Style Blindness: What Bruce Lee Can Teach Us About Community Change

Posted on August 16, 2018
By Galen MacLusky

Karate Beach 53“Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.” – Bruce Lee

In the community of martial arts there are often discussions about which art is ‘better’ than others. Is Wing Chun a better technique for self-defense than Krav Maga? Would a championship boxer win in a fight against a Kung Fu master? These types of questions have many vocal champions on either side, but they are ultimately unanswerable. So much depends on both the ability of the practitioner as well as the context. Boxers train to fight in a specific context with specific rules. So do Mixed-Martial Arts (MMA) fighters, but with a different context and set of rules. The techniques of each martial art are well attuned to a specific set of circumstances have been honed over centuries of refinement.

But this doesn’t mean that they will apply perfectly to your needs.

In the world of community change we also have a fantastic palette of approaches to draw upon in our work: Collective Impact, Design Thinking, Behavioural Insights, Social Labs, Microfinance, Social Enterprise, etc. Each approach contains nuggets that we might draw upon in our work, but trouble occurs when they exclude each other.

Sometimes practitioners become dogmatic, valuing their approach above all else without examining its gaps or pitfalls. When this happens, we become blind to the value that other approaches can bring: the gaps that they help fill and the challenges that they can help us overcome. We become style-blind – unable to see beyond our own chosen style.

Rather than follow any one doctrine, Bruce Lee’s approach was to explore multiple styles: drawing from each of them what he felt applied to his context and leaving the rest behind. His approach celebrated “the cultivation and honest self-expression of the individual over any organized style.” [from] There is an important lesson here for community changemakers who hope to advance their practice.

There is always a need for specialists to advance and challenge each approach; To help refine the tools of Human-Centred Design, or Theory U, or Systems Thinking. But it is not practical nor helpful for most changemakers to become specialists in one approach. Community change is complex and ever-evolving, requiring careful judgement and flexible adaptation to our changing context. Rather than try to become a Design Thinker, a Systems Thinker, or a Social Enterprise specialist, what if we could pick and choose elements from each to help craft change in our own unique way, relying upon our community’s wisdom and experience to judge what will work best?

In other words, how might we move beyond style-blindness to create a different kind of change?

Getting Deeper

Community Innovation, Blog, Community Change

Galen MacLusky

By Galen MacLusky

While Galen was at Tamarack he led the Community Innovation Idea Area. He is passionate about working with community organizations to help build and scale new ideas that deepen their impact. An experienced design, innovation, and co-creation consultant, at the core of his work are approaches that help organizations engage with those who are impacted by their services and test new programs and services with minimal investment. Over the past five years, Galen has used these approaches to help Fortune 500 companies and non-profit organizations across North America reinvent the services and programs they provide.

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