`Developing Change from Within – in the Development Sector’ with Sara J. Wolcott

Ali Avery

Ali Avery

Ali Avery

Ali Avery

What might an integral approach to development look like? What could its scope be? The London Integral Circle Salon met last month to hear Sara J. Walcott present her findings from a study that sought to measure the impact of an Indian public-sector Change Management Programme on the values of the people involved. The audience included coaches and trainers, community development workers and ecologists – people concerned with facilitating meaningful shifts for individuals, groups and organisations.

The Brief

Sara’s study had looked at an unorthodox change management programme by the Centre for Excellence in Change, a semi-autonomous unit of the Tamil Nadu state water sector. In the context of serious water scarcity, eight separate departments of a giant and bureaucratic state system have been required to cooperate on an unprecedented level in a large-scale integrated water resource management programme called IAMWARM (Irrigated Agriculture Modernisation and Water-Bodies Restoration and Management). The uniqueness of this arrangement has allowed an exceptional policy entrepreneur to experiment with training and change management to produce that elusive thing – responsible and responsive officials in an entrenched bureaucracy – through an unusually integrated focus on individual development, social development and spiritual development.

The Programme

The design of the CEC change programme was based on the principle that change could be best achieved through “bottom up” intervention at the level of individual front-line civil-servants. Whole systems, and specifically “top down” structural approaches were rejected as being too difficult.  Consequently, the programme involved workshops which took delivery-level public officials out of their usual setting and placed them in a new context where they had to encounter something new. In their working teams, participants came to a centre outside Chennai where they had workshops in a space facilitators called the ‘Muttram’. The ‘Muttram’ is a term for the communal space in a joint family system, where people could gather together in safety for stories, games and informal learning. It is a term with strong signifiers in cultural memory, and therefore created the acknowledgement of entering a special and unusual context for discussions with colleagues.

The Muttram was facilitated as a safe-to-fail learning space. In the Muttram participants adopted new names. They sat on the floor together, regardless of caste or position in the team hierarchy. They played games and held reflections. Facilitators used values-based language in the sessions and encouraged a sense of urgency in the task ahead for the team. They encouraged participants to articulate their team’s goal and to see their work and its possibilities as part of a wider mandate of water and food security, equity and human development. This theme of connecting the individual to the collective was couched in terms that emphasised individual empowerment. The Muttram workshops experience was followed by an immediate period of action, a project in which they were encouraged to apply their thinking and experiment.

While some NGO-led interventions are beginning to recognise that relationships matter, Sara suggested that the Indian state sector maintains a strong technocratic focus on poverty reduction. The CEC programme was unusual in that it had a wide and ambitious mandate: To enable better service delivery in the public sector, especially to reach the poorest of the poor. To do so, they recognise that personal, organisational and societal development are connected. Though never explicitly discussed, they also recognise this has a spiritual component.

The model seems to be working. Hard evidence showed that villagers, including women and people from lower castes, were being consulted in the areas where CEC programme workers were based. Teams were creatively reallocating their budgets with aligned priorities. But other changes seemed to have happened too: when Sara met participants in the CEC project, the interviews she held were intimate, emotionally charged and, for many, quite profound. People talked about improvements in their relationships with their wives and children, with their neighbours. They talked about renewed motivation and meaning in their work, about compassionate and connected encounters with villagers. They repeatedly brought out spiritual literature that they’d started reading since the programme.

Values and their Effects

To assess the impact of this programme which is based on the presumption that ‘change comes from within’ and ‘transformation can start with the individual’, Sara and her mentor in this process, Leonard Joy, used a values-based assessment. Values-based assessments in international development are rare. Sara used the well established Hall-Tonna questionnaire and map as a way of charting shifts in participants’ values before and after the programme compared with a control group. She then interviewed participants using output from participant questionnaires to provide structure and questions to ask.

In this framework, values are seen as a core bridge between internal and external experience. Sara drew attention to Hall and Tonna’s distinction between ‘goals-values’ and ‘means-values’, and the need for both to be aligned. Goals values alone produce no action, and means values without goals don’t lead to specific outcomes. The strong technocratic values present in the Tamil Nadu bureaucracy were means values, but all too often practiced without higher-level goals values. Sara suggested this imbalance contributed to organisational weaknesses ranging from lack of initiative and motivation to corruption.

Sara had expected that the data might show that participants’ values had shifted from the conventional (phase II) to post-conventional (phase III) given the programme’s emphasis on personal empowerment and change-from-within. When she analysed the data, it was clear that participants on the CEC programme had significantly shifted their values during the process, whereas a control group that had not participated in the change workshops had not. However, the shift was different to the one that Sara had expected. Instead of a clear progression along Hall and Tonna’s developmental ‘phases’, it was more varied. In some values, participants had progressed, in others they regressed or stayed the same. In analysing the results, Sara found it helpful to bundle certain values into themes. In doing this, she saw clear and consistent shifts along a developmental trajectory of certain value-themes. In this case, what she termed ‘technocratic bureaucracy’ lost importance as a value-theme where personal development, high quality relationships, human dignity and innovation within the bureaucracy all increased.

Lessons and Controversies

Sara shared some of what she learned in recognising the non-linearity of a developmental model such as the Hall-Tonna Values Map. In some cases, participants seemed to go ‘backwards’ in the stages, for example, and she questioned whether this was regression or filling in security values that were missing before. She became interested in how values in specific domains – at home, in the village, in the office – impacted each other. And studying value-themes rather than individual values gave her a way of seeing when certain themes were reinforced by language in the team, in the organisation and wider culture. She described changing her conception of values as individual ‘notes’, to thinking of them as chords, bundles of values encompassing security, focus and vision. These value-themes, like chords, were resonant with themselves and, optimally, with a larger ‘social music’ being played. The alignment of individual, team, organisational and societal values can be extremely powerful. She saw that the CEC’s capacity to foster this alignment is core to its success.

An interesting controversy developed from this recognition of the power of alignment – were participants trading one version of social conformity for another? Although a longer study would need to happen to test the longer term impact of these values shifts (and how they will weather the end of the IAMWARM project next year), Sara suggested that there were indicators of participants’ own critical processes, of productive re-arrangements, including budget reallocation, within and between the different departments and of self-initiated action.

In the context of a collective, very social Tamil culture, Sara suggested that the CEC’s language of individual development – ‘Change Comes from Within’ – pushed buttons and boundaries, and moved the locus of responsibility from the outside to inside.  She also reflected on the challenge of using a developmental model in the Hindu context – she could see how the stage-model approach could be used to validate pre-existing notions of hierarchy and purification. This would be an inaccurate use of the model, which views development as coming into increasing levels of complexity and wholeness with one another and the earth.  Certainly the ‘hierarchy’ described in complex adaptive systems thinking is vastly different than the ‘hierarchy’ expressed in the caste system.  She urged greater awareness when applying these notions within a cross-cultural context.

Structure and Agency

Which changes first – the human being or the structure she is working in?  Of course, both structure and agency are important. Part of what this case reveals is the importance of working with the context at hand. The CEC believes in the power of people to change structures.  The programme seems to focus exclusively on changing left quadrant values and cultures. The study did show some evidence of right quadrant changes to working structures and processes, but this emerged from the focus on values change rather than being a deliberate outcome of the programme. What a change-management process might look like that sought to combine this values change with organisational structural change remains to be seen. In a context where it is nearly impossible to change the top due to its vested political interests, changing the bottom becomes the more viable – though not easy – strategy.  Thus, the founder of the CEC programme, Mr. Vibhu Nayler, has made a point of remaining in the middle-levels of the Tamil Nadu bureaucracy. Rather than joining the relative inertia of vested political interests at the top, he wanted to position himself where he could affect change on lower-level delivery staff. Further, to prevent cynicism and ensure motivation, Vibhu has maintained from the start that those who participate in the programme and their subsequent activity do so from a service volunteer initiative.  In a context of high levels of corruption, this is a powerful stance.

The possibilities opened by improved trust, communication and community involvement/service do eventually hit structural constraints. How this might develop over time, or what possibilities there might be for bringing this integrative change management approach to higher echelons of governance remains to be seen. The CEC effecting the change it has from within the behemoth of government bureaucracy has been a remarkable achievement, and one to learn from.

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 About the Author

Ali Avery is a youth and community development worker and researcher who has worked on projects in Scotland, Kosovo, Cambodia, India and London. She is based in London.


  1. Hierarchy on August 21, 2012 at 4:35 am

    Developing the changes with in the development sector results in developing the successful products that satisfies the customer needs.