Creating Good Work—The World’s Leading Social Entrepreneurs Show How to Build a Healthy Economy had a rousing launch in February at the annual AshokaU (University) Exchange, held in San Diego, CA. The event, bursting with youthful exuberance, brilliance and amazing social entrepreneurial efforts, was a testament to the growth, vitality and emergence of this industry. 650 students, faculty, administrators and other social innovators, from all over the globe, were witness to a vibrant display of creating good.
This gathering was all about making change, as Ashoka’s Changemaker branding heralded at every opportunity. And change is what inspires, motivates, and drives students and longtime social entrepreneurial practitioners, alike. However, if you are going to affect change, I would think that one would want to be an expert in change; in what that meant, in all its permutations, manifestations, and consequences. Unless and until we are dedicated to this expertise, transforming it from a desire, wanting to make things different, to an effective and meaningful action-based strategy that actually changes something for the better, our efforts will come and go like the passing months.
Change is first very personal. It begins where we are. Me looking at Myself and recognizing that I could be more effective. Craig Dunn describes this in Creating Good Work as “deliberate disruptive design.” Nothing is sacred, especially the social entrepreneur. This is what social entrepreneurship is all about—deliberate disruptive design. But before any outside shift can be implemented it behooves the social innovator to thoroughly examine herself or himself closely, to see what they aren’t willing to change. What obstacles keep them from changing? Without that thorough comprehension of what keeps them from moving differently, there should be no expectation of shifting others and little or no chance of creating lasting change. To make this kind of assessment requires a means or methodology and the time necessary for this reflexive initiative.
But this first and primary step in the change process is often overlooked or ignored when the necessary change is urgent. It just doesn’t seem like there is enough time for self-reflexive attitudes. We must act to help them. There has been a long history and pervading perspective within the social innovation and NGO worlds of “Us” helping “Them.” Change is not about us changing them, but us modeling the behavior we want others to emulate. And ultimately it is about Us helping Us.
When I tried to explain this to a group of rather over-privileged undergraduates from a university steeped in a long tradition of “Us Helping Them” they had no idea what I was saying. Then, I put them together with a group of homeless people in a local shelter who were trying to pull themselves out of their predicament by starting small businesses. After working together for about ten weeks, the greatest transformations actually took place in the students. Even though they could return to their cushy lives at the end of each working session, they still understood, the folks they were working with were not “them,” but just other people for whom they now cared deeply.
In becoming an expert on change, our ability to allow ourselves to accept change in others, however it shows up, is another essential aspect. The notion that making change for others is about them changing as I want them to change, doesn’t always work so well. We saw that in some of the outcomes of what has been called, “Arab Spring.” They had the opportunity to change, but they didn’t change the way we wanted, so it must have been a failed change. There was no question: they made change happen. But our inability to allow others to change how they see fit means that making change is not always as neat as we plan. And by extension, we must also take into consideration the consequences of the change we make happen. Wanting lives to be better for others, may not mean the same for everyone involved.
This does not mean that we stop trying to affect change, but rather, if we are so moved to act in this fashion, we must understand, with our eyes wide open, the dynamics of the changes we wish to unleash.
And while there are countless other elements at work within the change process, we have to take into account the ability of whatever system we are operating in to accommodate change. Every system has a boundary within which it operates and organizes. If that boundary experiences a sudden change it can’t withstand, it bursts, and we are left with a rather chaotic situation. The economic collapse that burst through our system barriers in 2008 is an excellent example of a system in which the resilience of the boundary could not accommodate the massive change that was perpetrated. It’s true that we sometimes have to blow up the old system to affect the changes we want, but in doing so we have to understand that there are consequences to that kind of radical change. Chaos is not an evil phase. It is neither good nor bad. It can cause calamity or it can offer an opportunity to create a new boundary in which things can organize, freshly, unencumbered by past mistakes. Again, change of this magnitude must be understood before enacting it.
“Making change” happens whether we want it to or not. If we want it to be change we want, we must begin with our very own selves. In the book, Creating Good Work, I open my chapter on change with a fairly recent story: The Dalai Lama walks up to a hot dog vendor and says, “Make me one with everything.” The hot dog vendor hands him his hot dog and says, “That will be $2.65.” The Dalai Lama gives him three dollars. The vendor puts the money in his pocket and goes back to stirring his onions. The Dalai Lama says, “Excuse me, sir, but what about my change?” The hot dog vendor looks up and says, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you knew—change comes from within.”