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Systemic Change

Transformation and Systemic Change

Like most consultants we regularly assist organizations with strategic planning geared toward systemic change. What distinguishes us from most consultants and facilitators, however, is the guidance we provide groups in their efforts toward "transformation." What's the difference between strategic planning and the kinds of processes geared toward transformation? Read on...
Strategic planning: A necessary planning tool

We help groups plan for the future using a variety of approaches, one of which is strategic planning. Strategic planning is the preferred approach, bar none, for organizational planning. It usually starts with developing Mission and Vision statements to provide an overarching framework for visioning. Flowing from these broad aspirational statements, more specific directions are typically claimed to guide organizational efforts in the near-term (i.e., one to five years). Each direction is further concretized with goals, objectives, budgets, and mechanisms of accountability. 

Strategic planning is nearly ubiquitous in its appeal and application. It is rational, logical and easy to understand. It translates lofty visions of some distant future into a more doable set of broad directions and goals set in realistic, contemporary circumstances. The established goals, objectives, timelines and budgets provide an important means for measuring progress, and holding groups accountable, along the way. The workload can be shared beyond leadership to existing, or ad hoc, committees. Strategic planning is a necessary and familiar tool for any organization to have in its planning toolbox. However...

Strategic planning: Necessary, but insufficient

While strategic planning is an important tool for bringing about organizational change, it has its limitations. For example, it is woefully inadequate as a means for bringing about the kind of "transformation" so many groups are currently seeking. Research shows that when strategic planning is used under ordinary circumstances (i.e., when an organization is a stable growth-stage of development), it accomplishes its aims around 50% of the time. However, when organizations are on the downside of the lifecycle, and must either transform and reinvent themselves or face certain death, strategic planning does little more than reinforce the downward spiral. Despite its widespread use, strategic planning, fails miserably as a tool for transformation. 


The good news is that the reasons for this failure are known. From the research, our surveys and experience with countless communities, we know the primary reasons communities fail in their transformative efforts. We call the top twelve reasons the "dirty dozen" (e.g., conflict avoidance, ambiguity avoidance, glorification of the past). If organizations can identify their primary Achille's Heel, they have an excellent chance of averting these.

Bottom line, what got you to today, won't get you to tomorrow and neither will playing it safe. New improved versions of the past will not suffice. Downsizing your structures and tightening your belt will not cut it. Going it alone will not be enough. The world's theologians, scholars, and scientists, from Pope Francis, to Peter Senge, to Al Gore, are telling us that we are going through a global transformation that is effecting not only the Catholic Church, but all of our religious, business, and political institutions, our governments and entire planet. Humanity is at a crossroads. We will either transform and evolve as a species or we will devolve. The work of transformation far exceeds the kind of work typically involved in strategic planning.


Whether we are speaking of individuals, faith communities, or business organizations, it helps to understand the distinction between change and transformation. Read on...

Change and Transformation: What's the difference?

There is a difference between “change” and “transformation,” just as there is a difference between “deep” versus “incremental” change. Change is an event, whereas transformation is a process. Change is external, like changing where you live or what you do. Transformation, on the other hand, is internal and takes place over time. It is internal to the person (intra-personal), as well as the community (interpersonal), and involves a shift in perspective, patterns and practices, as well as the understanding of the meaning and purpose of your lives. 


The most common example of a transformative experience is when an individual claims a vocational call (e.g., joining a religious community; getting married). Transformative experiences like these alter everything in your life, not just what you wear or where you live, but your purpose, primary relationships, understanding of God, and the very meaning of your life.

Strategic Planning
Journey of Transformation

Communities and organizations seeking “transformational” change are engaged in processes that invite them not merely to make decisions about finances, property, health care, and leadership, but to journey into the soul of their lives. These are processes that invite members to engage in intimate conversations about what really matters and who they believe God is calling them to become. Communal Transformation may involve RefoundingReconfiguringRestructuring or Covenant Agreements, as broad directions, but ultimately it is the "inner work" (personal and interpersonal) that is transformational. Such a Journey of Transformation involves the following five dynamic elements of transformation that are engaged in a spiraling, ever-deepening journey:​

  1. Transformation of Consciousness: Seeing through new lenses; opening up a new narrative for your lives;

  2. Reconciliation and Conversion: The crucible of change; healing wounds; address the inevitable chaos of transformation and conflicts that result;

  3. Re-Authenticating Your Soul: Reclaiming your authentic inner voice; reclaiming your true selves (i.e., your charism) that is authentic and alive today;

  4. Experimentation and Learning: Becoming a learning community and acting your way into a new way of being; trying out new behaviors and learning from the mistakes along the way; being evolution in action; and

  5. Transformative Visioning: Creating a “prophetic” vision through processes that, in and of themselves, are transformative.

What does it take to Transform a Community?

So many communities are looking for ways to “transform” their lives, and create systemic change, in the hopes of giving birth to new life. What many communities fail to realize, however, is that transformation is different than ordinary change strategies. Patricia Wittberg once said, “The failure to articulate overall strategy leads to incrementalism that emphasizes maintenance concerns over revitalization.” She’s right. Too many communities are so preoccupied with maintaining life as it is (or has been) that little time is spent doing the hard work of transformation.

Communal transformation requires an all-out effort to forge a new dream, a new spirit and a new way of organizing life. It requires a deep and sustained commitment over time by leaders and members. It requires a new kind of partnership between leaders and members. It requires a leap of faith and capacity for depth conversations. It asks members of the community to appreciate their faith in the paschal mystery as central to the journey through the “dark night”. It transcends ordinary change efforts. It is more akin to “deep change” rather than “incremental change.” What’s the difference? Read on...

Incremental or Deep Change: What’s the difference?
Incremental Change
  • Rational analysis

  • Narrow in scope

  • Reversible

  • Extends the past

  • Holding on

  • Slow death

Deep Change
  • Intuitive in approach

  • Broad in scope

  • Irreversible

  • Discontinuous

  • Letting go

  • A leap of faith


Still interested? Where there is good will, and good processes, there is a way. Read more on the Journey of Transformation…

For more information, order Dr. Ted Dunn's newest book, Graced Crossroads: Pathways to deep change and transformation

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