The work of Collaboration for Impact (CFI) includes supporting change initiatives that are bringing changemakers together to align their efforts for greater impact. That means getting the right people in the room with the knowledge, skills, and passion to disrupt the status quo and work for whole of community outcomes. When we’re dealing with complex and adaptive problems that our change efforts focus on, it is the mindsets in the system, as much as the policies, practices and power dynamics, that hold the problem in place.

Take for example the unacceptable rates of domestic and family violence in Australia. Frighteningly, we can all too readily call to mind the statistics on the violence committed against women by partners or former partners. You can triple that fright if you think about the data for First Nations’ women.

As organisations move to make domestic violence (DV) leave available to their employees and the criminal justice system (sometimes arguably) tries to keep pace with community expectations, the statistics aren’t changing. The prevailing mental models that shape attitudes towards women are holding this problem in place.

I was at a workshop in Regional Victoria recently with an impressive group of changemakers. The group of predominantly services and industry representatives moved from ideating how they could get the long term unemployed ready for work, to an ah-ha moment of, “we are the ones who need to get ready!”.

What followed was a series of actions and commitments to scaffolding people into work, changing the bar for recruitment, and ensuring there was a pathway of care for new recruits through their employment journey. What was happening was a shift in mindset from an “us and them” mentality, where the others need to do the heavy lifting of change, to an “all of us together” mindset.

Getting those mindset shifts isn’t easy work. Mindsets are durable and resistant to change: at some point in time mindsets became our deeply held cognitive shortcuts because they served us and helped us make sense of the world. You could argue an “us and them” mentality has helped us recognise threats and find affiliation for reasons of safety.

The first step in shifting mindsets is surfacing them. At Collaboration for Impact’s Backbone Bootcamp – how to get started course, we asked participants to surface the mindsets that get in the way of their collaborative change efforts. Within five minutes the group had created a canvas that was so rich and thick I am still peeling off the layers to make sense of the data!

Using one of the Frameworks Institute’s tools, we asked the question “what do you hear all the time in your change effort that is crazy-making and you wish you’d never hear again”? There were two strong themes that emerged that seem in opposition to one another. The first was that the problem is too big and overwhelming to solve so why bother (a fatalist mindset). The second was that the current system of service delivery works well enough, and the community just needs to change. Or, to put it more bluntly, the community should just let us “fix them”. 

Some of the most difficult and productive conversations I have had with people over the years have been around the idea of families and communities being broken. The rationale for our work, our identities as practitioners, and let’s be honest our egos, are sometimes built on this mindset. By seeing our mindsets, rather than seeing with our mindsets, we can start to gain the critical perspectives and insights needed to guide this complex, adaptive, big change work.  

Author, Alison Harwood, Collaborative Change Practice Lead, CFI


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