Over the past year, it has been a great pleasure to work with KFLA in planning the Alliance’s 2011 conference on civic engagement, with the theme of leadership for the common good.
This effort has involved reflection on the theory and practice of social change, prompting me to think hard about my experiences developing community leaders and social entrepreneurs over the past fifteen years, primarily through the organization I founded in Pennsylvania in 1995, the Institute for Leadership Education, also known as “I-LEAD.” My work has involved teaching, curriculum development, and consulting in a range of initiatives involving education reform, workforce and economic development, neighborhood safety and public health initiatives. These efforts have gone hand in hand with practical work required in public and private sector initiatives, and in founding, developing and leading a nonprofit organization. Of course, ongoing contact with the real world enriches teaching. How important to know what it is like to actually do something as well as to talk about it! Knowledge that lacks grounding in experience is about as useful as reading a book to learn how to ride a bike.
We have stepped back from daily initiatives in order to think about the big picture: What have we learned? What is required for the important work of social change? What succeeds and what fails? Why?
My contention today is that effective social innovation and civic engagement depend initially upon framing the right questions as we approach our daily work. Further below, I am going to suggest three very specific framing questions.
In order to create a vivid contrast, however, I would like at first to describe three highly dysfunctional questions. Think of these as counterexamples, almost doppelgangers of the right questions. For those not steeped in German words invited into English, a doppelganger is sort of like the ghostly, evil twin of a person, a dark, anti-matter alternative to the living!
Unfortunately, people generally use these dysfunctional “anti-matter” questions to orient themselves within groups, at work, in relationships, in society at large, and even within the framework of their entire lives.
So, beginning with the questions from the dark side:
- First, what is wrong, and how did it get so wrong?
- Second, who is to blame, and how can they be stopped or punished or “held accountable”?
- Third, how do we prevent things from going wrong in the future?
If you find your mind and heart filled with these unfortunate questions, my advice to you is this: start over. These questions and their cousins generally lead the seeker into a dark psychological state filled with feelings of unhappiness, depression, anger, frustration, revenge and fear.
Nevertheless, these dysfunctional questions animate vast amounts of strategic thinking in our society. Turn on cable news, pick up a newspaper, watch Congress. Most of what you hear and read will be oriented with reference to these questions and these emotions.
As one example among literally thousands, consider the media’s coverage of the oil spill in the gulf in recent months. Our 24-hour news cycle has been devoted to recrimination, blame and wonder at the evil human beings who have caused the downfall of humanity and nature, and also to imagining all the terrible results of the catastrophe. What a world! The circle of bad guys gets bigger every day, as does the increasing legions of pretentious finger-pointers. “We knew better. Why can’t these dummies fix this problem?” So they say.
Lately, it has become fashionable to blame the President. Why can’t Obama swim under the Gulf of Mexico and stick a cork in the hole? After all, he is the leader of the free world. Barack, would you clean up this mess please? And make it snappy! It is so easy for us to address global catastrophes as we watch cable TV or read the newspaper while reclining in a big easy chair with a comforting cup of coffee.
The same pattern emerges in every domain of our existence: finance, health care, the economy, education and so on.
- Find something very bad.
- Focus on it intensely.
- Call out the scoundrels who made it happen.
- Talk endlessly about how to prevent its recurrence.
Not to say that this general negative focus, along with the media coverage it generates, and the dark emotions it produces, aren’t justified. Of course they are. The allure of the dysfunctional trinity is that an overall negative posture toward the world is entirely warranted. Orient yourself around these questions and you will find yourself falling into outrage directed against all of reality. Justified outrage. After all, the world contains no end of situations to bemoan. And if you should grow weary thinking about the past evils of the universe, there are always the present and future evils to consider. If you work just a little at this (not much effort required) you will turn your daily reality into the ultimate fear channel. Free horror movies, 24/7/52!
What is the better way forward? What alternative questions should displace these wrongheaded ones?
I submit that people who change the world have very different inquiries in mind at the start. Here are three specific questions at the forefront of effective social change movements:
1. What are we working together to create?
If, instead of seeking to know what is wrong, we start with the question of what we are trying to create together, we take up the critical inquiry about our shared vision for the future. Asking this question releases significant positive energy leading to very different outcomes than the question about what has gone wrong and how it became so. Here is the key insight entailed in this alternative question: understanding how things went wrong, and even fixing what is wrong, often fails to bring about what we truly want to create. For example, when we think about international energy, we may realize that we want to create sustainable, green power sources. Now, fixing the gulf oil spill and preventing another such spill is certainly important, but it won’t create sustainable green energy, will it?
Turning to a personal example, many Americans look at their health status and identify problems like losing weight, lowering high blood pressure, and eliminating painful symptoms such as indigestion and headaches (the annual world market for painkillers is expected to reach 35 billion by 2015!). But how would the quest for personal health change if we were to ask different questions: What kind of a life are we trying to create? What kind of life do we want to experience? What do we want for our energy levels and our sense of well-being? Asking what we want to create leads to a remarkably different set of behaviors than asking what to eliminate or what is wrong. Giving up cigarettes and drugs does not necessarily create optimal health. Especially if we replace them with chocolate bars and video games!
Answering this specific question about our shared creative vision is not easy. But the answers may fill us with hope and energy about the possibilities for positive change.
2. Working together, what can we do right now to start creating what we want?
How would the world change if, instead of asking who is to blame (and how to punish them), we were to ask what we each can do, concretely, right now, to move forward?
When we look for scapegoats, we work to externalize responsibility. Those searching for the guilty usually do not look in the mirror, because they remain remarkably certain of their own innocence. It is comforting to think that one bears no responsibility for the problems in the world. It is reassuring to believe that the world’s evils were all caused by others, and that our job should simply be to point this out, so that the evildoers can be locked up and compelled to pay for their crimes.
But here is the insight embedded in the second proposed question: finding the persons who caused the problems generally does not create any solutions. The processes of crime and punishment are necessary for the effective functioning of society, but alone, they do not bring about positive social change. Reform does not equal innovation. The wellsprings of human progress are generally not responses to the failed strategies of the past.
There are so many examples of this in history. We did not invent modern transportation systems because walking is broken. Electric power is not a fix for a failure of human metabolism. We did not create the Internet as a solution to a broken phone system. Innovation does not fix the world, it results when humanity strives to create something far beyond the world that exists. Progress inheres in our ultimate desire to transform human systems in ways that vastly exceed and completely reframe the problems and shortcomings of present realities. Transformational social change does not eliminate problems, it creates new and better problems.
When we focus intensely on seeking wrongdoers, on allocating blame, we fall back into old ways of thinking. As Einstein said so succinctly, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” If all we do is punish the guilty, then we will have simply guaranteed their return wearing new costumes.
On the other hand, when we ask “What can we each do, right now?” we discover resources we did not know about, and unleash the energy required for positive transformation.
3. What will be the shared measure of our success?
When we think together about how to measure success meaningfully, this inquiry grounds us in reality and helps us navigate as the world around us changes. This inquiry points us toward not only achieving our gains, but also building upon them.
In contrast, the effort to organize human society around the prevention of future evils exposes a third critical insight: success does not arise from avoiding failure. On the contrary, success often results from a daily assault upon failure, a commitment to endure defeat until one finally gets it right. Unfortunately, the effort to avoid problems often creates a culture of fear and paranoia in which no one takes action for fear of facing blame when things go wrong, as they inevitably do.
If we focus on achieving success, and let go of avoiding failure, we can tolerate many mistakes and false steps on the pathway to our destination, and as a result, find our path more surely and swiftly.
To see the differences in approach, think, for example, about national security. If we orient our approach around the idea of preventing acts of terrorism, this leads to the growth of security, police and military responses to terrorists. What has been the opportunity cost to human productivity of this approach? And as we have seen over the past decade, the effort to police and fight our way to national security may perversely reinforce terrorist opposition. While we have prevented a major incident of terrorism in the United States, the war on terror has served as a massively expensive factory of terror and terrorists around the globe.
But if we ask different questions‒what are we trying to create, what can we do now, and how do we measure success‒we may define progress in radically different terms, in terms of promoting positive international relations and strengthening the forces of moderation, diplomacy and peace.
At a personal level, we could think about health from the perspective of avoiding illnesses. This might lead us to an expensive, ongoing regimen of invasive disease tests and screenings. But if we think about measuring health in reference to what we want to create and what we can do proactively, then we might find ourselves exercising, eating and sleeping well, having fun, and generally enjoying the process of living instead of embarking upon a paranoid flight from disease.
There may will be a temptation to look at these questions and to ask, “Isn’t this just about words?” Is there really a difference between asking what we want to avoid and asking what we want to accomplish?
The answer is yes, and yes. It is about words. But in this case, words matter enormously. Of course they do. Words are ideas. Different ideas lead to radically different ways of thinking, choosing and being in the world.
But don’t take my word for it. Conduct an experiment in your life, in your intimate relationships, in your social circles, in your organizations, and in thinking about national policies. Try starting from a different place.
Move beyond what’s wrong, and ask instead, “what are we trying to create together?”
Move beyond who is to blame, and ask instead, “what can we each do, concretely, right now, together?”
Move beyond preventing evils, and ask instead, “what will be our shared measure of success?”
Watch the road fork. Find yourself going to a better place, on a faster path, with a brighter smile on your face.