Changing Incumbent Systems: A Personal Story

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Buckminster Fuller said famously.

But this strategy has its limitations when there is a big powerful, well-functioning system in the way of meaningful change.

While much of my work of The Finance Innovation Lab was about building the alternative finance movement, I have always been silently drawn to transforming systems that are established, powerful and influential.

It’s not fair

I grew up in England with a ‘children should be seen and not heard’ kind of culture. This, paired with an invisible class system that put me in place every time I left the house, was nothing short of infuriating as a curious and gregarious child. I am the daughter of a Boarding School/Cambridge educated father and a working class mum, so I was always a bit confused. I spent each year at my local comprehensive with classmates who grew up to be hairdressers and electricians, and summers sailing with friends who went to some of the most expensive public schools in the UK.                   

When I started working I saw over and over that people who had the social airs and graces of my sailing friends always got the best jobs. They were usually not particularly motivated, nor the brightest kids in the year, but they secured work experience while at University through their friends’ dads and walked straight into corporate jobs at the Big Firms when they left.

Fast forward a few years and I could see how this dynamic played out at more senior levels in the organizations I was surrounded by from NGOs, think tanks and Academic institutions to hedge funds and accountancy firms. These people, usually white men of course, found themselves in positions of real power and authority despite so often being poor managers and uninspiring leaders. They brought with them the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ mentality and people who were different from them were never really given the opportunity to speak up, even if they had great ideas about how to make things better.

This was not about people with a Machiavellian plan, usually they didn’t choose to take all this power, but they simply walked into it with confidence by virtue of where they came from. I was of course, not immune to this myself. With white skin, a stable upbringing and the right vocabulary any success I have had sits squarely on the back of this privilege. I am very much a product of this system. It doesn’t mean that I can’t rebel against it though.

From the UK to America  

I now live in America and I’m disappointed to say the lack of meritocracy here is overwhelming. The biggest predictor in this country of going to a good college is still the wealth of your parents. The idea that you can become anything by working hard is so factually incorrect, that I find it incredible that anyone still holds on to this ideal. Systems change is needed here in equal measure to the UK.  

‘People like us’ – a dangerous strategy

I am drawn to systems change in incumbent systems not just because I find them unfair, but also because I can see how much help they need to change.  

If you hire ‘people like you’ for generations, you end up surrounded by people just like you at home, at work, at conferences, every damn place you go. Frankly it gets very boring indeed, but not just that, it also makes it very difficult to change when you really need to.

Theories of resilience tell us that homogeneity is not a good strategy for survival. Systems with many difference components (species, actors, sources of knowledge) are generally more resilient than systems with few components.

The professions, organizations and institutions I come across are all facing unprecedented demographic and digital disruption, experiencing this in real time.   A more complex environment, new technology, a lack of interest from millennials and a drive towards authentic communication mean that the old way of doing things, just won’t cut it anymore.

These dynamics can’t be solved without building strong bridges with ‘outsiders’. With people who don’t respect the boundaries and cultural norms that are so implicit to your sector or industry, who hold different knowledge of the system. People who if they don’t like what they see will simply “build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

But it takes a change in culture to listen to people who are younger than you, to hear hard truths and to genuinely want to change, especially if you have had a long career surrounded by people who reinforce your values and ideals.  

What's the solution? 

As Richard Susskind said in his book The Future of the Professions “If we leave it to professionals themselves to reinvent their workplace, are we asking the rabbits to guard the lettuce?”  

That’s where I come in, findings people who really do want to change and helping them work through a process that moves them towards a more democratic and therefore resilient model. And the little Rachel with the big ideas has finally found her place in the world.