An emerging framework for considering how people and groups can make change happen
By Sandra Waddock, Ju Young Lee, and Steve Waddell
Editor’s Note: When Sandra Waddock shared a new article co-authored by herself, Ju Young Lee and Steve Waddell, we were intrigued by the “naming and explaining” of a role by people or a group that can catalyze action. In the same way that new organizational titles such as “Network Weaver” and “Ecosystem Manager” have emerged, we wonder if the role of Transformation Catalyst might also become more known.
We welcome comments and responses to this article, in hopes of expanding, deepening and clarifying this way of approaching systems transformation through a Global Responsibility lens to incorporate interdependence, connectedness, and co-creation ways that promote Global Responsibility.
One possibility is to host a 2022 “Courageous Conversation” webinar on this topic with the authors and people and groups who are already recognizing themselves as Transformation Catalysts. Please reach out to John North with ideas and nominations for such an event.
Transformation Catalysts (TCs) are a new way of organizing to achieve system change not in a direct way, but through catalytic actions. Similar to chemical catalyst, which brings about a reaction or state change but does not necessarily change itself, a social catalyst is someone or a group that precipitates events — or makes change happen. Social catalysts typically operate in complex environments and aim to tackle what are known as wicked problems. TCs similarly operate in wicked complexity, attempting to align numerous different activities and actions into greater effectiveness.
In two recent papers, we investigated the specific actions that TCs take to achieve their work. A transformation catalyst, according to Waddock and Waddell, is a promising organizing innovation specifically designed to enable purposeful transformational or fundamental change in socio-economic-ecological systems oriented towards flourishing for all. TCs organize the typically fragmented collection of change initiatives into more coherent, effective, and impactful transformation systems. TCs connect, cohere, and amplify efforts of numerous initiatives to enable them to overcome their fragmentation and lack of impact, or what ecologist Paul Hawken once called ‘blessed unrest.’ In doing so, TC’s enable coalitions of change-makers to form shared visions and aspirations (narratives) so that they can begin to align their efforts even while continuing their previous activities. This initial paper provides an understanding of the emerging phenomenon of TCs and why they are important in today’s complex context of numerous crises and problems that need resolving.
Using the definitions above, Lee and Waddock identified 27 TCs and used their website-based information to figure out what TCs do and how. This study is helping us determine what catalytic action actually is in practice across a range of different TCs.
TCs’ catalytic action can be thought of through several lenses: the ‘what and where’ of the transformation agenda, the ‘who and how’ of taking catalytic action, and the ‘why and when’ that makes sense of TCs actions and the systemic ‘approach’ that TCs take.
The transformation agenda’s ‘what and where’ has two aspects: cognitive or mindset/paradigm shift and actual systemic change or transformation. Cognitive transformation is about changing the stories or narratives that shape peoples’ belief systems relative to the specific context undergoing transformation. That is, cognitive shift involves resetting the paradigm that determines mindsets and ultimately influences behaviors, attitudes, and relationships, or what is sometimes called the cultural mythology. Systemic transformation as defined by the TCs studied involves taking whole systems approaches that are integrated, that shift understanding of humans’ relationship with nature towards understanding interdependencies and connectedness, and that enhance voice and self-determination.
The ‘What” and “Where”: Systems transformation agenda
Systems transformation involves targeting systems-level (or whole system) solutions to bring about large-scale and fundamental changes in the relevant system(s) versus more incremental or fragmented approaches
Cognitive transformation: bringing about shifts in peoples’ mindsets, mental models, and paradigms by reconfiguring and transforming what are known as cultural narratives and telling inspiring new stories:
- Mindset change (mental models, paradigms)
- Narrative/paradigm/cultural mythology change ( and underlying memes)
Systems transformation: targeting systems-level (or whole system) solutions to bring about large-scale and fundamental changes in the relevant system(s) versus more incremental or fragmented approaches
- Integrated transformative approaches
- Changing humans’ relationship to others and nature
- Shifts/transformation in specific systems
- Enhancing democracy, voice, and self-determination
The ‘who and how’, that is, actual catalytic actions, fall into three main categories: connecting, cohering, and amplifying actions. By bringing together numerous different activities and actors to create a network of change-makers, TCs can begin to help develop more powerful transformation systems out of previously fragmented efforts. Connecting means quite literally bringing people, networks, and knowledge together in new ways. It means collaborating across the boundaries of previously fragmented efforts, coordinating what is being done, so that new systemically oriented initiatives can be co-created. Cohering means building collaborative alliances and relationships that help combine, unify, and synthesize knowledge and strategies to enhance the capacity to act and sometimes finance transformative change. Particular cohering activities involve generating new, shared learning or knowledge, engaging in political activism and policy change activities, often through a dialogic process that fosters new actions and partnerships. Amplifying means strengthening and empowering the allies/potential collaborators so that they can self-organize and co-create more effective actions in the relevant domain. The idea is that such actions will have broad ripple effects because they rely on strengthened coalitions that can help each other enhance their capabilities for effective action.
The ‘Who” and ‘How’: Catalytic actions
Catalytic actions involve connecting, cohering, and amplifying the work of partners and collaborators by defined as bringing together a network of change-makers and supporting collaboration across, disciplines, sectors, nations, and other boundaries to co-create and emerge transformative change and build sustainable futures for all
Connecting: connecting initiatives/people together to inspire them to collaborate, coordinate, and co-create systemic action in the desired direction.
- Connecting people, networks, and knowledge
- Collaborating, coordinating, co-creating systemically
- Working across boundaries
Cohering: building strong alliances and collaborative relationships across silos by combining, unifying, and synthesizing knowledge and strategies that build capacity to act and finance transformative change
- Emerging learning and understanding
- Engaging political activism, narrative, and policy change
- Engaging in dialogue to foster action and alliances
Amplifying: strengthening and empowering diverse groups of actors to organize, mobilize, and take action to create transformative change that impacts at different levels (community to regional to national and global)
- Catalyzing rippling/cascading action
- Building coalitions for action
- Strengthening capacity
TCs also engage in sensemaking processes that encompass problematizing the specific topics they are interested in transforming and creating a sense of urgency around those topics. Five main problem domains were paramount for the 27 TCs: ecological, economic, and socio-economic (integrated) issues, shifting the narrative and/or paradigm, particularly around economics, and reducing inequality and inequity. Urgency manifested by articulated the need for socio-economic transformation, civic and political actions, and pointing towards the planetary boundaries emergency in particular.
The ‘Why’ and ‘When’: Sensemaking
Sensemaking involves TCs clearly acknowledging why and when transformative change is needed in a broad variety of contexts, recognizing issues and their impacts, and articulating/disseminating the urgent need for transformative change and how it will be done, including shifting narratives.
Problematizing specific topics: articulating the problems in today’s systems and the sometimes existential challenges to humanity that they represent, and arguing for a paradigm or systemic transformation towards flourishing futures
- Ecological system problems
- Economic system issues
- Socio-economic-ecological problems (integrated)
- Paradigm shift/narrative change
- Reducing inequality and inequity
Urgency for transformation: acknowledge that addressing the problems raised (in problematizing) requires urgent systems-level transformation at speed and scale that can only be achieved through targeted actions and mobilizations
- Socio-economic transformation
- Civic/political actions
- Planetary boundaries emergency
Finally, TCs take a systems approach that tends to be based on ideas about how complex systems that have multiple so-called wicked problems work. The systems orientation tends to be marked by the use of language like finding leverage points for change, ideas about emergence, self-organizing systems, interdependence and connectedness, and co-creation (rather than top-down approaches to managing). They also take a holistic approach to their work, rather than a more fragmented or piecemeal approach, recognizing the interconnectedness of different aspects of the system they are trying to change. Systems approaches also embody a long-term orientation that seeks lasting solutions rather than short-term fixes.
The ‘approach’: systems orientation
Adopting a systems orientation (systems thinking), which means thinking in terms of complex adaptive systems and wicked problems (with or without that specific language) and taking a holistic perspective on systemic change
Systems orientation: adopting a systems understanding (systems thinking), which means thinking in terms of complex adaptive systems and wicked problems (with or without that specific language) and taking a holistic perspective on systemic change
Complex wickedness (wicked complexity)
- Finding leverage points for change
- Emergence, self-organization and fractals
- Interdependence and relationality
- Collaboration and co-creation
Holistic perspective: recognizing that everything in complex wickedness is interconnected, spans multiple levels and sectors, and therefore need to be tackled holistically rather than in silos because the systems of interest can be considered living systems
- Whole system/entity orientation
Long-term orientation: seeing things and the prospects of systems over the long term, seeking long-lasting solutions and changes in systems to achieve long-term environmental and social sustainability for the future
The tables [or] descriptions above provide synthesized details on all of these actions as a guiding framework for would-be TCs. We do recognize that it is still early days for understanding TCs and that much more needs to be learned about how TCs operate. We invite the GRLI Community to offer thoughts, suggestions, and ideas for how the inquiry into Transformation Catalysts can move forward.
Hawken, P. (2007). Blessed unrest: how the largest movement in the world came into being and why no one saw it coming. New York: Penguin.
Lee, J.Y., and Waddock, S. (2021). How Transformation Catalysts Take Catalytic Action. Sustainability, 13, 9813, https://doi.org/10.3390/su13179813.
Waddock, S., & Waddell, S. (2021). Transformation Catalysts: Weaving Transformational Change for a Flourishing World for All. Cadmus, 4(4), 165–182.
Sandra Waddock is the Galligan Chair of Strategy, Carroll School Scholar of Corporate Responsibility, and Professor of Management at Boston College.
Steve Waddell PhD is Co-Lead of the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Transformations Forum, which is growing systems of people, organizations and locales, who are developing transformations systems as key infrastructure to accelerate deep change. He connects diverse groups to take collaborative action and evolve strategic directions in the context of great challenges of paradox, complexity and scale.
Ju Young Lee is a Postdoctoral Associate at Ivey Business School, Western University. He has recently completed his Ph.D. in Organization Studies at Boston College.