It takes a diverse group of people to make change happen. So how can you agree on what you’re working towards? Emily Bolton shares a useful exercise.

4 minute read

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” — African Proverb.

It’s always easy to get bogged down in “what” you’re doing and forget about the “why”. And that’s a problem. I’ve noticed that if we focus on the “what” – my organisation, model or programme – it’s clear to see why we are different from others. But this can miss the far bigger point: we are all working to achieve a very similar social change, and if we’re going to get there we need to work together.

To address this, we’ve found it useful to step back from the day to day and reflect on this all-important “why”. The big vision. How the work each of us is doing is contributing to getting there. And the gaps that still need to be filled.

How to find your “why”

Here’s an exercise we often use at the start of our work. It helps us understand the wider vision – our shared ambition for the changes we want to happen. It’s relatively quick and helps everyone understand the boundaries of an issue, the main challenges and where we should be heading.

We facilitate a workshop with a diverse group of experts on a social issue. This can include community leaders, policymakers, front-line workers, people with lived experience, commissioners, academics, philanthropic funders and people from business. This diversity of expertise and insight is key – because, as individuals, we only see part of the issue.

In the workshop we ask three questions:

  1. What’s our vision for the world in 20 years’ time?
  2. What are the barriers to getting there?
  3. What would overcome those barriers?

Visually, we structure the responses to these questions in concentric circles on a flip chart, as shown in the diagram below:

1. Vision for the world in 20 years’ time

The first exercise can be very energising. Participants are asked to describe how the world would look in 20 years’ time if we all achieved our missions.

We make it clear that this exercise is a thought experiment – and that means money, politics and places should be no object. Otherwise, we’ve found that these practicalities can limit people’s ambitions and keep them mentally grounded in today’s reality. Instead we want them to paint a vivid picture of how the world could look for:

  • People living with the issue.
  • The services that support them.
  • The wider system.
  • Society.

For example: at a recent workshop on how to improve quality of life in later life, one of the visions to emerge was a society with stronger intergenerational connection and no intergenerational conflict (a feeling of young vs old in the division of public and private resources).

I’ve facilitated these exercises in many different social issue areas. What always surprises me is that often those partners who seem very divided in their day-to-day work actually share a very similar vision of the world they are working to create. I’ve also been surprised at how reaffirming it is for all of us to really visualise the world we are working to create.

2. Barriers to achieving the vision

The second exercise focuses on the middle ring of the circles and relates to the vision that has been collectively agreed and written in the centre circle.

In this exercise, we ask the group to come back to reality. We ask them to think through the most pressing barriers to making this vision real for:

  • People living with the issue.
  • The services that support them.
  • The wider system.
  • Society.

These barriers span the practical and systemic. They also vary hugely by issue.

People living with an issue aren’t a homogenous group. We look for common themes, but this is also a starting point for much deeper research and engagement.

For example, one of the themes coming out of the workshop on how to improve quality of life in later life was the desire for older people to have agency in the support they receive – to be active and a contributor, rather than a passive recipient of support.

In another example, the societal barriers we mapped in the workshop exploring perpetrators of domestic abuse included the stigma of asking for support as a perpetrator – and a wider narrative that places responsibility with the victim for leaving the perpetrator.

I’m always surprised at how quickly you can create an initial map of the barriers once you have the right breadth of expertise around the table – and create an environment in which people can build on each other’s knowledge.

3. Routes to overcome the barriers

The final exercise looks at the outer ring of the circles – working on the routes to overcome those barriers you’ve just mapped out, so that you can make the vision in the centre circle a reality.

We ask people to brainstorm how the barriers could be overcome, over the next 20 years. This longer time horizon makes the process of change feel more achievable.

This exercise can unleash real creativity from the group. I’ve found that radical thinkers exist in every sector. And some of the ideas and areas of focus that emerge through these discussions act as a useful jumping off point for working to achieve the transformative change we’re aiming for.

This exercise is part of a wider process of change. To ensure it’s valuable to the participants, we write up and share the learnings with all attendees.

We believe that change is a collaborative journey. And this exercise is a useful starting point in collectively agreeing on the end point of the journey. It helps you find your bearings together, understand the major obstacles, and plan your routes to get there.

Related reading: The essential guide to planning for impact at scale


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