A Story For Systems Thinkers and People Who Like to Laugh

The Hillbilly Elegy  is a book I’d shuffled to the bottom of my pile a few times.  The title did little to inspire enthusiasm to read it.  But it seemed to be the one book that always managed to  float to the top, stick out the side or fall off the shelf.

So I read it.  And I’m glad I did.  It’s brimming with examples of how systems impact the lives of people and the choices they make.  

To be clear this is not a book about systems thinking.  It’s compelling ‘beating the odds‘ story about a family trying to escape the poverty-stricken hills of Appalachian Kentucky and ends with the author’s graduation from Yale Law. 

Looking a bit deeper, the story reveals how the ‘odds’ are calculated and the ways in which they systematically work against people like J.D. Vance and his family.

He grew up in a place filled with stories of addiction, abuse, mental illness, imprisonment, trauma, extreme poverty, broken families and death.  Most astonishing are the many ways systems reinforce these stories rather than ameliorate them.

Formative experiences like Vance’s very rarely lead to Yale Law or even a community college diploma.  On the day he was born, the odds favored addiction, mental illness, jail or dying young.

Despite all contrary forces pushing against him, he beat the odds.  How does that happen? How can we make it happen more often?

Vance explicitly points to influences intervening at crucial moments.  His grandmother (Mamaw) providing a safe place from his addict mother.  Teachers, professors, neighbors and other community members who saw his potential and wanted to do what they could.  

I suspect if we delved deeper into his story and explored it from various perspectives, we would uncover less obvious insights.  For example, when Vance graduated high school, he began the process of applying for college but realized he wasn’t ready and joined the Marines instead.   Where does he get the self-awareness at 18 years old to know he wasn’t ready for college and needed the lessons the Marines could teach him?

If you choose to read the book, I encourage you to keep a mental tally of the two things; the number of systems his story encounters and the number of times you find yourself chuckling at the way Mamaw dispenses her wisdom.

Etmanski: Advocate with Empathy

When people ask what it is like to work in government I get them to imagine all the work for all parts of government as a giant slow-moving stream.   Since the stream is moving so slowly, it takes deliberate choice to expend the effort to actually get anywhere.   95% of government employees are happy to bob along like driftwood at the whims of the stream.  The other 5% are problem-solvers in boats trying to make a difference by paddling.  Inevitably though, the boats reach a place where the driftwood has clogged the stream and the paddlers must decide whether to work through it or bail out for the shore.

After reading Etmanski’s Advocate for Empathy, I realize my analogy isn’t entirely fair because it leaves out one important group.  There are some pieces of driftwood, tired of bending to the will of the stream, that want to climb into the boats to paddle.

But climbing into the boat means accepting three realities.  First, we can’t change the pace of the steam.  It is so cluttered with competing requests that it can be difficult to tell which direction the stream is flowing.  Second, we can’t change the technology of boats and paddles.  Even though voters expect government to move more rapidly by utilizing motors and GPS, they don’t want to pay for it.  Third, everyone can see you’re paddling effort from the shore and offer their critiques and condemnations.

The result is an intensely risk-averse environment rife with fear, stifling opportunities for innovation, change and impact.

Despite this, people want to paddle, so how do we help them into the boats?  

Etmanski points to Solution-Based Advocacy which focuses on solutions over criticisms and improving the ability of government to make better decisions.  It means acknowledging we are all in the same boat, government included, so we may as well learn paddling techniques from each other.

Five Characteristics of Solution Based Advocacy

  • Searching for a Heart of Gold” – Taking the time to look beyond what our political leaders do, to learn about who they are.
  • Using Strategic Inquiry” – Aligning your agenda with the government agenda by “…discovering the priorities, language and tools of the group you are trying to convince…” (p.116)
  • Cultivating a Network of Champions” – Although we think one champion is great, it just isn’t enough.
  • Solving Problems Together” – Shifting government from the role of parent to partner.
  • Doing it Themselves” – Regardless of how amazing the idea is, there will always be opposing interests being considered decision-makers.  Forging ahead without them can create the space they need to champion your idea and your success in the face of opposition.

Are you a paddler or are you driftwood?


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.

Etmanski: Mobilize Your Economic Power

Etmanski’s first three Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation have been comfortable to comprehend.  Think and Act Like a Movement, Create a Container for Your Content, Set the Table for Allies, Adversaries are not easy but they make sense.

The fourth pattern, Mobilize Your Economic Power, is not so easy.  It means having conversations about assets, profits, liabilities, customers, marketing strategy and cash flows.  Notice words like funding, grants, beneficiaries and outcomes do not appear.

It makes me a bit squeamish because mobilizing economic power requires the not-for-profit organization to participate in the markets creating many of the injustices it is trying to correct.  I have a natural visceral reaction against the idea.  How can we talk about assets in one meeting and the suffering of people in the next?

It seems wrong.

However, after setting aside my discomfort, I realize Etmanski is encouraging me to uncover new possibilities for systemic impact.  Identifying economic power gives me access to more levers to alleviate or eliminate the suffering of people I serve.  Most importantly, can I really say I am serving people well if I’m not accessing all the avenues open to me just because it makes me squeamish?

What would change about the way you do your work if your organization was presented with a check for $10 million?

Likely your organization would shift mindsets from “scarcity to abundance” and from “victim to agent”.  Etmanski believes we shouldn’t wait for the check.  Find our economic leverage points and use them to become an independent fearless agent for change.

Five Ways to Mobilize Your Economic Power

Admittedly, I became a bit foul as I read through these.  They seem impractical and inaccessible until I read it from the perspective of a person seeking to move an idea from the local context to the mainstream.

  • Influencing the Operational Practice of Business” – really this is about disrupting the way it has always been done.  Etmanski uses an example of the environmental activist shifting her attention from blocking logging trucks to developing a process for recycling paper so the publishing industry would no longer use virgin forest products.  She blocked the logging trucks using the market instead of her body.
  • Commercializing Intellectual Property” – Take stock of your intellectual property and see how it might generate revenue for your beneficiaries/clients.  Charge market value for it!
  • Nurturing a Sharing Economy” – Besides the conventional market, not-for-profits are uniquely positioned to tap into the world of swapping, bartering, and lending.
  • Purchasing Locally” – Buying your office supplies from Walmart might be cheaper, but much of profits associated with that transaction are siphoned out of the community.  Buying your office supplies from a local business increases the likelihood that profits will be recycled into the local community.
  • Starting a Social-Purpose Business” – Becoming an entrepreneur by forming a business that focusses on financial return and social impact.


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.

Etmanski: Set the Table for Allies, Adversaries and Strangers

Have you ever been asked to participate on a committee or in a community meeting and left wondering why were invited?  A situation in which the conversation was swirling around you but you never quite knew how to contribute to it?

Looking back to the occasions in which this was the case for me, I realize the people calling the meeting (conveners) had a broad range of reasons for inviting people (job titles, organizations, to not hurt feelings, to get things done, to access resources, for expertise, to make new connections, because they were told to, and so on).  All of which are valid reasons but it was unclear why I had been invited so I contributed little.

As a convener, we need to be deliberate and thoughtful about the people we invite and the environment in which they gather.  Remember, to have the idea picked up by the mainstream, means inviting supporters, opponents and others beyond the immediate context.  Everyone needs to feel welcome and to be assured that their contributions will be valuable and important.


Four Characteristics of Effective Convening

To avoid the gathering in which a few people speak and nothing is ultimately accomplished, take a minute to run through the questions below.

  • Civility” – Has the group crafted (agreed upon) ground rules of conduct by which they can respectfully, openly, and safely contribute?
  • Personal Agency” – As the convener, have you encouraged the best from all participants?  Have you given each participant an opportunity to shine, show their strengths and lead in their own way?
  • Hospitality” – As the convener, are you able to articulate the importance of each participant’s contribution and made them feel like they belong?
  • Curiosity” – As a convener, have you created a group culture in which uncertainty leads to inquiry and eventually new answers?


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.

Etmanski: Create a Container for Your Content

Being on the Board of Skills Society, I find myself wondering how we might get our message beyond our immediate community of supporters.  A common problem confronting most not-for-profit originations.


How do we get people to care about something that doesn’t really matter to them?


 There are lots of strategies.  The Elevator Pitch.  The One-Pager.  The Brand Message.  The Narrative.  Social Media Strategies.  Flashy Brochures.  All of these are effective to a certain point.  However,  how can the message a person hears be converted into an action they take?


For Etmanski, “Presenting the right content in the right container makes it easier for people to do the right thing” (p.64).   For impact beyond the local context, the message needs to inspire people beyond your community of supporters to  contribute to the million small acts of the movement.


5 Characteristics of Effective Containers

I crafted questions to  help you evaluate your message and its ability to reach beyond your community of supporters.

  • They are playful and fun.” – Does your message make people feel good?
  • They are non-judgmental” – Does your message blame or guilt the people you are trying to reach?
  • They ignite our imaginations” – Does your message inspire people to think about what is possible?
  • They personalize the abstract” – Does your message articulate how the issue is connected to the people you are trying to reach?
  • They tell a story” – Does your message have characters and a plot?


After running your message through Etmanski’s tips, I would encourage you to ask yourself one more question; does your message still have the ring of authenticity or does it feel contrived?


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.