Making Change Stick

Posted By Tiffany Mendoza. Inspired by Burns, D. (2013). Systemic action research: Changing system dynamics to support sustainable change. Action research,12(1), 3-18

By speaking of how to support and sustain change, the title of the article immediately drew me in. I have always been a welcome advocate of change because of how it forces me into new ways of thinking. Having always been labeled as stubborn, embracing change has been a way for me to break that brand and begin to develop a new one. One of the earliest teachings I can recall from my master’s program in organizational development was that identifying problems at their root saves time by avoiding applying Band-Aids to deeply problematic issues. Considering it makes absolute sense to me now, I don’t know how I hadn’t done root cause analysis all my life, but I frankly didn’t know what I didn’t know. Systemic action research at its heart is a root cause approach.

Burns explains how change generated from interventions that are embedded into the entire system have a better chance of sticking than change from surface-level interventions. He provides an example with a radio station in Africa that was trying to incorporate climate training into their programming. They trained their researchers in “action research techniques, included group dialogues, interviews, [and] systemic mapping” (p. 7, Burns, 2013), which generated data that the radio station used in their programs. This data was systemic in that those involved with the program at a surface level were initiating the change, which generated a solid foundation of participation which eventually led to important behavioral changes. Those that participate in the program in the future will be able to build on this newly enabling culture when considering their programming.

Although the article resonated with me, it also left me wondering what can be done if power relationships are so strong that simply bringing in other researchers to help break a project down into smaller tasks doesn’t even generate small scale change? Alternatively, what if the system power is strong enough that the system isn’t able to sustain a change? In the military, for example, I have experienced situations where no matter what new leadership came in to our chain of command, the unit remained the same; the only times things would change is when someone got in trouble. Then, change was a requirement, forced through rules.

Coming back to my own relationship with change, I have learned to expect it, accept it, and manage it. But as a leader, I need to know how to effectively sustain it. Burns has provided me with the groundwork on how to begin this journey by reexamining my role in relation to larger systemic factors.

Tiffany Mendoza is the mother of two young children and is studying to earn a PhD in Organizational Development. She works at USAA supporting a program management team in HR Staff Operations. She is a dedicated student and mother who enjoys learning as much as she does relaxing with her boys.