Keywords for Systems Changers


Raymond Williams verbalised in his book ‘Key Words, A Vocabulary of Culture and Society’, “Certain words change the meaning in fundamental ways in time of basic social and institutional change”.  Enquiring into words, language and meaning, Rachel Sinha of ICAEW, Marc Ventresca of Oxford University and Ella Saltmarshe, Vivana and Cassie Robinson brought together 20 ‘systems entreprenuers’ to build community and a new lexicon of ‘keywords’ that might help to accelerate change – for people and planet.
I was excited to join– not only for deepening my connections with other systems changers but also to make sense of this emerging practice.

Here is a link to the Synthesis Report  and some insights that I gleened from the 2 days.

Understanding context is essential to the meaning of the words
Words have more depth of meaning when the context is clear. Without context there is more room for confusion and diffusion. For example, the word ‘innovation’ is everywhere this year. It is being used by the IT specialist, the insurance sales person, the furniture manufacturer and the activist. Although the common theme is ‘creating something new’ the spectrum of change varies based on context. The context of innovation of systems is about changing deep rooted values and mind-sets of society. It is so much more than just innovating a new gadget or new functionality of a financial services product. As systems changers, how can we continue to illuminate the highest context of ‘why’ we are changing systems?

Substance behind the words is powerful as the words themselves
Words are the manifestation of the consciousness that is being expressed. And if shifting systems is about shifting the underpinning values from ‘I’ to ‘WE’ - the consciousness behind the words seems important in making new meaning. Substance influences form. So, ‘how’ you say something seems just as important as ‘what’ you say. As systems changers, how can we be aware and self-reflective of the ‘intention’ behind our words?

Using words that cause discomfort
Death, destruction and decay. These are words that our culture has trained us to avoid. However they are part of the natural process of how systems change - without death you cannot have the birth of new life. As systems changers how can we embrace words that are uncomfortable however reveal the true meaning of things.

There is meaning between the words and beyond words
As Charles de Bussey, the famous composer said ‘The music is the silence that happens between the notes’. If the words are the notes – what happens in between is very important too. The silences. The pauses. The speeding up. Sometimes what is NOT said is almost more important than what IS said. And as systems change is about making quantum leaps in our development- personally, organisationally and societally – this means that in breaking new grounds in new meaning and in using different ways of knowing we often have no reference point. So as systems changers, how can we sit with the discomfort of pioneering new meaning whilst living with the uncertainty of not having words to express ourselves?

The process of meaning making is essential for building a powerful lexicon
One of the most challenging things of the 2 day workshop was recognising that we all see the world in a different way. We all came up with 100s of words and we each had a different perspective on what we meant. This caused tension until we spent more time going deeper into understanding each others view points and telling stories of meaning in order to arrive at a common ground. So as systems changers, how can we continuously remind ourselves that we all see the system through different localities and our perspectives are always changing along with the ever changing system?

Developing my own practice with words, lexicon and language
I was left with some key questions that I will continue to experiment with in my practice. They are:
• In being intentional with this work and wanting to manifest the new – I believe that there is little room to be ‘conditional’ about things. So I am going to experiment with leaving out all those ‘coulds, shoulds, mights and woulds’ and see what happens.

• I’ll experiment with using words that really give me energy – like ‘illuminate, radial, love, resonance, relationship’. It seems that there is something important as a systems change leader – the more you work with what gives you energy and lights you up – the more positively attractive you (and your change efforts) will be.

• I want to start using more verbs. There is something in there for me about ‘action’, ‘becoming’ and ‘manifesting’ in our work. Nouns are static and imply a boundary between observer and observed. Systems change is about our evolution and interconnectedness = verbing!

• I will test, use and share the ‘key words’ and the lexicon co-created by our group (soon to be published) in my work and reflect on what impact it has on people around me.

One final word - My favourite word

During the workshop we were asked to think of one word that had the most important meaning for us as a systems changer – and my word is Relationship.

Relationship as ‘universal design’
The universe and the natural world are fully interconnected and are based on relationships. We cannot and do not exist in isolation. My thoughts and decisions right now impact the world around me. Because of this I want to take responsibility for my actions. My thriving depends on all other beings thriving. What excites me is that our human designed systems are moving from a transactional reality to a relational reality. We becoming more aligned to the natural design of the Universe – and this will ultimately bring us into balance and harmony.

Relationship as meaning
I have the most meaning in my life through my relationships. Material well-being can make us happy to only a certain extent. What really makes us happy is a feeling of belonging, love, appreciation and reciprocity. This can only happen through relationship.

Relationship as potential
When I am in relationship with others I can be more. Relationships challenge me, support me and help me to reflect. Being in relationship I can evolve and become a better person and a fuller expression of myself. In relationship I have access to more potential – opportunities, resources and knowledge. This brings abundance to my life and allows me to grow, flourish and fulfil my purpose. The more we all fulfill our potential as individuals and humanity the greater change we have of enabling great shifts in human systems – so that they enable people and planet to thrive.