“The joy is in the journey”. Really?

What has joy got to do with systems change?

When you think of evolving institutions, professions and organizations, joy isn’t necessarily the first word that springs to mind.

Change is hard. It feels heavy, political, exhausting and serious. 

But at The Systems Studio joy is front and center of what we do. It is our reason for being.

And here’s why- joy is a brilliant strategy for systems change.

What is joy anyway?

I was incredibly fortunate to be invited to a retreat a few years ago in Cape Town, with an organization called The Leading Causes of Life (LCL).

Led by a core team of academics and public health professionals they had been exploring the question ‘What creates a feeling of ‘life’ in the darkest of circumstances?’ We heard from incredible anti-apartheid campaigners share their stories of their lives torn apart, whilst still finding hope.

Over years of research, LCL have distilled their findings into 5 concepts that I use as design principles when bringing people together for systems change.

Design principles for joy

Create the conditions for:    

  1. Agency – “I can do something to change this.” “My contribution counts.”  
  2. Connection – Skip the small talk- design experiences where people can talk about things you really care about.   
  3. Intergenerativity- Passing knowledge up and down the generations. Take this further and allow people of all levels of seniority to share experience.
  4. Hope – Create a sense that things can change for the better. 
  5. Coherence - Help people make sense of how they think and feel about an issue and create the conditions for them to share this with the group.   

To me joy is distinct from happiness or fun. you can't fake it. It requires facing the fact that things are imperfect. Getting the dirt out the cupboards and looking at it together. Being honest. Being vulnerable and admitting that we don’t have all the answers, even if we’re in charge.  

Joy is a feeling that emerges during a workshop, retreat or gathering where people are able to connect in a meaningful way. It is life affirming, it is inspiring and it creates a bond between people that last long after your intervention. It also motivates participants to work on projects that are difficult and to keep going even when it gets really tough. 

Bringing people together? Put the time into planning

So no it's not frivolous to spend ages working out who will sit where, or thinking through how to make introverts feel just as comfortable as extroverts.

If you want to bring people with you, to inspire and lead change, very often its those details that make your important gathering something they will remember forever, for all the right reasons.