How's the Water?

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By Imogen Davis, Consultant

Strategic planning, program evaluation, project management, community collaborations, grant writing, data analysis

A fish is swimming along one day when another fish comes up and says, “Hey, how’s the water?” The first fish stares back blankly at the second fish and then says, “What’s water?”

Sometimes (often?!) we are so embedded in our own worlds, that we fail to recognize key conditions that we are living and working within. Sometimes, rather than “solving a problem” we need to change our mindset to “shifting the conditions that are holding the problem in place.” This can mean changing the questions that define the problem or shifting the definition of the problem in a way that allows us to see new ways to solve it.

I’m riffing here on a longer article by two of my favorite writers on social change, Mark Kramer and Peter Senge and their article, “The Water of Systems Change” (highly recommended!). As I was reading, I started to think about how these principles also hold true for organizational change. So how do we ask the questions that can get us past our own assumptions and blind spots?

The top level of policies, practices, and resource allocations is where we often look when looking to make changes in our organizations, and there is no doubt that impact can be had there. But if we ignore the other aspects of change, our change won’t be sustainable. True transformational change can only take place when the narrative shifts. These narratives can become deeply embedded beliefs about an organization’s identity which may not be matched by the experience of those served by or involved in the organization or community.

Working with a recent arts client, we were able to tap into some of these assumptions and perceptions and change the narrative that was driving some of their decision-making. This organization was looking to diversify their audience and felt that if they diversified their offerings to be more aligned with the various cultural groups they wanted to serve, their audience would become more diverse. A series of listening sessions had been planned to probe the question of cultural relevancy. Reflecting and embracing diversity is hugely important, but at the same time, I wasn’t sure that this was the only answer.

We probed beliefs among a diverse group of potential audience members to get at how they perceived norms around who attended events, whether they themselves attended, and whether they thought others in their circles attended. We found that under-represented groups often believed that few of their peers were interested. In fact, a far greater proportion of them had attended and expressed interest in engaging than was perceived by the group. There was a gap between perceived and actual behavior. Furthermore, we discovered that cultural alignment wasn’t high on the list of reasons people attended events. The most powerful reason among the survey participants was a desire to be taken out of their ordinary experience and in some sense “transformed.”

The new narrative that emerged strengthened the institution’s commitment to inclusivity in all their work, including their marketing—with an emphasis on the transformative nature of artistic experience. While continuing to seek culturally diverse programming, the underlying questions had shifted from “How do we engage in culturally relevant programming?” to “How do we engage all our audiences in the power of art to transform?” Shifting this question shifted the nature of the organization’s efforts to diversify their audience, including working to shift the audience’s narrative about their peers and themselves. Part of that answer had to do with understanding the narrative groups had about themselves in who participated and why.

This kind of thinking can be applied to many aspects of an organization’s work whether in the arts, human services, or education. Understanding the fundamental questions and assumptions that drive the thinking behind current programming decisions and evaluation choices can help uncover new questions that can transform the work of the organization.

Data can often help to tell a story, but we often only get the data that we have asked for. “Seeing the water,” the assumptions that we are operating within, and designing questions that cut through some of those assumptions can point us in new directions.

 Image adapted from Mark Kramer et al - The Water of Systems Change

Imogen Davis