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Change Management and the Social Sector: Lessons for Change Practitioners

by on October 24, 2016

Change Management and the Social Sector: Lessons for Change Practitioners


Through our studies in Human Learning Ecology, we have been working to understand how human beings make meaning and the implications for social progress. Given our work in organizational change and culture, we are especially interested in the transformation & reconstruction of organizational cultures so they enable sustained, progressive change.  In this blog post we explore how we’ve been implementing change management principles with an initiative designed to support change in the social sector.


For the past three years I’ve had the fortune to work with the First 2000 Days Network leading strategy development and implementation, with a strong focus on culture development.    The First 2000 Days Network is an initiative focused on improving outcomes for children in their first two thousand days of life, before they enter the formal school system.   The impact of investing in early childhood development for society is significant:  estimates put a minimum of a $1:8 ROI on investments in early childhood development. Healthy child development – especially before the age of five – can have far reaching societal effects on school outcomes, job and workforce readiness, and crime prevention to name a few.

Working on this initiative has been a huge learning curve on so many fronts, especially in how to implement change management and organizational development principles in the social sector.

What makes the First 2000 Days Network unique?

When I began with the First 2000 Days Network, I knew very little about early childhood development, and even less about how the non-profit sector in Calgary functioned around this issue.  There were so many nuances that signaled early-on that this would be a very different change management effort:

  • This was a new initiative, essentially in a ‘start-up’ phase in terms of its maturity. There was no staff, no strategic plan, no project charter and very little formal organization.
  • No centralized organizational capacity or formal authority. The various functional roles of the initiative were widespread amongst many different players, not all working for a single agency or organization.
  • No funding. At the beginning of my involvement, the initiative didn’t have any project or sustainable funding to support its ongoing development.
  • Use of two frameworks to guide implementation which required engaging stakeholders in two new ‘ways of working’ using 1) network theory and 2) Collective Impact
  • Supporting how work was being done, not just what was being done: my role was mostly about changing thinking and behaviour patterns, not executing the tactics of a Project or Change Charter.

All of these factors meant there were high levels – and many types – of uncertainty in guiding the initiative forward.  My role in helping to lead the development of the initiative shifted from trying to embed a formal change process onto the initiative to focusing on how to embed and integrate a change culture in our development:  no change plan was going to be able to match the very fluid, dynamic, complex set of challenges we were facing both internally and externally.

Network Theory and Collective Impact

It’s likely helpful to flesh out the two major theories, or frameworks, that were guiding the development of the First 2000 Days Network.

The first is Network Theory.  There are many resources available about networks and how they function (a particularly good reference on Networks is “Inter-Organizational Networks: A Review of the Literature to Inform Practice”).  Essentially there are three features of the network approach used by the First 2000 Days Network that are important to highlight:

  1. The First 2000 Days Network skews strongly toward being an ‘organic’ network (vs. a mandated one which is often the case with ‘change networks’ within formal change management processes). This means that stakeholders engage in the First 2000 Days Network at their own will – they are not required to be there and do not ‘report’ into a formal authority structure. To top that off, the people involved do not work for a single parent organization or entity.  The players are from a diverse spectrum of organizations that have existing programs and services that serve children.
  1. Networks, especially organic ones, function at the speed of trust. Trust and perceived value among network participants is the ‘currency’ of networks.  Therefore, the quality of the Network is indicated by the levels of trust and value among Network participants.
  1. The First 2000 Days Network is very focused on HOW network participants work together, as much as on WHAT they were doing to improve the lives of children in Calgary.

The illustration below lays out the differences between conventional approaches to organizational development, vs. the ‘network’ way and reflects the First 2000 Days Network’s culture:

network-mindet_monitor-image Source:  Monitor Institute

Collective Impact Framework:

The second framework guiding the First 2000 Days Network is the Collective Impact framework.  Collective Impact outlines a way of guiding many different stakeholders toward achieving a collective impact around a common social goal.

In our case, we were using the Collective Impact framework to guide the pieces of work that we needed to focus on as we developed The First 2000 Days Network.  There are five key components to the Collective Impact framework, that link really well with conventional change management techniques:



Given the role of Network Theory and Collective Impact on the development of The First 2000 Days Network, the structure and functions we developed had a unique design.  An illustration of our organizational structure – and essentially our change management approach – is below:



The image above illustrates both our Network’s structure and the key functions of the Collective Impact framework.    There is a team at the center of the Network that takes responsibility – sometimes paid, sometimes volunteers – for leading key elements of the Collective Impact framework.   That group is called the ‘Backbone’.  In our case, the membership of that group was primarily made up of individuals who self-selected to the First 2000 Days Network and brought their skills to the table voluntarily (one characteristic of an organic network).

As a way of linking the efforts of the Backbone team with key stakeholders in the early childhood development sector, we created feedback loops with other initiatives, organizations or individuals as a way of creating connections out into the broader territory, and feeding that work back into the Backbone, and back out again.   Our Change Agents and their links with the Change Collectives self-led and self-managed, with learning links (feedback loops) built in to the Backbone activities.  Results are fed into the Network’s Learning & Evaluation Strategy to ensure coherence and fidelity.

Approaches and Learning:

Given the high levels of uncertainty and the unique nature of the First 2000 Days Network, below are some of the approaches we took to ensure we were matching the change and organizational development efforts to the social change we were trying to achieve, as well as the organizational culture we were trying to create and foster:

  1. Focus on culture: (model behaviour)

If Networks are built on trust, then the core of our culture needed to be focused on trust.   Building trust in an informal, mostly voluntary, immature organization is very time consuming, as it relies heavily on one-on-one relationships, built in different contexts over time.   Part of building trust and the type of culture you strive for is to model the kinds of behaviours you want to create in the entity.

“(Employees and managers)…must learn how the very way they go about defining and solving problems can be a source of problems in its own right”Chris Argyris

Our culture is supported by our Guiding Principles, which guide our development, strategy, decision making and evaluation efforts:

Guiding Principles

  • Trusting: a focus on building trusting relationships
  • Collaborative: shared responsibilities amongst the group to lead and contribute
  • Participatory: many voices heard and opportunities to engage
  • Authentic: planning, process and implementation are in-line with vision and purpose
  • Transparent: access to information is shared, decision-making processes are known, status of actions is visible
  • Adaptive: revisions are encouraged based on learning, changes in the environment and people involved
  • Innovative: demonstration of leadership, perseverance and courage to push against conventional barriers to achieving progress


  1. Focus on adaptive learning: (high tolerance for failure)  

A key part of the Network’s culture is a focus on adaptive learning.  This means being extremely tolerant of failure, supporting the need to test new ideas, create space and time to integrate learning, supporting innovation and adaptation and integrate reflective evaluation efforts at every level of the initiative.

“…(because) so many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure.”  – Chris Argyris

  1. SLOW and steady orientation:

Creating and supporting a tolerance for very high investments of time.    One of the structural components we initialized was a weekly meeting.   That sounds like a ‘given’ – but in an initiative with no formal leadership, no paid positions, voluntary participation and no plan – that is a HUGE ask.   We knew enough to know that meeting once a month like many committees do would not be enough to move us forward, especially in terms of building a distinctive culture for the Network.   We needed to try to build in characteristics of a highly effective team in the absence of knowing the game we were playing, and they only way we could do that was face-to-face, as often as possible.

  1. Demonstrate adaptation: (changing governance model, adapting the function of meetings)

Because of the high levels of uncertainty, we were very aware to be open to changing decisions quickly if they weren’t working.  One example is how we had ‘inherited’ a governance model that everyone initially accepted.  Over time, however, it was clear that we had a governance body before we knew what they were governing!   The existence of a Steering Committee, for instance, was premature in the early days as the Backbone – or core team actually executing the work – wasn’t at a stage where we could clearly articulate what we needed Steering for, or when.    We disbanded the initial governance structure after the first year and now match our governance more organically to our culture, and to what specific Change Collectives were in play at the time.

  1. Linking quality engagement with capacity building:

Because we didn’t have a conventional Project Charter to follow, our engagement strategy came from a mapping exercise that identified all of the “key” players in the Early Childhood Development system in Calgary – essentially those individuals or organization that held official positions of power or influence.  It was very easy to fall back on thinking we needed to just go out, and ‘engage’ these players in the Network.   On paper, this looked good, but in reality it often did not support the key aspect of a Network: building trust.

We took a step back from conventional stakeholder engagement and used our desired outcomes (essentially our quality standards) to guide a more proactive, deliberate (albeit slow!) engagement approach.   This allowed us to prioritize our engagement efforts through building capacity in stakeholders to improve their performance against our idea of quality:  quality for early childhood development but also for building a quality network and a quality collective impact initiative.   Essentially, we used our quality standards to assess capacity building, which in turn informed our engagement approach.

  1. Learning & evaluation guide strategy, not the other way around:

The Network’s first formal hire was an evaluator, with the capacity not just to measure outcomes for kids (which would be a conventional success metric for an entity that exists to improve outcomes for kids) but who could also take a critical approach to the ongoing development of the Network, and feed that critical view to the Backbone team in order to inform strategies and priorities of the Network.

In conventional change management projects you have the sponsor, or the Steering Committee, who gets reported to on the developments of the project at regular time intervals.  In our case, the sponsors, steering committee and staff were all the same people:   having an external set of eyes to observe and provide feedback loops on our development was key.   This allowed us to eventually create a Strategic Development Plan that was informed not only by what kids need to grow up healthy and thriving; but to ensure the Network is healthy and thriving too.

  1. Shared measurement doesn’t mean everyone shares the same measure:

In Collective Impact, one of the main framework elements is to develop a ‘shared measurement’ approach.  One of the common traps of the term ‘shared measure’ is that people automatically assume that means everyone needs to measure the same thing.   In our case, there were many debates about which specific aspects of early childhood development the Network should stand for.  Was it literacy? Play? Maternal health?  We realized early on that if we pegged the Network against forcing everyone to measure the same thing around Early Childhood Development that we would fail:  why would a health agency get on board to measure literacy?  They wouldn’t.  And yet, we knew we needed health at the table…   So, instead of using ‘shared measurement’ as a top-down, single-source approach, we decided instead to focus on building the capacity of all the players around the table using a shared approach to quality.  In essence, we use five key principles of healthy families and children as our quality standard for what capacities should be built with Network participants, which will ultimately improve their ability to serve and support children.

Lessons for Change Practitioners:

As a result of working on the development of the First 2000 Days Network, I suggest there are several principles change practitioners can use to improve our practice leading change in our organizations and contribute to the likelihood of success of a change initiative:

  • Understand the nature of the challenge, including the types and sources of uncertainty. Managing a mandated, top-down change network is going to present very different challenges than an organic community of practice, for instance.  Know what those differences are and the implications for your practice.
  • Pay as much attention to how you are supporting the culture of the project, as to what the project is about. (function vs. form) The project may have very specific and predetermined outcomes but HOW you achieve those, in order to build sustained capacity for the project to succeed over time, is important.
  • True change requires a high level of tolerance for failure, messiness, adapting and learning. Not all change projects are supported to do this or see this as a key feature of their process.  Beware!
  • Don’t understand too quickly: if you are leading a network or change project, the worst thing you can do is assume you know what needs to happen.   You might end up being right, but take the time to check your assumptions and engage in real conversation about what’s needed for the network to make progress.   Match your learning and actions to reality!

To read more about the First 2000 Days Network’s approach and its efforts to enable social change, you can read our case study “Establishing the Pre-Conditions for Systems-Level Change in Early Childhood Development”.


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