Ministry of Change? why a third space matters in transformation work — part 1


by Courtney Savie Lawrence, Head of Exploration

Fully wrapping our arms around a system is a luxury we no longer have. So rather than writing up maps, we should carry a compass. — manifesto

2020 has been a year of deep shocks and jolts. Many plans have been put on pause or re-considered, and to adapt, many organizations have been discovering new ways of navigating the complexity in real time. Although working with and towards ‘innovation’ is not a new endeavor for UNDP, what has become more explicit, is an intent to shift away from single point solutions and towards systems transformation. This requires not only new ways of working, new ways of considering what we do and measure, yet also recalibrating our logic and funding value proposition.

Within the span of the past 24 months, many key organizational infrastructure items have moved from blueprint to life: including the recent set up of a Strategic Innovation Unit, the launch of our very own Regional Innovation Center based out of Bangkok, in tandem with 90 accelerator labs supporting 114 countries around the world. Along the way we have been experimenting with this surge and channeling efforts- from developing a process for accelerating effects to reconfiguring portfolios to be better fit for purpose, to socializing the logic horizontally across teams and context. Yet activity can be frenetic, tactics can be mistaken for strategy, or worse yet, we may inadvertently produce unintended consequences by undervaluing the situational space. Acknowledging and taking stock of all the grand ‘activity’ seemed evermore critical — and thus our recent community of practice gathering was built purposefully as a ‘thing’ for space, not transactional exchange. So what did it look like, and what did we discover?

The Ministry of Change Innovation Community of Practice was held for our UNDP Colleagues ‘working with’ innovation in their programs or operations; at the same time we wanted to evolve our lines of enquiry to explore what systems transformation and change leadership looks like, from the inside out; and for that States of Change became our institutional collaborators to support the curation and design of our ‘open-to-all’ sessions. These ‘Systems Spectrum’ sessions, became the place we could learn from those testing and idea networking emergence from a practitioners lens. If you are curious about the content you can see what we explored here- including ‘Edge’, ‘practitioner coaching’, ‘case learning circles’, and ‘integration’ sessions.

Ways of working and relationships: ‘how we do things is just as important as what we do’

Public sector innovation practitioners need to think much more about what to cultivate within ourselves, and what to nurture around us, in order to create stronger leadership and enabling conditions for transformative and emergent innovation. — Lindsay Cole

What is a community of practice if it’s not the third (presencing/reflective/sensemaking/inspiring) space between the perceived past and projected future? There has been a plethora of systems change, transitions and transformation conversations happening on the global zoom stage- rightly so as COVID has required us to examine conditions of high uncertainty and complexity. Institutionally, and individually, we must build capabilities and create capacity to unlearn and invest in a new way of thinking, and doing. Indeed we have no shortage of content and ideas, so why is moving the needle towards change so complicated? With this in mind we wanted to design a space for collective reflection as a ‘team of teams’ on substance and self: a sanctuary for quiet, humble and sometimes slow shared moments of connection and provocation. A nod to not only what we do, but how we do things.

At the same time, perhaps unfortunately unusual for many bureaucracies, we also wanted to experiment with fostering relationship — intrapersonal, interpersonal and idea bound. After a few weeks to absorb and running of a ‘listening tour’, a scan to gather a conversational feedback loop (not a survey this time), with several colleagues, here are a few highlights- from both a process and reflection point of view:

peer and practitioner coaching space-

image: shared by Bas Leurs in recent internal session with Accelerator Labs

We often have webinars that spotlight “process”, but less frequently do we build in the improvised moments where organic conversations and Q+A with those who have been in the trenches, already learning by doing, are at our quick access. As we experimented with a practitioner coach format, we were lucky to have Carolyn Curtis, CEO of TACSI on Stewarding Systems Change, Gorka Espiau and Itziar Moreno of the Agirre Lehendakaria Center on Deep Listening for Systems Work , and Gina Belle of the Chôra Foundation on Portfolio Design. We ran a peer coaching format, with topics ranging from inclusive innovation policy, to systems work to ‘Demystifying the A Labs’. One of these sessions opened with Giulio Quaggiotto asking: “How do we organize the portfolio so it’s coherent with the nature of the challenge we are facing? How do we learn from each other about how we move and shift on this continuum between strategy and tactics.” What we are discovering is that navigating across the systems practice spectrum (reflecting especially on the how) is important to bridge gaps and silos when it comes to landing innovation within UNDP- the hard and soft, the intangible and tangible: in these sessions we touched upon culture, mindsets, habits, behaviors, skills and tools. As one of our colleagues reflected: “how do we change the system, how do we go about different ways of thinking? that session in particular on Portfolio Design helped organize all of these little things that are happening disjointedly… that point for lift off was particularly important to me. Some were concepts that I wanted to figure out if there was any validation to them…it was a space to think, a space to reflect, and what a phenomenal community we have…not just an echo chamber.”

integrative and vulnerable space-

As offered in a recent post here, moving towards authenticity, and away from theatre is an observable emerging enabling condition in public sector innovation. One space we held to experiment with this was the ‘Systems Spectrum’ session: “letter to my younger (innovator) self”. Off the record, we heard from three senior colleagues, who out loud read us their personal letter to self- and then participants were invited to take time to do the same for themselves. That hour offered much more than reflection alone, but a shared sense of community, not transaction. Other ‘integration’ sessions, such as ‘Reflecting Our Way Forward’, started off with a deep breathing exercise, and were acknowledged as rare moments of collective presence and grounding. What else are we noticing? Holding space, within the UNDP, for presencing and intrapersonal development is important for accelerating our own learning and development network. As one of our colleagues shared: “at an emotional level, knowing that there are other people around you is really comforting, a power in numbers situation”. In my conversations with post-participants, having a safe space to work through the hard skills component around approaches to systems change was important- a space where no one needed to defend their work or show up to prove a point.

Cascading culture craft and building a learning community

We are asking ourselves- what other spaces are important to generate a thriving community of practice, one especially stewarding change? What other dispositions should we hold? How do we reach more people where they are? In fact, one of our colleagues in the Mongolia country office lifted five of the sessions from the COP and created a ‘Knowledge Cafe’ the next week for the 15 people who couldn’t make the gathering in real time. In my interview with her she explained how she still managed to make it experiential by dividing the teams up into triads, and then giving them a ‘mystery’ USB (think Mission Impossible style) that had instructions and a related video with prompts. After they completed their learning missions they came back to share the insights and offer ideas on how this can be applied to their country office. The five sessions she chose were unified by the systems transformation theme and included: two practitioner coaching sessions (Portfolio Design and Stewarding Systems Change), inclusive innovation sessions — small circles and big collaborations, Demystifying A-Labs and Case Learning Circle Session on Working Across the Country Office. I asked her what has since happened, attempting to move innovation towards a whole of office conversation. She mentioned that there has been a request for these kinds of ‘Knowledge Cafes’ to happen once a month, spun from the enthusiasm generated. In another instance, one of our Africa based Accelerator Lab colleagues shared how she also ended up applying key insights from the deep listening session the very next week with her team in the field who are working on different approaches to ethnography and solutions mapping. As she voiced “I am trying to document indigenous knowledge around specific areas, and add deep listening as a part of that..I have a lot more reading and learning”.

So how is a learning community culture shaped beyond creating the space? As one colleague reflected back: “it’s about reaching out to people and not waiting for them to come to us… having a curiosity of ‘ tell me more”’. The interviews have revealed some trends, but provoke us to also rethink our learning loops at large as well. How do we see in new frames? What infrastructure and culture do we need to craft to enable genuine collective intelligence to live and breathe? Our quest to oscillate between learning loops is underway, yet our Ministry of Change has been about community and capability building, and cultivating the ‘third loop’: an ability to reflect on and change how we think — our underlying ontologies, epistemologies, and types of logic.

What design constraints remain? What might we do differently next time? based on feedback:

  • acknowledge mindsets and competing agendas: often it’s an issue with investing the time, or seeing the value of practitioner spaces across the board. As one colleague told me: “It’s a classic UNDP struggle- how do you create that space so that people feel that they could really allocate time for it?” Another aspect that came up was how to meet people where they are: what if not everyone self-identifies as a practitioner or ‘innovation person’?
  • experiment with timing, rhythm and format: instead of having it so concentrated in a week it could have been more spread out. As noted, people have full agendas- how could bite size interactive spaces be sprinkled across the year? We do host several virtual meetings, and run case study sessions, yet not all of them are designed for workshopping idea stage concepts or get into peer coaching spaces. At the same time we are also need to be more strategic and reckon with the reality of zoom fatigue, and we are asking ourselves what might a 2021 COP look like when Zoom is not the only portal of impact.
  • proactively connect across the spectrum: don’t preach to the choir (only). It is important to strengthen the community of practitioners, yet building in more touch points across time, in different ways, was suggested as a process oriented way to reach even more of our teams. It was also noted that designing sessions to be more relevant for operations colleagues is important, and continuing to build bridges across silos sparks solidarity: “I got the feeling that we all face the same problem.. you see that people have similar struggles.. that was one of the things I was thinking — we are all in the same boat.”
  • facilitate more peer coaching and small circles: it’s clear that quality over quantity is critical. The best sessions seemed to have been those that were designed to build conversation and relationship- especially those that demystify jargon or process. At the same time, we held a senior management only track that allowed for peer exchange at a high level. So, less webinars and more curated conversations ahead.

What’s next?

You can explore the recordings here, where we archive the lessons learned and provocations offered by those doing the work. Soon, we will share Part 2 with more timeless takeaways. As for Ministry of Change- our pop up site- stay tune as we evolve it in the coming weeks as a practitioners place for navigating change.

More at

With many thanks to the colleagues who offered their honest reflections and feedback, Alex Oprunenco for the provocations, Giulio Quagiotto for guidance on community of practice content design, and the Ministry of Change Community of Practice co-collaborators, Nicole Barling-Luke and Kal Joffres for the implementation!



Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

Doing development differently through designing, developing, curating, collating and championing innovation and digital across the Asia Pacific Region.