem that is being confronted. emphasis on each stage.


On the other hand, it should be obvious that Types 1, 2, and 3 may require significant resources and more careful consideration of entry strategies.

To enter the situation on firm ground the change agent optimally should:

  1. assess the initial system health, (S-2) and potential for change,
  2. establish a formal or informal contract to limit expectations,
  3. identify members and begin to recruit a change team. 

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The mere connectedness of the members of a system may be the central change issue. Do the people involved even see themselves as part of the same system? Do they see themselves as having common goals and interests and an ability and willingness to talk to one another and to work together for the common good? Very often they don't, and if they don't, then the first task of the change agent is to try to bring them together. Groupings of individuals create a challenge to the change agent, and change agents may want to work at any or all of these levels. For example, there are many change situations which can be defined in terms of the relations between two individuals. Indeed, to the extent that we so often tend to.

S - 1: Diagnostics

  1. Extent of interconnectedness:
    • How often and how much do members talk to each other?
      • Meetings, lunches, informal gatherings, parties
    • Cooperate successfully to get the job done?
    • Know each other’s respective roles and accept these roles?

  1. Acceptance of existing leadership
  2. Acceptance of a shared group culture
  3. History of successful functioning over time
  4. Staff turnover in key positions
  5. Productivity: is it measured? how measured?

S - 2: What you should ask yourself before getting involved

  • Is leadership aware of system health issues?
  • Is there anything can you do about system health issues?
  • Should you proceed with this change effort if you are confronting a system in very poor health? Is it a “go” or a “no go” situation. Is system health a consideration with respect to your particular change effort?
  • Are there any necessary preconditions before you can proceed with a change effort?  
    • Do you have an escape clause? A prenuptial agreement?
  • Are any of these system health issues matters that your change project can address?
    • Directly?
    • Indirectly?

S - 3: Where are you starting from?

Where you start from gives you special advantages and disadvantages that you need to be aware of at all times.


Change Agent-1: The “Boss”
Much of the change agent literature assumes that the CA is the boss, a person with leadership responsibility, power, and status.


Change Agent-2: Staff assignment
You are working for the boss who expects you to introduce or manage the change.
What exactly is your charge? Is it clear? Is it doable? Do you want to do it?
Do you agree with the boss on what is needed?


Change Agent-3: from below
You are in the system somewhere and you have no particular charge from the boss, but you think something is wrong and you would like to change it. In-system innovator, trouble maker, revolutionary


Change Agent-4: outside contractor- institutional base


Change Agent-5: independent outsider

  • under contract
  • foot-in-the-door

Should we really do this?

Understanding the social context creates Starting Points for change.  Not all systems are amenable to change at a given moment, even though there are many who see the need and feel the pain of not acting. The best change agents have to have a feel for timing and appropriateness. The lead question should be”\: is this system ready for a change process at this time. Will there negative on sequences of disruption outweigh the possible realized benefits? Can the system take it?

S-4: System Change Posture

 How does the client system feel about change in general.

  • Does the leadership and the membership view the possibility of improvement through change positively, passively, or negatively?

2. History of other successful changes over time

  • How often in the recent past has the system engaged in change efforts (of any kind)?
  • Have past change efforts been perceived as successful?
    • With positive outcomes for all members and levels of the system?

3. Anxiety level of system membership regarding changing the status quo

  • How do they respond to you initially?
  • Do they see you and accept you as a change agent?
  • Does this seem like a good thing?
  • Are you subjected to extensive or critical questioning about your role
    • And the need for you in that role?

4. Openness to new ideas:

  • from inside the system?
  • From the “top”
  • From  outsiders, “experts” etc.?

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