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Building a Culture of Change: Lessons Learned in Principles-Driven Evaluations

By Nora F. Murphy Johnson

This blog post is part of a series on 'Principles-Driven Systems Change,' which explores the various methodologies, challenges, and breakthroughs experienced by changemakers dedicated to transformation for social justice and equity.  



Much of my principles-focused work has been in the context of developmental evaluations in support of systems change for increased social justice and equity. This means that people are collaborating from different organizations or vantage points in systems, and that these individuals have decided it’s time to work together for change. Other evaluators working with principles in different ways or contexts may have very different feedback to share about what it takes to do this work. Nonetheless, I offer you what I’ve learned.

Lessons Learned

Trust, positive regard, and a commitment to learning are essential

Principles-driven learning-oriented changemaking is based on trust and positive regard. Working with principles is different in many ways than working with concrete goals and outcomes. When you take on big change, work towards social justice, and attempt to disrupt deeply entrenched and powered systems, things will fall apart. These essential ingredients bring them back together.  

I've witnessed firsthand the power of these ingredients in my own professional journey. During a significant project aimed at fostering social justice within the community, our team was challenged to confront and disrupt systems of power that had been entrenched for decades. As expected, the path was anything but smooth. We faced numerous setbacks, with plans often unraveling in the face of institutional resistance. It was during these times that the true value of trust, positive regard, and a learning mindset became unmistakably clear.

One particularly vivid example occurred mid-way through the initiative when a critical partnership fell apart, jeopardizing the entire project. The collapse was a direct result of misaligned expectations and a lack of clear communication. Faced with this crisis, it would have been easy to succumb to frustration and blame. However, guided by our commitment to trust and positive regard, we chose to focus on understanding the breakdown from a learning perspective.

We engaged in open and honest dialogues, not only within our team but also with our partners. These conversations, though difficult, were approached with a genuine desire to understand differing viewpoints and to rebuild the lost trust. This approach allowed us to navigate through the conflict, learn from our mistakes, and eventually re-establish a stronger, more resilient partnership.

Principles-driven work takes time

Engaging in principles-driven work at a systems level takes time because the principles must be understood, operationalized, and implemented with consistency across the system. There needs to be a shared understanding of the language used and how it translates to different contexts. This involves determining what the learning goals are in relation to the principles, collecting data, and bringing these data to the larger systems-level group to look for patterns and reflect on implications. Group members then bring their learnings back to their organizations, and the cycle of learning and adaptation begins again. 

Continuing from the previously described challenge within our social justice project, the decision to not "push through" the conflict in favor of adhering to a rigid timeline was a turning point for our team. This choice underscored a critical aspect of principles-driven work: the importance of taking the necessary time to repair, restore, and reconnect. This approach is inherently different from the traditional emphasis on deadlines and outcomes. It recognizes that deep, systemic change is a process that cannot be rushed if it is to be meaningful and lasting.

Taking the time to address the fallout from the damaged partnership meant pausing our project timeline significantly. This pause allowed us to dive deep into the principles that guided our work. We initiated a series of listening sessions and dialogues both within our team and with our external partners to ensure that everyone had a clear understanding of these guiding principles, how they translated into our daily work, and the language we used to describe our efforts. This process was essential for creating a shared understanding and operationalizing the principles across the systems we were intending to influence. Once we had a clearer picture, we organized a series of system-level meetings to share our learnings and insights. These meetings were instrumental in fostering a culture of continuous learning and adaptation, both within our team and among our broader network of partners. 

This iterative process of learning and adaptation did not just resolve the immediate conflict we faced; it fundamentally transformed how we approached our work. By prioritizing principles over timelines, we were able to foster a deeper, more meaningful engagement with the complex issues at hand. This approach reinforced the notion that principles-driven work, especially at the systems level, requires patience, dedication, and a commitment to learning and growth that transcends traditional metrics of success. It is a slow but rewarding journey, one that holds the potential to effect genuine, sustainable change.

Principles-driven work is non-linear and highly individualized

A principles-based approach is non-linear, highly individualized, and often represents a culture shift for employees and managers.  Principles require individuals to get comfortable with a certain level of ambiguity and messiness. Systems change, social justice work, and healing are all complex processes, not a linear progression toward an end. Sometimes things appear to be getting worse when, in fact, they are shifting in necessary ways before things can get better. 

Continuing with the example, the departure from the more familiar, structured, and outcome-focused methods they were accustomed to asked everyone involved to embrace a level of ambiguity and messiness that is inherent to systems change, social justice work, and healing processes. People are not always comfortable with ambiguity and messiness. Tensions arose. 

We recognized that this phase of heightened tension was not indicative of failure but rather a necessary part of the process. It was a sign that the entrenched systems we were challenging were beginning to feel the pressure of our efforts, and the reactions we observed were symptomatic of the beginning of change. To navigate this phase, we had to double down on our commitment to the principles that guided our work. This meant maintaining open lines of communication among all stakeholders, fostering an environment where concerns and frustrations could be expressed freely, and ensuring that every step we took was aligned with our overarching goals of social justice and systemic change. We had to get comfortable with the fact that progress was not going to be a straight line and that setbacks were not just inevitable but were also valuable learning opportunities.

This period also required us to be adaptive and responsive. As we encountered new challenges and resistance, we had to continually reassess our strategies and approaches, ensuring they remained rooted in our core principles while being flexible enough to address the evolving landscape of our work. It was a delicate balance between maintaining fidelity to our principles and being pragmatic about achieving our objectives.

Principles-driven work requires high degrees of trust and judgment

Rules are the opposite of principles. Rules are specific, prescriptive instructions that dictate exactly what must be done in particular situations, offering clear guidelines and often leaving little room for interpretation or discretion. Principles, on the other hand, are broad, foundational truths or beliefs that provide a framework for making decisions. They encourage individuals to apply their judgment and values in diverse situations, allowing for flexibility and adaptation to context. Thus, while rules set boundaries for action with precise directives, principles guide action with overarching values and ideals, enabling a more nuanced and adaptable approach to decision-making. In most of our systems, people and organizations are judged on the degree to which they implement the rules listed in the rules manual or handbook. Professional judgment is less likely to be a factor in decision-making. A principles-based approach, by contrast, requires a high degree of subjective judgment. Principles-driven work means saying to people members, “Do what you think is right, given our shared principles. I have confidence in your judgment.” This raises several questions: How does one make a judgment? How does one trust one’s own judgment? How do people come to trust each other’s judgments?  

Continuing with our example, the principles-driven approach demanded an extraordinary level of trust and judgment from every team member. Moving away from a rule-oriented system to one that prioritizes principles over prescriptive actions was both liberating and daunting, and a radical shift from the conventional adherence to policies and procedures. This shift required us to confront and navigate several critical questions about judgment and trust. For instance, we had to explore how our team members could make sound judgments when faced with ambiguous situations, and how they could develop trust in their own decisions as well as in those made by their colleagues. The resolution to these challenges lay in two key strategies: building a common understanding of the principles both in theory and action, and cultivating a deep sense of trust across all levels of the organization, from staff to management and out to the community we served.

Principles-driven work requires vulnerability

Trust is often built during moments when people reveal their vulnerability, as being vulnerable can be a source of power rather than something to fear, deny, or hide.  A client I work with once shared this observation about my facilitation: “By being vulnerable you derive power. I trust that the mailman will come every day. What you do goes beyond building trust. Whatever it is about you being you, space is created for others to be vulnerable too. That’s why this works, and why I was incredulous when you told me that you felt pressure to be something different. It’s exactly those things that make you powerful.”  It’s true that I sometimes feel led to share more of myself--my fears, my anxieties, my hopes—than I had anticipated–but I find this often leads to a place of deeper connection and better collaborative work.

What I’ve learned since this encounter is that embracing vulnerability can pave the way for innovative problem-solving and creativity. When team members feel supported in expressing their true selves, including their doubts and uncertainties, they are more likely to propose unique ideas and solutions, free from the fear of judgment. This kind of environment, where vulnerability is seen as a conduit for connection and creativity, can significantly boost the overall effectiveness and satisfaction within teams.

To enhance this culture of vulnerability and trust, it's important to establish clear norms and practices that support emotional safety. This includes active listening, showing empathy, and providing affirmative feedback, as well as implementing structured opportunities for team members to share their personal stories and experiences. Such practices not only validate individual experiences but also reinforce the collective strength derived from shared vulnerability.

I want to take a moment to recognize and acknowledge the complexities of inviting vulnerability in environments marked by hierarchical power dynamics or where individuals' identities have been historically marginalized. All I can do is lead by example in a way that feels authentic and meaningful, prioritize genuine efforts over performative allyship, ask myself and others to embrace humility and co-create an environment where diverse voices are not only heard but also honored and protected. This effort entails a continuous commitment to learning, dialogue, and actionable steps towards equity, encouraging a culture where everyone feels respected and valued--or where they can speak up of they don't.

Principles-driven work requires consistency across the system

Principles must be enacted throughout the entire system.  Principles-driven work thrives on consistency across all facets of our interactions and structures—from our internal capacities and the external conditions we navigate, to the relationships we cultivate and the organizational policies and practices we implement. It is through the fractal replication and alignment across these diverse levels of the system that the true power of the principles-driven approach is manifested. This harmonious integration ensures that principles are not merely abstract ideals but are actively lived and reflected in every aspect of our work, creating a robust and cohesive framework for meaningful change.

Building upon our previous example of social justice work within the community, let’s consider how consistency in principles-driven work played a crucial role in addressing a significant challenge: improving access to community development processes.

Internal Capacities: Our team committed to continuously educating ourselves about the systemic barriers affecting access to education. This involved regular training sessions on educational inequality, workshops on cultural competency, and fostering an environment where team members felt empowered to share insights and challenge assumptions. This consistent commitment to growth and learning within our team ensured that our internal capacities aligned with the principles we championed.

External Conditions: Recognizing the external barriers to education in the community—such as socioeconomic disparities and linguistic challenges—we worked closely with local schools, government bodies, and community organizations. Our consistent efforts to collaborate and adapt to changing external conditions meant that our strategies were always responsive to the real-world context, ensuring that our principles were relevant and effectively applied.

Relationships: We prioritized building strong, trust-based relationships with community members, educators, and students. By consistently showing up, listening deeply, and engaging in honest dialogues, we fostered a sense of partnership and co-creation. These relationships were crucial in understanding the unique needs of the community and in designing interventions that were truly impactful.

Organizational Policies and Practices: Finally, our organization revisited and revised its policies and practices to ensure they consistently reflected our commitment to social justice and educational equity. This included policies on partnership engagement, resource allocation, and staff development, ensuring that every aspect of our organization's operation was aligned with our principles.


Principles-driven work, especially when aimed at fostering social justice and equity, is a deeply complex yet profoundly rewarding endeavor. It necessitates a blend of trust, positive regard, commitment to learning, and the courage to embrace vulnerability. This work is not about quick fixes or linear progress, but about nurturing a culture of collaboration, reflection, and adaptation that spans across different organizations and systems. As we journey through the intricacies of systems change, it's the shared understanding of principles, operationalized and lived by each individual, that binds us together in our collective effort. The path may be non-linear, fraught with challenges and moments of uncertainty, yet it is also filled with opportunities for growth, deeper connections, and the potential for real and lasting change.

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