Disruption Decoded: Four skills for shifting systems

Approximately twenty University of Oxford students will be attending this year’s Skoll World Forum as part of the Skoll Centre‘s Skoll World Forum Student Fellowship.  Students will be blogging throughout the Forum, so stay tuned for some great insights!

With the Forum fast approaching, Mark Hand has already shared some of his thoughts below. Enjoy!


What does it take to unwind wicked problems? Image by Jacob Thomas

What does it take to disrupt an entire system? Last month, Joy Anderson of the Criterion Institute pulled together a group of social entrepreneurs, academics, consultants and funders for a day-long conversation on this very question. During the morning session we heard from those working to alter the supply chain for US fish, to bring together musicians from the entire Nile River Basin, and to redefine the “American Dream” in an age of decreasing homeownership. In a clever twist, Anderson had each of us focus on one of five themes as we listened: Leadership, Choices, Strategies, Relationships, and Stuff That Doesn’t Fit Into the Other Four Categories.

During case studies we recorded thoughts and questions on sticky notes, then rainbowed a wall in the main hall of the ICAEW building in London. After lunch another delegate and I scratched our heads over the multi-colored mess. Criterion will put out a much more thorough reflection on this series of events in June: in the meantime, here are the four themes that I believe system-shifters must master to succeed in their difficult work: Adaptive Leadership, Storytelling, Network Theory, and Power.

Adaptive Leadership. As we grouped together words that touched on leadership we noticed a trend in descriptions of the leadership of actors tackling wicked problems: humble, centered, adaptive, rooted, curious. These were not the authoritarian leaders or old nor in command of industry-specific expertise. Rather their talents were what business school strategists called dynamic capabilities: the ability to shuffle resources in reaction to new situations or new understandings of an existing situation. As one participant put it, “The more we learned the more the idea that we understood the industry went out the window.”

Network Theory. Such a humble approach to leadership allows systems-shifters to see themselves as organizers of resources within a network of relationships. In the Philippines, for example, the multimillion-dollar community development group Gawad Kalinga owes its success to having worked out how best to connect big businesses, communities, highly educated young Filipinos, and others. Within the world of network theory, they serve alternately as bridge and broker among these otherwise isolated communities.

Storytelling. To view leaders as hubs at the center of a wheel of relationships runs counter to the familiar narrative of the hero leader. But narratives and stories form the basis of humans’ religious and political understanding, serve as the glue for communities, and–in the language of business–are the method by which leaders pull others around their vision. “Where there is no vision,” reads the Jewish Ketuvim, “the people perish.” Following the Nile River Basin musical project, in which Africans from the length of the river basin will come together to compose pan-African musical scores, Arab and black North African musicians will leave with a new story to tell about their counterparts in other countries.

Power. Following the day with Criterion, I had a conversation with an American friend starting a nonprofit to fight against the death penalty in his state. Why a nonprofit rather than politics? I asked. He responded that he didn’t want to “play the game.” I pointed out that by tackling a political issue, he was in “the game,” whether he liked it or not. Too often social entrepreneurs and others avoid using the tools of the system, believing they can create change from outside. They’re wrong; real changes requires politics, even if those system-shifters aren’t to become politicians.

The Skoll World Forum, of course, will be packed with individuals already putting these skills to good use. And if there is one aspect of the Forum I am focused on, it is looking for the other skills that these individuals have made sure to develop. Suggestions welcome.



Photo Credit: Jacob Thomas