Leadership for Large-Scale Social Change

A lot of the organizational and school leadership literature I read starts out with the premise that we live in an increasingly complex world, and that the degree of complexity is increasing exponentially.  In other words, the future is a bully who is coming to steal your lunch.

That’s why when I saw the workshop title “Unleashing Large-Scale Social Change” at this week’s Carnegie Summit, I immediately registered.  The session was led by Becky Margiotta and Joe McCannon from the Billions Institute.  I was drawn to the audacious belief that as individuals and organizations, we can influence and shape aspects of the increasingly complex world we all live in.  Perhaps we can even be strategic about how we shape our broader environment.

So, here are 3 major takeaways from my learning today about how to unleash large-scale social change.

Get out of your sector 

Most of us like to talk to people who think like we do.  When we are talking with likeminded professionals whose expertise is similar to ours, we often default to communication shorthand that draws on shared heuristics and  jargon.  It feels good to speak the language.  It feels efficient and reinforces our own sense of expertise and belonging.

That all comes to a screeching halt when you add people to the conversation who don’t necessarily speak your language.  It slows down communication and forces you to explain yourself.  It lends itself to a fresh reflection on your work.

One of the welcome surprises in my session today was the opportunity to interact and learn from non K-12 educators and administrators.  At one point we engaged in a problem solving activity where we formed small groups to give us feedback on challenges we’re facing in moving our work forward.  My small group had a researcher from a for-profit organization, a higher education administrator, and an HR director from a philanthropic foundation.  The group’s collective feedback was insightful and sometimes surprising.

Large scale social change, by definition, engages broader groups and coalitions of people.  We are hoping to connect and impact people whose worldview and expertise don’t match our own.  That suggests we assemble diverse, multidisciplinary teams and embrace the opportunity for our ideas to be analyzed, contested, and refined.

Change happens in the field

 Stop perseverating on planning.  Stop strategizing all day.  Get in the field and test your ideas.  Creating a culture of change and improvement happens when leadership adopts an obsession with what is happening in the field.  Then lead from the field.  It’s Seth Godin’s invitation to “ship it.”  It’s Nike’s invocation to “just do it.”

One of the most powerful ideas that struck me hard was something I already knew. Improvement happens when you are out there doing the work, collecting data about the work you are doing, reflecting on that data, and iterating towards the final goal.  It’s the cycle of inquiry.  It’s improvement science 101.

Being in the field can speed up our iteration cycle.  We’re there when the work is happening.  We’re there with the practitioners.  When the cycle has to filter back through a dense bureaucracy – organizational hierarchies, governing boards, standing committees – it slows down.

Instead of sitting back, receiving reports and making judgements about the work, we should be where the work is happening – identifying, documenting, and celebrating success stories.  Large scale change is unleashed when the potential for success becomes tangible.

Losing Control

So much of the conversation today can be distilled down to one word.  Fear.  Fear of public failure.  Fear of disappointing people we care about.  Perhaps the most pernicious fear we discussed was the fear of losing control.  Bureaucracies are designed to exercise control – we want to maintain our aura of expertise, minimize liability, and guarantee outcomes.

There’s a problem, however.  To keep up with the broader demands of our shifting world, we have to do things we don’t yet know how to do.  That means we would have to acknowledge that our expertise is limited.  We would have to risk trying new things, and we wouldn’t know for certain if we’d get it right.  We have to learn.

The challenge gets even more acute when we are trying to move from organizational responses to external stimuli, to an organization trying to shape the external context.   Our risk of losing control goes up as more stakeholders engage the issue.  Public failure is now a strong possibility.  So we back off.  We decide it’s better to play it safe.

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