Alan Roxburgh, Planting Seeds, Adaptive Change and Diffusion of Innovation

from Prodigal Kiwi(s) Blog by Paul Fromont

Hands-with-plantOne of the rich benefits of listening too and being in conversation with Alan Roxburgh is the interesting ‘places’ you’re taken to. Alan, after spending time with Anglican’s in Wellington, headed north to the Waikato for two-days with Anglican clergy at Findlay Park. It’s been a couple of years since I last saw Alan, so lots of benefits on a personal level. Alan early on had a strong leaning toward and intellect for philosophy. My sense is that while his focus has increasingly been on Missiology, particularly in Western culture and particularly within what Alan terms “Western-Euro-Tribal Churches”, he still retains and nourishes a love of learning and intellectual exploration. It’s that willingness to explore and think broadly that enables many of us to pick up the threads and for these threads to be woveninto our own narratives, experiences, and exploration.

And so, you encounter texts like: Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition; and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. You encounter systems and change theory. You encounter French Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. You think of Nick Cave and his songGod is in the House. You are reminded again how important Simon Carey Holt’s wonderful little book God Next Door is. The list goes on, and when you step back from what you’re hearing you see cohesion; you see significance and opportunity, and you discover invitations.

Remember of course that Alan’s time in the Waikato follows in the footsteps of Alan Jamieson (giving voice to the experiences of those for whom their faith and explorations are churchless in a traditional sense); Steve Taylor (“postcards from the innovative edge”); Richard Rohr (the importance of spirituality within the Christian religious tradition); Ian Mobsby (nu-monasticism and innovative approaches to being church engaged within the wider culture(s) and local contexts); and Dave Tomlinson (speaking from a traditional parish context about creativity and creative ways of being church).

One piece of what proved to be a really rich vein of thinking was the input around diffusing innovation Al Roxburghand systems / organisational change. In particular it was the conversation around living inside an unravelling context, i.e. a church without solutions, without being able to “fix it”. Nothing more boring, unhelpful, or further from God’s imagination than the question: “How can we make the church work?” Couple these themes with how to cultivate a different imagination, systems theory, the change process, diffusing innovation, and you go to some interesting places, not least for me, at a relational level when the multiple narratives and realities of our lives come into conflict with those of others. When, like a church community, the central narratives coalesce around its experience of dying, of not having a future, of having little hope. Is the Spirit at work? Where are the invitations, the opportunities for new learning, experimentation, and small (new) beginnings – new growth?

Can God and God’s invitations – the work of the Spirit – be found in all things, in all contexts – even when little hope seems apparent? The future of relationships, to adapt a phrase Alan regularly uses, is within the relationship or relationship(s), whether we’re thinking about a church, a workplace, or a marriage. The challenges and opportunities are the same. If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get the same outcomes. Crises creating disequilibrium are important invitations to creativity, systemic (DNA) and culture change (“culture is not simply “out there”; its deep inside us”), to the discovery or recovery of new (old) stories and resources, to adaptation, innovation and its diffusion etc. Change happens when we’re able to prepare the soil, open it up and soften it, nourish it, and plant new seeds and thus tend, protect, and nurture new possibilities and opportunities for life.

In this respect Alan reminds us that culture / relational change is cultivated (its doesn’t just happen; and it doesn’t happen without intervention) when we create a safe environment that engages people at the level of habits, practices, attitudes, and values. Systems, relational and culture change must happen at this level before its adaptations can be meaningfully and deeply diffused, in order that a new future or futures might be created. Habits, values, attitudes are “pre-reflective”, i.e. “unconscious” and are deeply connected to experiences, feelings, and identity, i.e. how we are, and how we’ve become that way. So, if change doesn’t get to the root and begin to diffuse and create, then meaningful change is less likely to happen. Culture change is the result of working at multiple levels simultaneously. For example, in a relationship, we need to be working at the individual level (my habits, values, attitudes, identity, formative experiences, my imagination and ability to see with new perspective, and to see new possibilities. But is also requires work at the relational level – how we relate, how we do things, our shared beliefs, narratives, and value etc. How we are oftentimes unconsciously formed and shaped by external forces and influences; by culture itself – cultural assumptions and values that are deeply at work in us, and thus between us. “How do we change the world?” a person was asked. “One person at a time,” was the response. If people individually are willing to remain committed and engaged, but willing also to change and grow, then bigger, wider change never happens. 

The impetus for adaptive change might come from the edges, but broad change only happens when the broad middle is changed. Change within an existing paradigm (or way of being) will not change culture.

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