Reflections on Driving Change in a Complex World 1

We have learned for years, for decades, from elders and peers, from theories, norms, principles and proven solutions. We have researched and studied, we have compiled theories, tools and methodologies to help us find solutions. We use good practices to confront development challenges and to adapt our systems and structures to current needs.

Yet, we are still confronted with quite a number of complex challenges to the wellbeing of all, be it the share of natural resources and biodiversity, ignorance of human rights, especially from the perspective of marginalized groups, social and economic conflicts or natural disasters.

Surely, all the existing expertise and knowledge, technical and sectoral as well as methodological and practical tools, help a lot when planning change projects and designing change processes. Nevertheless, why have we been struggling with some challenges for quite some time already and do not seem to come close to a solution yet? How do we deal with these challenges? How can we drive change?

“If you do what you always did, you get what you always got” – a famous quote you can find as a stimulus for thinking at the CEF premises. There are various reflections arising, more than the ones tackled here.

Source: Learn4Dev, Annual meeting 2017


Do learnings from the past tell us sufficiently how to deal with the future?

Partly, for sure! There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Today, we often strive for innovation. Is it important to find new products and processes or rather the right one – be it already existing or not? It can save a lot of time and energy to use the available tools, methods or “best practices” if the specific challenge and context allows for it.

However, the more complex it gets, the less simple it seems to find the right solution or to design a process for change. There is often a range of characteristics to be taken into account: socio-cultural, technical, environmental or sectoral as well as openness for change in each one involved. Iterative methods and creativity tools that ask for a learner’s mindset and planning for loops in the process, may be helpful. This implies that we cannot know the exact result yet, when planning change. Linear thinking may not be the best fit for complex development problems. We should therefore value the openness and flexibility of our minds as much as the existing expertise.

Considering the complexities ­ what can I do?

“The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do …”, a quote by Steve Jobs and another daily reminder at the CEF.

We all have our own spheres of influence and are therefore empowered to drive change, for instance in our teams, communities or organizations. Considering that, it may be helpful to be assigned with a powerful position but it is not a prerequisite to lead change. I may not be able to solve the issue of climate change myself nor am I the one who can decide on ending poverty but I can contribute to stop it, for example by reducing my own consumption, with my intention and engagement in my community and in the realm of my assigned position.

To drive change is often a bumpy road, facing resistances of others as well as one’s own uncertainties, facing the need to challenge and maybe re-judge personal perceptions and opinions – listening and learning are equally important to sharing and implementing in this process. While wishing for visible change in a clearly defined future, we often only see small steps ahead. Sometimes we even seem to go backwards. We need to learn to celebrate these small steps in a humble and patient way, acknowledging that backlashes are part of change and provide us with important knowledge.

Source: Global Leadership Academy


Expertise and the power of diversity – do we really meet others at eye-level?

We grow up in a specific culture with certain values and norms that frame our awareness and behavior. They tell us what is right and valuable. We have learned to respect traditions, to value the wisdom of experts, respect powerful functions and positions, and expect assigned leaders to take action and responsibility. Nothing of that is wrong. However, with the global development challenges we face today, we may also need further inspiration. The diversity of perspectives helps to get out of usual conversations, out of daily-work contexts in order to open up and learn from diversity and opposing views. That, in many cases, challenges our own comfort zone.

In various work contexts, we are rather used to strategize, negotiate and argue for a specific opinion or to discuss different views from our individual perspective. As experts, we are rather used to teach and train. This might hinder us though to be really open and unprejudiced to other views and experiences. It may prevent us from meeting others at eye-level. However, it is real listening and trying to understand the other without pre-judgment that might be needed when dealing with highly complex social change settings of today.

From history, we know that many disruptive change ideas were considered too crazy when they first emerged. As Henry Ford is often quoted, “if it would have been the peoples will, they would have asked for faster horses”. This shows that it takes quite some courage to accept and let go of the established ways of thinking and well-known perceptions. We therefore believe that openly listening to others and valuing diverse backgrounds may drive the change we seek in many development processes and systems change.

We, at the Global Leadership Academy of GIZ, constantly learn and reflect with our partners and our participants on driving change. We convene ‘Leadership and Innovation Labs’. Those are spaces for dialogue and innovation with diverse and global groups of leaders and change agents, be it on oceans management, memory work, urban innovation or transforming leadership for equality.

Starting in mid-2017 through the partnership in the learn4dev network and especially during a meeting in September, I had the chance to exchange ideas and experience with the CEF team on creating spaces and stimuli of reflection and change. Therefore, while writing the blog post this experience inspires my reflections.

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About Mareike Zenker

Mareike is convinced of the importance of social dimensions in all development areas. Connecting different people and fostering exchange has always been a central aspect of her professional life. She has been actively involved in different global and regional networks. Currently, Mareike is chair of the international learn4dev network on joint competence development. Before joining the Global Leadership Academy in 2015 she was heading a project on strengthening women’s rights in Indonesia directly targeting at building links between different stakeholders at different levels and sectors. She has been working in various positions supporting governance issues and projects in Asia, Africa and the MENA-region. She graduated in Sociology and is trained in Change Management.

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