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Relationship as the Medium for Creating Change

Ian Prinsloo
August, 2018


In recent articles, I have explored the relationship between my past work in theatre and my current work as a part of Reos Partners. This article is part of a series in which I am exploring the following two questions:

“What if we frame multi-stakeholder systems change as an act of creation?

And what is the craft that supports this act of creation?”

Relationship as the Medium for Creating Change

As consultants, a main focus in our work of creating multi-stakeholder systems change is the quality of the relationships present in a group. Without productive, high-trust connections, people and groups can’t make progress on their shared goals.

If we look at the change process through the lens of the arts, we can consider relationships as the medium for creating change, in that relationships both drive and are created through the shared work that change requires. And if we skillfully shape the bonds between people and teams, we go a long way toward ensuring the success of the change effort.

The Means of Expression

What exactly is a medium? In the arts, it is the means through which artists express their vision to the world. Painters have canvas, paints, brushes; actors have their bodies, voices, emotional lives; writers have words, phrasing, metaphors. The artist uses these different media to realize their creation. An artist’s medium is such a central organizing principle to their work that the medium often becomes synonymous with the expression of their work. We all associate Picasso with painting; Charlie Parker with the saxophone; Meryl Streep with her chameleon ability to become a character. We literally cannot separate how they create with what they create.

Artists’ relationships with their media are deeply intimate. Their knowledge and understanding of these tools grow over time, imbuing their art with ever-more profound nuances and possibilities. This is why at the beginning stages of an arts practice, students traditionally engage in extensive (and often quite tedious) training in working with their media. This practice is based on the belief that only when we have a felt understanding of the methods at the center of our practice can we utilize them to begin to express our artistic vision.

In multi-stakeholder systems change work, the shift that occurs within the system is fundamentally a shift in the relationships of the diverse people and organizations who have come together to meet a particular challenge. So, what if we – as system change artists – took a step back to consider relationship not as the product of our work but the means by which our work is expressed? What impact would it have on our work? What would it mean for the impact of this work in the world?

Relationships as an Object of Inquiry

Treating relationships as the medium through which we accomplish our work means considering a relationship as an object. Like a paintbrush or piece of clay, it can be an instrument through which we can achieve ends.

This framing can make people uncomfortable. It may seem to imply treating people as pawns and manipulating them to achieve a certain end. That is not what I am suggesting. Rather, my point is that, by making relationships an object of inquiry, we take greater responsibility for the quality of relationships we are inviting through our processes. To do so, we would need to be clear about the types of relationship required at each point in our work, the challenges they are best suited to meet, the conditions in which these relationships flourish, and the practices/structures which bring that relationship forward (and support its development over time). In any project, we can act in a flat, co-creative relationship, a structured, task focused one, or an intimate, sharing one to name but a few. The question is whether we are clear about when each one is needed, the capacity we have in each, and can we fluidly move between them?

It would also mean that we – as leaders, co-conveners, and facilitators –  would have to become fully versed in the wide variety of relationships available and not value one type over another but see them all as possibilities in service of the work at hand. We would need to know their strengths and limits, and explore applying them to see what can happen when they are mixed. It would also mean knowing which kinds of relationships the communities we are working with already have capacity in and so they can be readily accessed, and which ones will need practice and development before being integrated into a change process.

Now What?

I believe it is important to consider medium in terms of craft. For myself, craft is a set of practices I can turn to for creating the conditions that allow creative work to emerge. And central to understanding craft is understanding more deeply the medium through we which we are working. Which then means that we need to focus our attention to surfacing our tacit understanding about the relationships we are inviting into a change process in order to make that knowledge explicit. If we do that, it can become part of our craft – since it becomes practices we can turn to for creating the conditions that allow creative work to flourish. Therefore, becoming clear about such questions as, “What are the ways I use to identify when our present relationship is not serving us?” “What are the types of relationship that I turn to in support of our work?” and “What are the signs I pay attention to that tell me our current way of being together is not serving us?” can build the understanding and practice necessary to apply the idea of “relationship as the medium for change” within change processes. And, I believe, that when we do that skillfully we increase the impact of the work by increasing the quality relationships that is the foundation of that work.

I invite others to join this exploration to surface the tacit knowledge about inviting and supporting relationships in multi-stakeholder processes. If you have insights or practices to share, please email

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