Specializing in the design and delivery of transformative, experiential education.

Social Innovation and Processwork: Unrequited Dance Partners


My experience in the social innovation sector is largely one of inspiration.  I find myself inspired and hopeful by the energy, vision and intentions of social innovation, particularly in Vancouver, where there is serious support for it structurally and financially.

In my experiences within this sector I’ve continually noticed that there are some elements of social innovation that don’t look effectively attended to yet.  My belief is that Process Oriented Psychology, or Process Work, has theory, tools and awarenesses that can fill the gaps I’m identifying here, helping useful social innovation ideas engage with parts of the general population who remain uninvolved with social change.

Identity Psychology

I’ll start with what I’ll call identity psychology.   Social innovation seeks to make change to existing systems and/or innovate entirely new ones.  While many factors and variables are considered, I’ve not yet seen much emphasis on considering the psychological implications of change itself brought into the mix.  I think that factors of identity are key to the success of change initiatives.  Organizational development leader and author Margaret Wheatley notes that about 70% of change initiatives in the corporate world fail, the negative outcomes of which are compounded by the costs of cleaning up the mess and of people’s negative beliefs about change initiatives becoming more deeply patterned (2006).

Changing people’s behaviour is often a desired or required element for a successful social change initiative.  The social innovation sector does not seem to factor in the strength of identity psychology that is involved in change and transformation.  In scenarios that invite change, people are more likely to enact behaviours that are familiar, known, confortable and that feel safe far more often than they are likely to move in new ways.   This makes sense when considering the make-up of a person’s sense of identity.  A disconnection from our known identity is a profound shift, which most of us, most of the time, are more prone to meet with suspicion or resistance than openness and engagement.  Examples are everywhere.  I’m offering several to underscore the pervasiveness and importance of identity psychology to social innovation.

Consider the experience of someone on the street trying to get us to sign a petition or donate to a cause.    One moment we are walking the street and identifying with our own thoughts, feelings, sensations and purpose in-the-moment.  Then we see a stranger standing beside a big sign with brochures in their hand, making eye contact and directly addressing us, and we are thinking that they want us to immediately engage and actively care about the same issue they are caring about.  Most of us enact with a shield of deliberately communicated non-engagement: averting eye contact, contracting in the upper body and shoulders and slightly turned away, as we increase our walking speed without noticing.

The average person may actually be quite caring and may share an interest in the issue presented.   Yet the actual experience of identity shift is too much of an edge in the moment to perform the desired response: return the eye contact, to stop walking, invest time to listen, learn, sign and/or donate.   In essence, street level activism asks people to spontaneously become publicly identified as part of the group who cares about the stated issue.   People are more likely to stop when they are already familiar with the issue, have a relationship with it, and are therefore more identified with it already.  The instinct to simply stay with the familiar and to keep walking with one’s own thought streams and sense of purpose in-the-moment is usually greater and becomes what we most often choose.

A second example: effective ways to mitigate our contributions to climate change abound already.  Most everyone knows that fossil fuel emissions contribute to climate change, yet vast amounts of people still drive cars instead of riding transit, car-sharing or biking.  Comfort and convenience account for some of this pattern, but the experience of not knowing oneself as bus rider or cyclist is also a significant aspect.   Developing an identity as a cyclist requires time, gear, and likely hundreds of hours of cycling, to ease into.  

In addition to personal experiences of identity change, there are the social ones.  Physically fit, climate concerned citizens abound in Vancouver.  So do heaps of solo drivers in cars feeling anxious about rush hour traffic making them late.   Identifying as a climate concerned citizen is not the same as identifying as climate concerned cyclist.  As a long time cycle commuter in Vancouver (25 years!), I see this in people’ reactions to my cycling especially in the winter.  Typical comments include “You so brave” or “Aren’t you great to be cycling.  Good for you”.   These short expressions speak of little else but the perception of how different I am perceived to be for riding a bike.  Cycling, like anything, can be framed in positive or negative terms.  On the positive side it’s obviously healthy for bodies and the Earth.  On the negative side it can suggest low income, and can be socially awkward wardrobe-wise, requiring changing of clothing multiple times per day and per social situation.

Economic status and the clothing we choose to present ourselves publicly are very strong elements of our identity structures.  To make changes in aspects of self this foundational requires strong motivation, support and a deep agreement with our spirit/will/process.   The transformation from car commuter to cycle commuter is deep psychological terrain!  I say this as a former car owner entering my 27th year of cycle commuting.  I've gone through innumerable shifts in my sense of self in the community during these years.

Social innovation can offer interventions and innovations that can take us to the borders of new territory, but to be more successful it needs to design and include support mechanisms to people navigate over their comfort zone edges and identity boundaries that inhibit opening up to new possibilities.  Identity psychology is critical to include in social innovation work because of the sheer strength of resistance to change we humans demonstrate.

Mainstream North American culture is rife with shaming structures and few spaces where authentic expression and individual uniqueness is welcomed and valued.   As well, growing up in Western mainstream culture has divorced most people from a sense of connection to their own creativity and intuition.  Visual artist Lisa Lipsett links the common Western fear of being in real wilderness with the fear of the unknown in creative processes, connecting both to our culturally ingrained desire to be in control (2002).   As a result, most of us have long ago stopped taking many risks in our personal expression or behaviour that could be problematized by others or our own internal criticism.   I’ve taught improvisational singing for 20 years, nationally and internationally.  From Canada to China, Spain, Germany, and the USA, I am always amazed at the repetitive contradiction I see in people’s desire for freedom from convention and restraint, and our immediate fear when the doorway to such freedom is opened in front of us.   When people identify as feeling restrained, the experience of freedom is less familiar, further away from how we self-identify and therefore, it’s harder to freely express oneself  than it is to stay restrained.  Generally, we are not very friendly towards experiences, values and ideas with which we don’t identify.

Another whole set of factors that need to be always considered in social innovation and indeed all work everywhere, are people's social locations.  Gender, race, physical ability, introvert/extrovert, language, level of education, life experiences, income level, etc, all need to be included in how social innovation initiates are considered, visioned, shared, and executed.  As a white, male, born middle class, native English speaker, non-Indigenous, heterosexual, mildly extroverted, physically able person, all of my work as a consultant and facilitator bears the signals of my identity structures.  Which also means, it lacks the signals and styles of those whose experiences and identities differ from mine.  My interest in sharing my passion for cycle commuting in conversation with a person of color for example, may fail to engage the person not due to a dis-interest in cycling, but due to our racial difference being an obstacle to a person of color being able to identify with me at a certain base level.  This is not any condemnation of any one, but an attempt to identify how ceaseless and pervasive are the mechanisms of identity psychology in social interactions, be they mundane, spontaneous, or carefully visioned. 

In my career as a consultant since 2005, virtually all social change organizations I've ever consulted with feature staff and leadership teams that are numerically dominated by white women.  Facilitating, welcoming and supporting people of color, men and other less represented social identities into social innovation work is another huge area of critical importance.

Change is hard for us humans in general, because it challenges our deep sense of self.  Identity is core, linked to safety in the psyche and we are deeply patterned to protect ourselves from any perceived threats to self.   Through punishing and shaming structures in society, we have been taught to not challenge social acceptance all that much.  All of these factors are in play when social innovation meets mainstream society, even when personal creativity meets self-doubt.   Social innovation is in the identity psychology business but isn’t yet grasping the full significance and implications of this dynamic in its practice.

Processwork camps out in this exact arena of identity psychology, and edges.  Process facilitators are trained to help clients, groups and organizations explore their edges and gather the new information and insights contained within edges.   Processwork offers a multiplicity of cognitive, creative, physical movement-based, and imaginal methods for helping people explore and go over their edges, thereby expanding and transforming their self-identity.  This edge work is tender, magical, hard, mysterious, and typically requires lots of repetition.  It also benefits greatly from skillful support.  

In my consultant work with social change and social innovation organizations, my awareness of this need for a foundational focus on identity psychology has grown immeasurably.  I was moved to write this piece out my sense of urgency I feel about world issues.  Social change minded people and organizations are doing important work, and I believe that Processwork methods provide a critical and currently missing contribution to this sector.  I hope this article can help bridge these two important fields and merge their powerful dance steps to take us even further down the path towards a Life-Sustaining World.