The world is facing some serious strategic problems—such as climate change, persistent poverty and inequality, the failure of financial systems, environmental degradation, the impeding exhaustion of cheap minerals and oil and so on. We all agree that we need to take urgent action to solve these problems. Most of us will naturally assume that it is the job of our elected politicians and governments to solve such complex and global problems. Surely the task is too large and too difficult for anybody other than government to undertake? Unfortunately the recent track record of government-led initiatives should not fill us with confidence that the task can be accomplished through public policy alone.
As a business school academic, I have often marvelled at the power of human creativity and entrepreneurship in the business sector to create enormous value and improve our world. I see no reason why the same ingenuity cannot be applied to social problems and I see no reason why the same individual passion, drive and entrepreneurship cannot be channelled to solving social problems. The question, therefore, that we must address is: “how can normal, ordinary people—folks like you and me—change complex and entrenched systems (such as the education system or the health care system) in ways that solve (or at least improve) some of the big problems plaguing our society?”
To begin to answer this question, I believe we need to consider that social problems differ from other kinds of problems in three subtle ways. These differences make them unique. As a result, they require a different change process from what we normally advise people on.
- First, social problems tend to be complex beasts. They are the natural outcomes of entrenched systems that are made up of numerous interdependent actors, all behaving according to their own interests. These systems have developed over long periods of time and are not only firmly ingrained in our cultures but also protected by strong vested interests. Changing them is next to impossible. Therefore, unlike books on change that emphasize the total overhaul of the status quo with something new, the change process required to solve social problems must accept the fact that these systems are here to stay and must therefore attempt to achieve significant improvements in how people behave within the constraints of the existing system. The goal is not to overthrow the existing system but to achieve significant change in behaviors within the existing system. This is not easy! It is a delicate task, requiring that we focus our change efforts on high-leverage points in the underlying structure of the system and pushing for holistic changes without producing unintended consequences.
- Second, given the complex nature of social problems, it is highly unlikely that a single individual will be able to change social systems singlehandedly. God-like creatures able to achieve such a feat do not exist! Nor is it logical to expect that these systems can be changed in a centrally-planned, top-down process. The fate of the Soviet Union should be a warning to all! The systems that give rise to big social problems require a different change process—not a top-down process driven by one heroic individual but a bottoms-up, decentralized process, driven by hundreds of individuals. In such a process, rather than push change through, the change agent ought to put a system in place that pulls multiple change-agents into the fray. Through constant experimentation (within parameters developed by the change agent), deep change is brought about not by a single agent but by multiple agents. In short, social problems require a change process that replicates how the capitalist system operates (as opposed to the communist system). This is a fundamentally different change process from the one described in most books on change.
- Third, social problems are global in nature. This implies that local solutions are not enough to achieve a significant improvement in a social problem. Unlike change at the company level that has the luxury to remain local, change in social problems must be scaled up if it’s to have a big enough impact. This doesn’t happen automatically. Just because an idea is good doesn’t mean that it will spread or diffuse on its own. The sad truth is that even the best of ideas will not diffuse and scale up unless someone undertakes the difficult task of scaling-up the idea. Once again, the management literature has developed many ideas on how to scale up innovative ideas. We need to use these insights to help scale up existing innovative solutions to social problems.
All this sounds difficult—and it is. But the technologies of the social era have made it easier for us to mobilize thousands (if not millions) of people towards a common cause or goal and coordinate the efforts of thousands of such independent agents towards achieving the common goal without the need to put them in a hierarchy. The time has come to put it all together and act.