Simon Terry

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Growing Crystals of Change

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When we confront large scale transformation, the scope and beauty of the outcomes we seek can be overwhelming. Crystals grow molecule by molecule.  Bring about your large scale change action by action.

Big Change is Daunting

Discussing large transformative change you will often hear people refer to how daunting it is to consider the entire idea of the change. Richard Martin has eloquently described the work of building our future responsive organisations as like the construction of a cathedral that will be completed beyond our lifetime. Mary Freer wants to change health and social care for the better through Change Day. Eddie Harran seeks to understand the role of nomadism in shaping the lives of digital nomads. These are but a few of the large scale ideas that challenge our understanding of how to move forward.

Just conceiving of a perfect endpoint for the change can be a barrier to getting started. The pressure for perfection of this final vision can come from many sources. We want our goals to as well as ordered as a crystal and with a fine gemlike finish as well. Too many people spend their time polishing the gem of an idea and never get started.

To lead large scale change, we need to unlearn the desire to know the exact shape of the endpoint. Instead of focusing our attention on the perfect gem of an end goal, we need to focus the process by which the crystal of change gets formed.

A Crystal Grows Molecule by Molecule

The crystals that we later polish to create gems are formed when a seed attracts molecules from a saturated solution or gas to form a solid structure. There are a number of parts of this crystallisation process that apply in change as well:

Seed – First Action: There needs to be a first point for a crystal to attach. Somebody needs to begin the process of change and create the first action. This action can be as simple as declaring a need to change or organising the first connections.

Saturated solution – Ready Network: Super saturation of the solution with molecules drives the formation of a crystal. Change needs networks that are connected and rich enough in change agents to sustain connection and action. If that saturation falls between minimum levels, change stops. Action is one key way to keep change agents engaged.

Nucleation – Small Experiments: Before crystals form, the molecules connect in solution. Consider this the experimental efforts to form a crystal. Only when conditions are right to achieve stability do they connect to form a crystal. Every successful change initiative finds that there have been previous unsuccessful attempts to achieve stable change and that others are working on change in parallel. Don’t see these are barriers or disappointments. Recognise that the key is helping these experiments connect together at scale.

Crystal growth – Open Structure: Crystals form in structures because there are clear points and structures for new molecules to attach. Large scale change needs an open structure that allows those who are ‘transformation curious’ to connect and engage with the change in their own way.

Impurities – Embrace a little chaos: The dynamic nature of the process and environmental conditions when forming crystals attracts minor impurities and irregularities. These are just part of the process. Large scale change is never perfect. Accept that things will have a few rough edges, but keep working to grow the change around them.

Time: Most crystals grow gradually molecule by molecule. This gradual process reflects the process of change where people make new sense of their world and add new actions slowly step by step.

The Lesson from Crystals

Start acting now with the first experiments in a connected network of change agents and allow others to connect and shape the work as it moves forward. 

Thanks to Eddie Harran for the conversation that gave the idea of crystallisation somewhere to connect


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