Category: Change Theory- Translated

Emily is incredibly fortunate to occasionally contribute her stories and thoughts to the Lift Blog maintained by some management and leadership experts she deeply admires, Bob and Ryan Quinn from the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, respectively. This father/son pair wrote a book entitled “Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation” that inspires the blog. This week, Ryan posted a blog that started to analyze an experience Emily had while trying to progress efforts for large scale environmental education and engagement. Ryan takes a first pass at understanding whether or not it matters if people believe in climate change… in this conversation and analysis- maybe it doesn’t.

Click here for the story/ analysis

A good friend of mine recently emailed me his retelling of a story he heard elsewhere. Here is what he wrote:

…The father was a decorated WWII Air Force veteran whose bomber went down. Everyone on the plane lived, however. The son asked his father “what were the men on the plane doing as it fell?” and the father responded, “bellyaching and crying.” The son said he could understand doing that, but then asked “What were you doing?” To which the father replied, “FIXING THE PROBLEM. Crying never fixed a goddamn thing.”

(Pardon the language.)

I read this story the first time, snickered a little, and hastily filed it somewhere in my brain with all of the other snicker-worthy quips from feisty curmudgeons. Somehow my brain revisited and realized that the father/veteran in this story was far more than snicker-worthy. Behind the abrasive tone, there is content worth considering, deeply in fact. What could I learn from him the veteran as an advocate for sustainability and student of positive organizational scholarship?

Given that this is all I know of the story, please forgive (and hopefully enjoy) the assumptions, creative license, and inference I make about the context. View Full Article »

Theory U

From the executive summary of the book found on the website: “We live in a time of massive institutional failure, collectively creating results that nobody wants. Climate change. AIDS. Hunger. Poverty. Violence. Terrorism. Destruction of communities, nature, life — the foundations of our social, economic, ecological, and spiritual well being. This time calls for a new consciousness and a new collective leadership capacity to meet challenges in a more conscious, intentional, and strategic way. The development of such a capacity would allow us to create a future of greater possibilities.”

An important part of changing the world is changing what we see and pay attention to…

To answer the questions above (an interpretation of Daniel Pink’s concepts): It matters if the desired behavior is mechanical or requiring high-level cognitive processing . It matters whether the person whose behavior you’d like to change makes above a threshold range of income. Watch this beautiful video and think twice about the oft tried intervention of incentives to encourage innovation or complex problem solving in organizations

For Small Infinities (self-proclaimed change agents): Perhaps you watch this video and find that it is speaking your truth. “Duh.” You’ll say/think. Of course I am motivated by so much more than money. But isn’t it empowering to think that you are not the only one wired this way? What if you look at people around you as similarly motivated?  How do you create the context that helps them find meaning?

Watch a short video whereby Dr. Frankl applies aviation lessons to our understanding of human nature. Prepare for drift by aiming high.

Rachel and I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment to learn to change the world. We each partnered our MS from SNRE with a masters degree from another school. Emily- Ross School of Business and Rachel- School of Public Health. Along the way we learned a lot about organizational theory and behavior change and reasonable people as presented in SNRE, Public Health or B-school. In this marvelous mess of learning we also realized that there are many ways to describe the process of world-changing. Some are easier to visualize, more helpful, than others.

The one that stuck with us came from an article we read in NRE 580 as offered in winter ’08. Good thing this article came the first day of class, because we actually read it. The article, “From Complex Regions to Complex Worlds” was written by C.S. Hollings. It depicted change as an infinity symbol – things start at a low point, gradually building up to an apex, only to flip or crash to a new low point… over and over again. But it also showed change happening on several scales – a HUGE infinity symbol, where things move slowly, representing global institutions; a medium-sized one for smaller institutions like universities and local governments, and the smallest infinity representing small groups in which major change can happen literally overnight. And these levels interact- when the big infinity flips, change cascades down to the lower levels… and when the smallest infinity moves, it propels upper-level change.

If you decouple the theory from institutions, you can see the analogs everywhere on an individual scale: individual–> friend group–> organization or daughter–> parents–> extended family and so on.

The image was so sticky because it actually captured the flow of change and the relationship between slow moving, large scale and fast moving, small scale institutions. As society presses on toward a sustainable future, it needs fast moving change agents at the small scale, and slower moving (careful) change agents at the global scale – and each must be learning from and reacting to the other.

Taking this to a personal level, it made clear and less contentious the conversations about “What is most important to do” between environmental activists who are more policy-oriented and those who are align more with small-scale local initiatives. Neither of them are right or wrong in assessing which path to sustainability is deserving of their passion. So instead of quibbling about what is more important – Copenhagen agreements or farmers markets- we know the answer is neither, both are changing the world in the same direction. Another possible framing: even the passage of a federal policy is the collective result of trillions of personal communicative acts. Government Policies are talked into existence and passage, at all scales.

But how do politicians tend to talk about environmental problems? Is this self-empowered “all hands on deck” framing prevalent? How does the media talk about it? What psychological effect does the framing as either “enormous problem for the government” or “enormous problem for all of us”” have on us, the self- proclaimed change agents? The Small Infinity Project’s hunch is this: (the television?) talks about social and environmental problems on a large scale without mention of the small-medium-large scale connections, and individuals end up feeling overwhelmed by uncertainty, detached from action, helpless to the threat, and borderline depressed.

WE find power in knowing that big social problems are always addressed on a human scale. Although, from one person’s perspective that is hard to see. On the smallest infinity scale, courage and faith often have to dance with uncertainty. The path between small and huge infinity symbols is not clear from this scale nor will it ever be. You have to carve the path as you walk on it, guided by the well founded hope that what you do does make a difference.

So we started the Small Infinity Project to offer a hopeful reframing of social problems and to document the actions we and our friends, neighbors, and colleagues are taking. We make ripples, influence others, and propel our world into the hopeful future we want to see. Welcome to the Small Infinities. Talking, acting, and sharing our way to a sustainable future.


The Small Infinity

By Rachel Chadderdon and Emily Plews

Delivered as a commencement address to the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment graduating class of 2010

May 1, 2010

Faculty, friends, families, and my fellow students,

In the years that we’ve been in graduate school, our world has seen some incredible changes.  We have witnessed an international summit addressing climate change, the award of a Nobel Prize to the woman who demystified the tragedy of the commons, and the historic election of a man who believes in science to the office of President of the United States.  But we’ve also seen atmospheric carbon dioxide reach the dangerous level of 390 parts per million, global economic recession, and several terrifying and saddening disasters in the process of mining fossil fuels.

We’ve been in school this whole time, learning (we presume) how to save the world.  But the enormity of the challenges we face in our climate, culture, and economy can be overwhelming.  So today, as we leave the theoretical safety of SNRE, I want to offer some simple words from someone who writes many words that I like – Michael Pollan.  (NO, I don’t mean “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” – though that’s good advice, too).  But equally simply, in a NY Times Op-ed from October of 2008 entitled “Why Bother?”, Pollan stated, “Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will.”  I like to remember these words when uncertainty overwhelms me, and when the unmeasurable challenges of how to create a sustainable society or even just how to define the word “sustainable”, seems like too much of a wicked problem to handle.

“Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will.”

We graduate today with the best possible skill sets for acting in the face of these unknowables:  We can model incredibly complex systems with elegant mathematics, calculating eigenvalues and eigenvectors to describe and manage populations of wild species (these words will forever remain in my memory though their meanings may not).

We can carefully map the equally complex relationships and forces that surround policy decisions, so that we might have the best chance at progress.

We know how to use the tools of economics for good, not evil.  And we know how to measure and manipulate human behavior to turn ourselves and our fellow citizens into better stewards of the planet.

We can compare the environmental impacts of different products in a standardized way using life cycle analysis, and GIS helps us concretely visualize our changing environment.  We can conduct research, write papers in groups (this is a skill not to be underestimated); we are SMART enough to develop projects with Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely objectives, and we know and understand exactly why there is scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is happening.

But the truth is, we still don’t know that much.  We don’t know how human activity truly affects the planet and we don’t know how to most effectively change our course.  We don’t know which wedge of carbon reduction will succeed or fail, what will keep the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, what will rectify the imbalance of access to resources between rich and poor. We don’t know what will stop deforestation and overfishing and factory farming and urban sprawl and bottled water – or, if anything will.   No policy works exactly how it’s supposed to; no behavior change strategy works on everyone.  Stochastic events occur; politicians go rogue; uncertainty abounds… and we have to admit, with all our skills and knowledge, we just don’t know what will work.

So sometimes, we have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when we can’t prove that it will.

I know that some of us are bound for greatness in our actions, in careers thinking of the big picture solutions for our whole planet.  We’ll help our leaders draft the treaties, laws, and programs that we need to protect our common resources – or we’ll become those leaders.  We’ll build the corporations that lift up, not oppress, the poorest among us, while conserving, not wasting, our soil, water, and air.  But we hear this all the time.  We’re graduating from Michigan, we’re the Leaders and the Best!  We count nonprofit and industry leaders among our alumni; our dean shares a Nobel Prize; the President flew in this morning just to tell us congratulations!  We have all the examples we need of greatness.

So I guess what I want to say to all of you, and to myself, is… think smaller.  Even a leader is just one person. Robert Kennedy once said that  “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

That’s really it; our world is the sum of all of our actions.  So be great.  Run for office or launch the next Google, take your passion and your expertise and lead- the world needs it.

But at the same time, don’t underestimate the power of small experiments and the importance of everyday actions.  So teach children, ride your bike, pull garlic mustard, get off the grid, support your local everything.  You never know who might hear, and listen, and follow.  Engage in your community; participate in your democracy.  Be nice.  Most importantly, seek out and support the words, ideas, and actions, no matter how small, of others who are headed in the same direction.  You know these images: I’m talking about the small infinity, the school of little fish facing down the shark, the power of a small group of committed people to change the world.   Every choice you make, every word you say, every bite you eat could be the one that makes all the difference.

So act.  Make peace with the uncertainty and just act.

Act boldly.

Act carefully.

Act with courage and act with love.

If you do, no matter what you do, you will make a difference.   Collectively, WE will make a difference – and the “proof” of that will be everywhere.

In this uncertain world, I’m optimistic, because I know you, my fellow graduates, will be out there working with me.  And because I know we have the support of family and friends, who we can’t thank enough for standing beside us, even when they don’t always know what we’re doing.  We have the benefit of an education at one of the world’s best schools in natural resources, and the guidance of professors who, while at the top of their fields in research, truly make it a priority to teach their students well.  So I know that we’re ready, equipped with the skills to assess the challenges we face and the tools to engineer the solutions we need, the pragmatism to know when to move on and when to press on, and the hope to face the uncertainty, be scared, and act anyway, knowing that our work is worth it.

Congratulations, friends.  I can’t wait to see what you do.

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