In several recent articles, I have explored the relationship between my past work in theatre and the current work I am doing as a part of Reos Partners. My focus has been on examining the ways that the creative process and artistic practices can contribute to multi-sector system change work. Specifically, how can techniques from theatre and improv help people address multi-sector system change?
In this and subsequent articles, I want to take that inquiry further and make what I believe is a bold claim: that facilitating system change work can be both an art and a craft, and that the frame for that art and craft can be drawn from the theatre world’s rehearsal process.
But before we look at the application of theatre techniques to systems change work, it’s useful to know something about a concept known as isomorphism.
Isomorphism: Because I know this, I can know something about that…
Isomorphism is a mathematical term that describes the similarity between areas of knowledge. When mathematicians begin to map new fields for which there is no pre-existing understanding to guide their work, they apply the concept of isomorphism. As they explore the context and characteristics of the new area of inquiry, they think about existing areas that might share similarities with it. When they find a corollary situation that shares structural similarities with the new topic, they use the existing knowledge as a guide for their initial work. The application of existing knowledge to the new area gives them a way to begin to experiment and reveal its nuances.
People intuitively employ this same process in other settings every day. When someone who speaks French fluently is in a Spanish-speaking country, they can often piece together an understanding of what people are saying and how to respond, even without full knowledge of Spanish. Working from the structural similarities between the languages, they innately map out a frame for understanding. If they then want to become more fluent, this isomorphic understanding allows them to build their knowledge much more quickly than someone whose first language is English or Japanese, since those languages share no isomorphic relationship with Spanish.
One the other hand, an assumption that two areas are isomorphic can stand in the way of progress. You can see this in people who move from downhill skiing to snowboarding. At a surface level, these two activities seem to be similar, but in reality, they are quite different. Where you place your weight, the way you turn, and so on are very different between the two ways of coming down a mountain. Skiers who try to apply their existing knowledge to snowboarding have a hard time, since their instincts and training can actually cause them to fall. People who have never done either sport often learn more quickly, because they are not holding a faulty frame.
The process of testing for isomorphic relationships is important in complex systems change work. As we seek to address some of the biggest challenges in the world, we apply numerous frames to guide our work. Example of this can be seen in the application of start-up techniques from the tech world within social innovation, or environmental models to represent systems dynamics. But how often do we rigorously explore the isomorphic relationship between these borrowed frames and the context and characteristics of the issues we’re dealing with? If the relationship exists only on the most surface level, then we—like a skier trying to snowboard—will end up falling. This is not because of a lack of commitment, effort, or ability, but simply because the frame we are applying to the situation is inappropriate.
The idea of isomorphism is at the heart of exploring how the rehearsal process in theatre can be a guide to the art and craft of complex systems change work. In a series of articles over the next year, I want to share and test central ideas and practices for guiding a rehearsal to ensure they have a strong isomorphic relationship to the work of facilitating complex system change.
In the next article, I will lay out the rehearsal process frame and make the case for why I believe that it has a deep isomorphic relationship to the work of complex multi-sector system change. I also plan to explore the implications of thinking of the actors involved in an initiative from a theatrical rather than from a social science framework. I will bring in the experiences of using this frame and practices in projects, including the reflections of the people directly involved to share their perspectives of what this approach means on the ground.
I hope these ideas and practices can be of use to people at the frontline of helping to bring about system change—those in organizations, communities, and movements who are at the centre of complex multi-sector systems change work. If you ever feel these articles are too abstract or without application, please let me know. The goal of this project is to be of use to the important work you are doing in the world.