My Theory of Change

We talk easily, but generally about change. This is my own theory, at the heart of what I do.

Introduction.

“Nothing is written unless you decide to write it” 

Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia

All of us have been brought up in the Industrial Era, in an age of the pursuit of perpetual growth, efficiency, and the power of markets. It has become dogma, with corporates the temples, consultants the priests, and business schools the seminaries.

It is ending. We are in a reformation, but instead of Martin Luther nailing 95 theses to the church door, it is the natural world. The theses are pandemics, forest fires, floods, exceptional weather patterns, melting icecaps, mass migration, rampant inequality, and the prospect of mass extinctions. 

Just as it took the Catholic Church a while to take it seriously, so it is with the business establishment. A primary reason is the sticky nature of worldviews. As Thomas Kuhn, who first described the concept of a paradigm shift, pointed out, ‘Novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by … lifelong resistance’ from those ‘whose productive careers have committed them to an older tradition’. 

Politics has long been in thrall to business, and it is unlikely the initiative to change will come from there in anything other than token form. If change is to happen, it has to come from the same source as any movement, From the middle. Change is rarely initiated by the oppressed or the ruling class, it is initiated by a disenfranchised middle class, which is where the practical power lies – skills, networks, and communication.

And, quietly but rapidly, that is what has happened. As wealth has concentrated in a handful of billionaires, sovereign wealth funds, and corporations, the skills that enabled that transfer have found themselves left behind, and there comes a point when leaders lose their followers to alternative visions of how the world needs to work.

“Humans have a responsibility to their own time, not as if they could seem to stand outside it and donate various spiritual and material benefits to it from a position of compassionate distance. Humans have a responsibility to find themselves where they are, in their own proper time and place, in the history to which they belong and to which they must inevitably contribute either their response or their evasions, either truth and act, or mere slogan and gesture.” 

Robert Merton

We are at such a point. The way we live now is not the way we have to. Nothing is written.

What is the problem to be solved?

‘I am life that wills to live, in the midst of life that wills to live” 

Albert Schweitzer

At its simplest – we have become disconnected. From each other, the world we live in, and the life it contains. We need to reconnect.

The structures we have created make it difficult. 

Politics has become distant and distrusted and becomes ever more populist and partisan as pressures and divisions increase. Where we should be collaborating, we are competing.

Business has become equally distant and dislocated as corporations that have the rights of personhood within society, but few of the obligations and locate themselves wherever is temporarily advantageous to a small group of shareholders. Employees have become commodities as a result, subject to someone, or increasingly, automation, somewhere else providing better returns. 

Education has become subservient to business, with “productive” STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) displacing Arts and Humanities and production replacing questions. The ability to make things scale has eclipsed our consideration of why we are making it.

Resources in all forms, from plants to people, have been monetized and owned. The commons, those resources shared in the service of all, from the seas and soil to childcare, to mental health, have been privatized, and money has become the sole determinant of wealth.

It would take a conspiracy theory of magnificent proportions to believe that this has been done deliberately. It is, unfortunately, much simpler. We created the systems with the best of intents, and along the way improved much of human life, but as with all systems there are unintended consequences, and it is those we are experiencing. 

Winston Churchill said that “first we shape our buildings, and then they shape us.” The same is true of our organizational systems, and it is time to rebuild them.

The challenge is how to start when time is running short.

Who is the audience?

One of the consequences of the Industrial era is that we love to analyze, categorize and label. Individuals get subsumed into a category and amplified by media. Those who work in Banks, Multi-National Corporates, and  Government become instant villains whose only passion is to find new ways to exploit others, whilst those at the other end of the spectrum in movements like Occupy, Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion, and others become instant yurt-dwelling, cannabis-smoking rebels. In truth, of course, they are just people, and whilst there are undoubtedly villains amongst them, the vast majority are just trying to get by and be heard.

The audience is amongst that vast majority. Inside this mass are people who care about what is happening talking to other people who care. Sometimes locally, increasingly often at a distance shrunk by technology. People in small groups having conversations about what matters to them without making a noise about it. 

What matters to them is complex – they all have primary concerns, from climate change to inclusion to inequality, but in the end, all are linked. They are fractal parts of a bigger concern they all share. They form groups, formal and informal, around their concerns. These groups all have leaders.

Those groups are the audience, and the task is, quite simply, to connect the leaders in order that they can learn from and support each other so that in addressing the parts, we affect the whole.

Connecting to the audience.

Connection to those that will drive the change is not a mass-market, broadcast exercise. They are difficult to categorize with any precision and come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

There are three routes. 

Firstly, to create content, and make it accessible via my personal blog.

Secondly, to participate actively and generously (that is, no “selling”) via online forums such as LinkedIn, private groups and, as opportunity presents, physical forums. 

Thirdly, to provide an online platform at Originize where leaders can meet to share experiences, learning and provide mutual support.

Fourthly, to walk the talk. To make serious commitments to taking my own steps, which I wrote about here. It’s a start.

By combining these three channels with close, personal support, steadily build communities of loosely linked groups sharing common purpose and values.

What steps are needed to trigger change?

As with most challenges, there is a large gap between identifying the problem, understanding the problem, and initiating the actions to address it.

The nature of the challenges is that they can easily feel overwhelming and that individually we are helpless, passengers on a bus driven by someone else.

To change that perception, we need to work collectively and push boundaries together.

Small groups

We know small groups, with open agendas build trust and that trust opens up boundaries.

By instigating and catalysing a range of conversations around incremental, positive change we will help build a network of connected groups who can demonstrate change in the areas important to them, and teach what they learned to others in different groups.

The more we do this, the more commonality will be established between people with different but linked  priorities that can be used to weave a bigger community who between them address the overall change we wish to see.

Many of these challenges will be “Keystone” changes. These are what Buckminster Fuller described as “Trim Tab” changes. Trim tabs are the small mobile surface areas on things like a ships rudder that, through small changes make bigger movement easier. A real life example is when Mohandas Ghandi, in pursuing Indian Independence from the British, chose opposition to the Salt Tax as his keystone change. This apparently minor victory set the scene for the bigger change he wanted.

We will target multiple keystone challenges, in the knowledge they will build the foundation for the opportunities, as yet unknown, that will appear a d by linking with other groups doing the same, creates an infrastructure for the greater change we wish to see.

Sponsors

There are individuals, organizations and institutions who will be interested in the work we do and who may be able to support in various forms, from regulators to funding to paid work to connections that will further what we are trying to do. We need to actively target and establish relationships with them.

A Plan

Whilst precise planning will be challenging, and improvisation will often be the order of the day, we need a framework that we can use to scaffold, support and guide progress.

Long-term Goal.

The creation of a network of loosely linked small groups sharing a common purpose that co-operate, like a murmuration of starlings, to enable our transition to a sustainable, equitable society living on a vibrant, sustainable planet.

We can change things, because nothing is written.