Seeing how “Trickster” makes the world anew – Powerful stories where the alchemy of shifting your strategic posture brings change to life

Sometimes you have to cross boundaries, transgress a distinction and all the rules that go with it, to allow something amazing to happen. A lot of our work in GameShift involves some form of “boundary crossing” – a creative transgression that gets new things moving.

In this blog post, we want to share a couple of our inspirations for how we work.

The writer Lewis Hyde said … “Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and Trickster is always there at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce … Trickster is the creative idiot, the wise fool, the grey-haired baby, the cross dresser, the speaker of sacred profanities …” Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World (1998)

Urban planner, turned artist, turned revolutionary urban regeneration catalyst, Theaster Gates, is a superb example of Bill Torbert’s shift of strategic position within a system to bring about an extraordinary change. If you fancy knowing more about him, he gave a great TED talk.

There are behaviours that are legitimate with any given role in a system: planner, artist, entrepreneur, whatever. We can spend a lifetime tweaking our behaviours to get marginal changes in outcomes from within the legitimate space.  This can be worthwhile – we can improve a lot this way – and sometimes it isn’t sufficient.
We can also shift the strategic role in which we turn up in any system – a kind of extra loop that increases the range of potential outcomes.  We see this as a really useful way of thinking about what Theaster Gates has done in his “shape shifting” from the expectations of one domain to the expectations of another, transgressing the norms of both.  From this he has produced work that is lighting the imagination of art collectors and social activists as well as bringing transformation to his south Chicago neighbourhood.

In a similar way Edwin Sabuhoro shifted his point of intervention in a system to protect the ecology of his home, Rwanda.

Edwin was a lawyer, who became a ranger in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. The park is home to the famous mountain gorillas, hunted almost to extinction by poaching. In 2004, Edwin was a member of the Park management team, and had a problem.  They heard that someone was selling a baby gorilla for US $2,000.  They knew that for a poacher to obtain the infant, both the mother and the silverback had to be killed. What could be done to stop this?

Edwin volunteered to go undercover and pose as a buyer, accompanying unknown guides deep into the forest to meet the poachers. It was risky work, but the undercover operation resulted in the poachers being caught and jailed. Success?  Edwin had his doubts – he felt he had been deceptive, and set out to meet the families of the poachers.

Meeting the father of a jailed poacher, Edwin faced a tough and transformative conversation.

The older man asked him: in our position what would you do? Let your ten children starve, or accept money to capture poach gorillas? Edwin realised that in their position he’d become a poacher too. He realised that being a ranger wasn’t the way to stop the poaching.

He took $2000 – his own life savings – and bought land, using it as community farming space to allow the poaching families to grow food. This worked. Over time he expanded the activity, starting a cultural village and a series of eco-tours (see here).

The tours and the cultural village earn money that provides both work for the people and more land for farming. Now over 1000 families are included within the project and poaching has fallen by 40%.

In some ways this is an exceptional story, in its courage and its outcomes, but in others it is starkly familiar.

We meet many leaders who like Edwin come to realise that they are pushing water uphill: working like crazy but not having the impact they want to have, trying to transform a complex system but pushing in the wrong places.

And both of the stories raise some powerful questions:

  • What is the tough conversation I am avoiding that could change the way I see this system I am in? Do I have the courage to hear things that will challenge my world deeply?
  • How willing am I to play different roles in this system? Do I have the creativity and courage to move to a position where my intervention can have more leverage?
  • What do I care about enough to put myself at risk? Right at the heart of leadership for systems transformation has to stand a purpose for which I am prepare to take a real personal risk. What is that?

These questions may neither be comfortable nor easy.  But, as our two stories illustrate, these questions matter.