In a surprising turn of events, I find myself packing my bags for an accidental, month-long European tour. What is perhaps even more fascinating is that my itinerary has come together as an unintentional journey through Berkana’s Two Loops model, a compelling theory of how system change emerges. 

The tour came about a few months ago when, in a moment of distraction, I agreed to speak at a conference, assuming it was virtual. Weeks later, I started to see promotions for it and realized it was in Paris. With some embarrassment, I reached out to the organizers to say: I can’t justify the environmental impact for something that could be done online. The more we talked, though, the more we saw an opportunity to weave the message and experience of thrivability and alignment with life throughout the whole conference, for a level of learning and impact that could only happen in person. Hmmm. I mentioned my dilemma to a group of wonderful European colleagues, who immediately said, “You’ll be so close! Let’s organize something meaningful and important in the Netherlands right after!” That was followed by basically the same conversation with an equally wonderful colleague in Barcelona. At that point, I stopped telling anyone about the trip for fear of never seeing my family again! There is no shortage of wonderful colleagues or meaningful, important conversations to be had. Tickets were purchased. Plans were made.

And then I realized that my journey had a definite arc to it, mirroring the Two Loops Model that illustrates the different and equally valid roles people play within the process of systems change.

Two humps, one showing the rise and fall of the old system/paradigm, and one showing the rise of the new
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Image by Darlene Wolnik

On my upcoming journey, I start at the NextGen Enterprise summit — a gathering of global consulting firms, banks, telecom companies and others, all dabbling in new, self-organizing methods of project management for greater agility and responsiveness to change. These are what the Two Loops model would call Stabilizers, keeping the lights on within the still dominant — but steadily deteriorating — structures of society and creating pockets where the new can begin to coalesce.

From there, I join warm-hearted, dedicated organizational development (OD), leadership, and change practitioners in a gathering we’ve called OD for Life. According to the model, they are Bridge Builders, offering hospice to the dying system and midwifing the new. Our work together is “to help shape new narratives of progress characterized by care for all people and life on our planet.” 

My travels culminate with Thrivability Camp: “a weave of inspired theory, pioneering stories, playful co-creation and emergent learning.” My co-host, Stelio Verzera, and his colleagues at Cocoon Pro are Creators of New Systems, ten years in to blazing a bold, life-aligned trail within organizations. 

But what about those who believe “System Stabilizer” is NOT a valid role? Who suspect those people are engaging in “predatory delay,” contributing to our impending doom through their tending to the old? This is certainly a risk. Indeed, here’s what my colleague Ben Wolfe has to say: 

Until people see, accept and choose to be part of the need for change, the Two Loops model doesn’t include them. In that territory, it’s meant to help them reimagine their role, as possible allies, using their power and knowledge for a different purpose.

This will be my invitation in Paris and throughout my journey, asking people to take an honest assessment of their work and whether the gravitational pull leans toward the old or the new, urging those Stabilizers to use their power and resources to create space for truly life-aligned change. There’s a version of the Two Loops model with a little human stick figure trying desperately to climb back up to the top of the first hump, the old and dying system. The message is: don’t be that guy. 

In all, the Two Loops model helps us understand the various places to intervene within a system in need of change. It invites each of us to discern where we are most drawn to contribute our gifts, and it helps us acknowledge the contributions of those who are working at different points across the model. It can help us see how to expand our work and our impact, connecting with those playing other roles. And it invites us to recognize that change is collective, an emergent phenomenon of the entire system. 

How fabulous that my journey has already offered up a small gift of insight before I even finish packing my bags.

Where do you see your contribution along this journey to system change?

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