In my course, Getting to Maybe: A Complexity Activation Series, I challenge participants to identify and engage with those persons who hold resources / authority over a part of the system we want to change. Frances Westley et al. call those persons the Powerful Strangers. To identify the Powerful Stranger, listen and investigate who people are referring to when you hear “They” in dialogue.
“They told us we had to do it this way.”
“I would change things if I could, but I know they won’t like it.”
“They are hoarding all the resources and won’t want to contribute to our initiative.”
“They are the first to pushback when we try to make any progress.”
In change work, the They are often people who are perceived as resisting change, or are comfortable and benefiting from the status quo. They have been perceived outsiders to the people deepest in the change. They may be aligned with individuals/organizations who have been granted authority over a domain. They are often managers and leadership who are ensnared in top-down commands and decisions, under enormous pressure to deliver.
When applying a complexity inquiry framework, reflective practice is critical. Deliberately standing still with colleagues to examine how power in relationships and roles has shifted is the foundation of complexity practice in social systems. Change comes with confrontation of our biases, fears, and our own power (Westley et al., 2007).
“Mobilizing power and resources to change things presents a paradox. Anyone who wishes to transform a system has to unlock resources claimed by the status quo. But the image of unlocking suggests someone standing outside the locked door – outside the system. Complexity theory leads us to recognize that we are part of the system we are trying to change.” (Westley et al., 2007)
And thus, participants in the learning series bravely delve into their experiences with power and authority, and strategize how to leverage relationships where there is opportunity to collaborate and reinvigorate mandates with a collective impact.
Foucault’s work on Othering explores the They in contexts of perceived power, authority, dominance, control of resources (time, energy, money, talent, social capital). It reminds us how our perception of the They is not unlike acting through knowledge “of the Other” to achieve a political agenda of domination.
Joseph Campbell and George Lucas explored the adage “We have met the enemy and he is us” in the analysis of the Hero’s journey, and portrayal of Luke Skywalker’s development as a Jedi.
To put yourself on the path of engaging powerful strangers, ask:
How does your knowledge mission align / conflict with the mission of those with decision making authority in your community?
Who is holding in place the current system? When people discuss their desire for change, who is the “they” in their narrative?
-What tools/actions/deliverables are expected?
-Where are your partners’ needs/expectations aligned with those perceived as powerful?
-What is your role in supporting your partners’ accountability needs? What do they need from you and why?
How have you succeeded in identifying and engaging powerful strangers?
Westley, F., Zimmerman, B., & Patton, M. Q. (2007). Getting to Maybe: How the world is changed. Toronto: Vintage Canada.