Etmanski: Think and Act Like a Movement

Al Etmanski’s book assumes readers are striving to achieve real systemic change and his first pattern articulates the importance of movements.  For Etmanski, “Institutional change cannot happen without a movement” (P.49) and “A movement is composed of a million small acts.” (P.48).

This is not new.  Change occurs when enough people are moved to action for a long enough period that it finally happens. Gladwell talks about this type of change in Tipping Point.

The new piece for me was Etmanski’s insistence that systemic change requires us to look beyond our immediate context and missions to the broader goals of the movement. As an example you might identify a gap in mental health support for veterans. To impact the system creating the gap, Etmanski believes you should align your efforts with broader movements like The Movement for Global Mental Health or The Canadian Mental Health Association.

Think back to the occasions when you were involved in developing a mission and vision for your organization.  Was the movement a part of those discussions and considerations?  Was a movement objective devised alongside the mission and vision?

It’s not unusual for us to focus on the local context where we can see the ways our work makes a difference.  Spending time and energy on thinking about how we will contribute to the ‘movement’ seems like an abstract, ambiguous, pointless task.

To keep conversations about developing a movement objective meaningful, Etmanski provides some loose boundaries in his characteristics of an effective social justice movement.

Five Characteristics of an Effective Social Justice Movement.

  1. “They ignite our imaginations” – Do you contribute to a bold vision that disrupts the status quo?
  2. “They are multi-generational” – Do you contribute to movements as they reappear in new forms with successive generations?
  3. “They comprise small acts” – Do you contribute to the same thing that others feel compelled to contribute to?
  4. “They are self-organized” Do you contribute to something in which everyone sees the goal without a central command structure or charismatic champion?
  5. “They marry art and justice” – Do you contribute to something in which art has created new ways of seeing the world and transformed what we see as a possibility?

 

Would you say efforts to help the flood of Syrian Refugees is a movement?  Or the Arab Spring? Or Occupy Wall Street?

 

Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation by Al Etmanski is a guide for social innovators to move their idea from localized success to broader systemic impact.

 

Making Your Idea Matter

Having repeatedly heard folks in social innovation circles refer to Al Etmanski, I felt compelled to pick up his book Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation.  It’s intended to guide innovators after their idea has been mushed, mashed, shaped, sanded, polished and tested.

How does a social innovator shepherd an idea from local success to broader systemic impact?

I recommend picking up a copy for his stories illustrating many of the ideas I’ll be posting.  A quick, accessible, useful read.

Etmanski opens by saying we all have the ability, capacity and responsibility to innovate. We can’t escape by saying ‘I’m not a big idea thinker‘ or ‘I’m a doer not a thinker‘. Further, he identifies three types of innovators needed to spread an idea, no matter how amazing, to achieve broader systemic impact.

Disruptive Innovators: have the unwavering belief that we can do better by challenging the the way it’s always been done..

Bridging Innovators: have the credibility and networks to highlight the benefits of the disruptive innovator’s new idea for institutions and policy makers.

Receptive Innovators: have access and knowledge of the system to change policy, law or funding to make the idea possible. (also known as intrapreneurs).

Which type of innovator are you?  Even more importantly, do you know anyone from the other two types of innovator?

 

Scenario Thinking: Act and Monitor (Phase Four/Five)

Scenario thinking has five basic phases as outlined in What if? The Art of Scenario Thinking for NonProfits.
  • Phase One (Orient) –  creates a clearly articulated issue/question
  • Phase Two (Explore) –  identifies all driving forces.
  • Phase Three (Synthesize) – prioritizes driving forces
  • Phase Four (Act) – crafts the strategic agenda
  • Phase Five (Monitor) – signals the need for tweaks to the strategic agenda  
 
 

Act

Gather the scenario frameworks from the Synthesize phase and fully immerse yourself in their narratives.  Imagine that the future circumstances of each scenario are really occurring and ask yourself:

  • What actions would I take today to prepare?
  • What could I do to increase the likelihood that this scenario will come true?
  • What could I do to decrease the likelihood that this scenario will come true?

Answering the questions will reveal scenario implications for each scenario.  If the scenario describes a future in which there is reduced government funding and a weak economy, it is safe to deduce that one implication would result in less funding for the organization.  It may also expedite innovative approaches the organization has wanted the opportunity to explore as another possible implication.

Your strategic agenda will start to emerge as you reflect on the implications of each scenario.

Begin by searching for implications common to all scenarios because they represent the lowest level of risk.  The same implication present in each scenario will make it most likely to come true in the future.  One implication likely to be present in all scenarios for a not-for-profit organization is funding shortfalls regardless of government funding or the strength of the economy.  Basing your strategy on funding shortfalls is fairly safe.

Relying on a scenario implication that is singularly different from other scenarios represents the highest level of risk because there is a lower likelihood that it will come true.   Basing your strategy on the future outcome of an election is risky for the organization.

“The test of a good set of scenarios is not whether in the end it turns out to portray the future accurately but whether it enables an organization to learn, adapt and take effective action.” (P.30, What if? The Art of Scenario Thinking for NonProfits)

 

Monitor

Monitoring the strategic agenda is often the stage that gets sidelined by the day-to-day routine of the organization.   Monitoring involves watching for signals indicating changes in the environment potentially impacting the organization and its strategic agenda. 

The key to the Monitor phase is selecting the correct signals to watch by identifying a set of ‘leading indicators’They should contain a mix of qualitative and quantitative information from the local, national and international contexts.  Then take some time to make adjustments to your strategic agenda.

Is Incremental Change Good Enough?

I was at an event last week that left me uplifted and energized with undercurrents of irritation and discomfort.  It’s the mix I look for when I attend an event because it signals that I’m learning outside my comfort zone.

I attended an SDX (Systemic Design Exchange) event in which panelists candidly shared their Epic Tries: Innovation Stories from the Field for the first part of the afternoon.  In the latter half of the afternoon, SDXers broke into smaller groups to discuss a question or problem posed by a panelist   I like this format because it gives participants an opportunity to contribute their ideas and expertise to the panelists.  Near the end of the afternoon, we became one large group again to debrief the conversations and what had been accomplished.

However there was one phrase that kept bubbling to the surface that both resonated with me and frustrated me.   It was the idea of incremental change.

Incremental change, as I am taken to understand, is created by seizing opportunities to make micro-changes that eventually coalesce into more substantial change over time. On the surface it makes sense.   It’s easier to move a few smaller boxes that one huge box.  Incremental change is actually a very smart strategy and its very difficult to argue its logic.

Unfortunately, my experience working in government has taught me that the lasting impact of incremental change is undermined by three corrosive forces; lack of coordination, indecision, and apathy.

I have witnessed situations in which one team will make an incremental change, be high-fiving each other while another team is unintentionally countering their change with one of their. This happens all too often in government.  Sometimes I hear the question; didn’t we fix this problem last year?  From year to year we haven’t really ‘moved the needle’ by any lasting measure.

I know a few middle managers in government that really want to do things better but are fossilized into inaction because of indecision above them.  I’m sure some of these indecision-makers would appreciate the freedom to try new things but they have to be mindful of making a ‘career limiting move’.  In the meantime, the idea being considered becomes stale and losses its relevance.  An opportunity to make an incremental change passes and people move on.

At this point you might be tempted to say “that’s the way it is in government”.  When I first joined government I was astonished at how casually people accepted this as a reason for not doing better.  This apathy is the most lethal killer of any kind of change and signals someone that believes doing better is not possible.  Worse, it signals a person who believes doing better is no longer their responsibility.  The system is the people who run it.

My apologies.  I see this post has taken a turn towards hopelessness.  But I think hopelessness is how many people in government feel as they tirelessly and continuously push an agenda of change from their cubicles.   I’ve seen it in the faces of people around meeting tables who know they will return to dealing with the mindless, soul-crushing minutiae that matters urgently today but is forgotten tomorrow.

But not all is lost.  The people I meet at SDX refurbish hope that change is possible.   I agree that change is hard.  But it is also inevitable.  The greatest potential for meaningful incremental change comes from intentional coordination and integration of our efforts.  This leaves me with three questions to which there may not be answers. Yet.

  1. What can I do to coordinate people and their incremental changes?
  2. How can I access and support indecision-makers so they feel comfortable transitioning to decision-makers?
  3. How do I influence others to shift from the ‘way it’s always been’ to the ‘way it can be’?

The Way We’ve Always Done It

How do you feel when you start a new position with a new team?   For me it has always been a mix of excitement and awkwardness.  Mostly awkwardness. Because I don’t know the unwritten rules of the place and I don’t want to make an embarrassing faux pas on my first few days.

To explain this, Gray would say the team I am joining has a shared set of beliefs they use to navigate their work relationships called the bubble of belief.  Beliefs I do not yet possess because I don’t have their shared experience of working together.  The kitchen is a perfect example.  On one occasion before attending a meeting,  I had gone to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.  I picked a cup from the cupboard and boiled water like I have thousands of times.   Unfortunately I turned up to the meeting using the boss’s favorite cup.  I could feel a tremor of discomfort when I entered the room because everyone else knew not to use that cup.

Bubbles of belief exist in every corner of our lived experience.  They are shared maps that groups use to navigate relationships in the reality they co-create.  Unfortunately, they are maps that occasionally lead us over a cliff too.

Have you ever heard this phrase at work “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it”?  

It’s always been done that way and continues to be done that way because “….new information from outside the bubble of belief is discounted, or distorted, because it conflicts with the version of reality that exists inside the bubble” (p.45, Liminal Thinking).  Gray calls this self-sealing logic.  There are many examples of how this type of thinking has had disastrous effects. Blackberry couldn’t see past the keyboard design while Apple gobbled up their market share with the touchscreen.  In 2000, the Blockbuster CEO passed up the opportunity to purchase Netflix for $ 50 million saying it was a niche company.  Netflix is now worth more than $30 billion. I wonder how many times these words were uttered in the Northlands boardroom while Katz busily outmaneuvered them.

Why is it so difficult for people to see past their self-sealing belief bubbles?

Gray points out that people evaluate a new idea in two ways; internally (does it make sense?) and externally (can I test it?).  Most new ideas fail to get past the internal test because they challenge the bubble of belief and so they automatically do not make sense and therefore do not need to be tested.  A video streaming service must have seemed impossible to the CEO of the most successful video rental business so therefore there is no need to test what it’s potential could be.

Think back to a time when you came forward with a fantastic, innovative, can’t miss new idea that was dismissed by the group.  Was the groups defending its’ bubble of belief?  Do you think your new idea challenged group identity?

Conversely, take a minute and think about what happens when your beliefs are challenged.  How do you defend them?

 

Liminal Thinking Principle 5:”Beliefs defend themselves.  Beliefs are unconsciously by a bubble of self-sealing logic, which maintains them even when they are invalid, to protect personal identity and self-worth.” (P. 49, Liminal Thinking)

Unpacking Beliefs

My belief is not reality.  My constructed contractor Pete is not the real contractor Pete.  Seems very straightforward and even obvious.  The challenge emerges when trying to apply this to practice.  To begin thinking liminally, if I understand Gray correctly, is to understand how my belief about contractor Pete is formed.  To help understand this process Gray introduces the Pyramid of Belief (based on the Ladder of Inference) in which Reality forms the base and The Obvious sits on top.

Reality:  As mentioned in Is Contractor Pete Really an Assshole?, it begins with acknowledging reality as unknowable.  It is not possible to know everything about everything. I can’t know the contractor Pete that exists in reality because I can’t know everything he does and thinks.

Experiences: My experiences of reality through my senses form the basis of my beliefs.  This includes everything I perceive from reality whether I can recall it or not.  How I perceived contractor Pete through my senses generates my experiences of him including the things I noticed and the things I didn’t.

Attention:  Because our experiences of reality are so vast, our brains need a means of prioritizing the information we encounter.  This means we pay attention to some pieces of information and disregard others.  When I’m craving a salty snack my attention is drawn towards the Old Dutch chips rather than the M&Ms, pasta, or canned beans in the pantry.  When I first encountered contractor Pete to do the installation in the kitchen I noticed his walk, his dress, the way he talked, the way he treated his assistant, the way he treated his tools, and the way he treated the materials he was installing.

Theories and Judgments:  Based on what I noticed about contractor Pete, I began to form theories about what to expect.  Can I expect a quality installation based on how he treats the materials and his tools?  What can I expect from him if I have a problem in the future, based on how he treats his assistant and how he chooses to answer my questions?

Beliefs:  Experiences, attention, theories and judgements are ways to make reality manageable by molding it into beliefs I use to navigate its complexity. My belief that contractor Pete is an unprofessional asshole allows me to simplify our interaction.  It also simplifies what I can expect from him in the future making it easier for me to ‘never use his business again”.  “Beliefs are the foundational model that you use to navigate the world” (p.18, Liminal Thinking)

The Obvious:  My pyramid shapes the contours of my ‘obvious’ otherwise known as my version of reality.  “Learning how to navigate this ‘below the obvious’ construction  zone is one of the core skills of liminal thinking” (p.19, Liminal Thinking)

You’ll notice I did not go into a tediously biased narrative about what contractor Pete did to earn his moniker (unprofessional asshole).  This was intentional.  My goal is not to have you simply agree or disagree with my obvious.  Instead my goal is to think liminally about what happened so I don’t have a repeated experience with another ‘contractor Pete’ in the future.

“Liminal thinking requires you to become more conscious of that invisible belief construction process, in yourself and others” (p.19, Liminal Thinking)

 

Liminial Thinking Principle 2:  “Beliefs are created.  Beliefs are constructed hierarchically, using theories and judgements,  which are based on selected facts and personal, subjective experience ” (p.21, Liminal Thinking)

Is Contractor Pete Really an Asshole?

Over the past few months my wife and I have been renovating our kitchen.  During the process we had two contractors.  Contractor Joe was communicative, open, and pleasant.  Contractor Pete was aggressive, defensive and hostile.  Choosing a path towards becoming a liminal thinker compelled me to pause and look more closely at why there was such a difference between the two contractors.  It would be easy (simple) to conclude that Pete was asshole and Joe wasn’t.  Joe was a professional and Pete wasn’t. But being a liminal thinker requires thinking beyond the simple. The goal is to think differently so I can do things better.

“Liminal thinking is the art of creating change by understanding, shaping, and redrawing beliefs”  (p. xxiii, Liminial Thinking).

If I want to avoid experiencing unprofessional asshole contractor Pete in the future (change), I need to understand, shape and redraw my beliefs about him.   So how do I proceed?

It starts with realizing that the contractor Pete existing in reality is unknowable.  It’s simply not possible for me to know every action and thought contractor Pete has ever had.  So this leaves me with my belief about Contractor Pete.  Gray illustrates this so clearly by asking you to think of an elephant.  Now that you have an elephant in your mind, is there an actual, real elephant in your head?  The elephant in your mind is a construction of an elephant based on your past experiences with elephants.

The unprofessional asshole contractor Pete is my construction based on my experience with him.  He is not a fact in reality.  The unprofessional asshole version of Contractor Pete only exists in my mind like the elephant in your mind moments ago. Undoubtedly, Contractor Pete will have a different belief about his professionalism and character.  His belief is also a construction and is not a fact in reality.

A belief is something you hold in your mind, a kind of map or model of external reality” (p.6, Liminal Thinking)

The result is a situation in which I will battle for my version of reality and Contractor Pete will battle for his – because it is so obvious to both of us who is right.  Unfortunately, the argument over whose belief is right distracts from the learning needed to do something better.  We get stuck battling over whose obvious is more obvious and forget that the original goal is to do a better job of the kitchen installation.  

Liminial Thinking Principle 1:  “Beliefs are models.  Beliefs seem like perfect representations of the world, but, in fact, they are imperfect models for navigating a complex,  multidimensional, unknowable reality.”