Effecting Change: How Much Do We Really Know?

by Scott London

Some years ago, I was asked by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change to prepare a review of the literature on how change happens and how to make it happen. As I began mapping the literature in the field, I was staggered by the sheer volume of writing on a subject we actually know very little about.

As one might expect, much of what’s been published on the subject falls under the banner of management theory. It’s not surprising, perhaps, given that organizations live and die based on how well they navigate the rapids of change. There was also a good deal of research on the fascinating topic of social and cultural change.

But I was puzzled to learn that very little has been written about personal change. How do individuals grow, develop, and renew themselves? Books on psychology, personal development, and even spirituality deal with the subject at some depth, yes. But not that many address the important link between how individuals change and how that in turn affects organizations, communities, and larger social systems.

As we know, large-scale change happens one person at a time. Or does it? I’m not so sure. 

Early in my research I hit on the work of management consultant Margaret Wheatley. In her endlessly thought-provoking 1992 book, Leadership and the New Science, she observed that, consciously or not, organizations tend to model themselves on Isaac Newton’s 17th-century depiction of the universe as a giant machine in which the parts move and pull one another in predictable and immutable ways. The assumptions of mechanistic science still prevail today, she said, despite the fact that quantum physics, systems theory, and the mathematics of chaos have rendered many of its principles obsolete.

A typical example of this is the fact that by and large leaders manage by separating things into parts. They believe that influence occurs as a direct result of force exerted from one person to another. They engage in complex planning for a world they assume to be predictable. And they continually search for better methods of objectively perceiving and measuring the world. But each of these approaches stems from the outdated assumptions of mechanistic science.

According to Wheatley, tomorrow’s leaders need to draw wisdom from the new sciences which offer fresh perspectives on age-old management issues like control, structure, participation, planning, and prediction. For example, quantum physics teaches that the atom is made up not of solid billiard balls, as the old models suggest, but of electrons, photons, and mesons that sometimes act like particles and sometimes like waves. Thus, at the quantum level, absolute prediction and uniformity are impossible. What is possible to ascertain, however, are patterns, or potentialities. In chaos theory, these are called “fractals” — simple mathematical formulas that repeat and repeat on themselves to create infinite diversity.

Similarly, systems theory — an interdisciplinary field aimed at understanding dynamic, living systems — shows that complex structures have the capacity to self-organize. As Wheatley pointed out, the idea that order arises spontaneously, rather than through direction and control, points to different kind of universe than the one described by Newton and his contemporaries. “Not the fragile, fragmented world we attempt to hold together, but a universe rich in processes that support growth and coherence, individuality and community.”

I sat down with Wheatley and explored some of these topics. She told me that she and her fellow management consultants would sometimes confess to one another that they didn’t really know how to effect lasting change. It was still something of a mystery to them — even though they made their living trying to help leaders bring it about in organizations and communities.

Recently, Wheatley has been exploring another concept with rich implications for those of us who care about effecting large-scale change. She calls it “emergence.” Emergence is the process by which “separate, local efforts connect and strengthen their interactions and interdependencies. What emerges as these become stronger is a system of influence, a powerful cultural shift that then greatly influences behaviors and defines accepted practices.”

Wheatley challenges the simplistic notion that change happens one person at a time. The principle of emergence shows that broad changes in an organization or among a large group of people requires that there be networks of influence and communities of practice.

But this idea still side-steps what I take to be the fundamental question at the core of all efforts to create change: Are people willing to change in the first place? Are they prepared to be open to new inputs, insights and understandings? Are they open to being changed in the process of creating change? (Marshall Goldsmith offers his take on this question here.) This is the issue, I believe, that lies at the heart of whether change efforts thrive or wilt. And it’s a topic I will be exploring further in this space in weeks and months to come.

Read more: