Scaling Through: a Developmentally Sensitive Approach to Systems Change

Hamish Lindop
4 min readMar 14, 2024

I know I know, another too clever pakehasplaining post with an overthought overwrought title about such and such an innovation framework. But hear me out.

I hear what Nora Bateson is saying about Kegan’s Theory of Adult Development, she called it colonial as hell, fair enough. But all models are wrong, and some are useful as they say. I find it a useful heuristic/provisional rule of thumb to make sense of the world lately. It roughly goes like this (TLDR version): we go through these developmental stages; I’ll give them my own names for the sake of brevity. 1. Transactional — often when we are kids, very horse tradey, I want things and need things and everyone better give them to me. 2. “Don’t rock the boat” — often when we are teens, we learn to fit in; tick the boxes, follow the rules (of society or my peer group, whatever’s most important to me at the time). 3. “I know what I think” we figure out our values, stand strong in them, develop our vision, critique the system, and sometimes enlist others to our cause. 4. “Mix it up” we realise that our knowledge system is incomplete, and not seperate from anything else. We integrate everything with everything and maintain fluidity, flowing with change.

People develop through these stages at different rates through their life time, no stage is better than another, but different stages afford different ways of thinking, behaving, designing, etc. This is obviously a massive simplification of human development, and risks pigeon holing. But it’s also a useful heuristic.

And here’s the really interesting part that’s been coming up in my noticing lately: people at different stages have different mindsets, and seem to develop different corresponding systems. And people at different stages seem to fit into those systems in different ways.

“Don’t rock the boat” systems — beaureaucratic, rules based, highly predictable; good for don’t rock the boat people who feel comfy and cozy following and enforcing the rules. Service delivery lives here, sometimes with some “I know what I think” innovators pushing the frame.

“I know what I think” systems — an example might be innovative start up businesses, but they can still enlist some don’t rock the boaters to tick the new boxes that are created. Notice how “authenticity” and “finding yourself” is so hot right now on Linkedin, marketed by life coaches and so on?

“Mix it up” systems — possible examples might be the participatory city approach, Barcelona en Comu, vTaiwan/Pol.is. What I love about these systems is that “mix it up” people create sandpits for everyone at any stage to find a place and way to play. But most people don’t see the value yet, so investment in them is often limited.

Now here’s another thing that I’m noticing. systems probably sit on a bell curve. If you find bell curves intimidating here’s the simple version: for many different kinds of things (people’s height, car prices, perceived importance of climate change), lots of those things sit in a fat middle, with a small number of those things sitting at high and low extremes.

Boring bell curve diagram

So most of our systems, in that middle beefy bit of the diagram, lets maybe say up to Z score +10, that’s 84% of all the systems, are probably “don’t rock the boat” based. then maybe up to Z +20 is “I know what I think” based, another 13%. I reckon mix it up systems might be the last 2–3%, the bleeding edge.

When we are facilitating (notice how I didn’t say “driving”, been there done that it was exhausting lol!) systems change, how might we take a developmentally sensitive approach? Because I reckon systems at one stage, and all the people involved in them, probably won’t really change unless they have enough developmental drivers. So how might we be realistic in how we think about walking with and facilitating all of our systems to gradually work better for everyone, while having empathy for where everything is really at? This might also have pertinent implications for scaling deep: how deep is a system and its people ready to go? Being ready to heal, to have one’s assumptions challenged, takes so much readiness.

I think it might have been Eric Erikson said, when we feel loved and valued exactly the way we are, that’s when we begin to change.

How does what I’m noticing show up in your systems change practice (or not)? What are you noticing?

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Hamish Lindop

Sharing insights from community building and social innovation, and reflections on ways of (well) being