Five Reasons Change Efforts Fail — and How to Help Them Succeed

War Is Coming, by Jeff Barnum. Oil on canvas. 69″ X 47″

Changing social reality is not something you can do simply because you are passionate, dedicated, or determined. Social change requires a particular skill-set. If you want to change social reality, you need to build the know-how and capabilities. This requisite is agnostic to any particular social system, discipline, or sector. So no matter whether you are an environmental scientist, a politician, or an entrepreneur, you will need to invest in learning how social change actually happens.

Because, without this knowledge, you may easily become burnt out, broke, and even disillusioned. Your efforts will either amount to not much or you will find yourself contributing to the problem without meaning to.

Here are 5 examples of why social change is a highly specialized knowledge:

1. Systems are hydras

Any large social system (social, political, economic, environmental) is like the hydra, and is generally rotten to the core. Such systems don’t want to be changed; they push back against any and all efforts because they are designed to do exactly what they do, at all levels and in all places. Cut off one head and two more take its place. It’s a hopeless task. You need to create a new way forward — see points 2 and 4.

2. Understand the nature of creativity

If you want to create a new way forward, you have to understand the word: “create.” I mean, you have to understand the nature of creativity, because all change and transformation goes through an archetypal process that, if you know it, can be a navigational tool, but if you don’t will almost certainly severely and negatively impact your project as soon as you hit enough uncertainty. And you will.

There’s more to this, see point 4.

3. Big scale is a big problem

Its a red herring, to make an elaborate plan and then scale it. Sure, that can work if you are building a conventional business, but if you want to transform a stuck social system then “scaling” is a bad idea. This is because humans aren’t “at scale”, they are human-sized. They are individuals collaborating more or less in communities, and generally small communities at that.

A predilection toward creating “large-scale social change” is, in my view, largely egotism and fantasy. We ignore the lessons of history by believing that we can make a significant change through our brilliant idea, or powerful initiative, or technical leadership. When in fact, social change is going to require us to work together in co-creative action. No one initiative is going to make significant enough impact to save our world.

But the key here is, it doesn’t have to. What does need to happen is humankind collectively — and more significantly at the level of the individual — comes to terms with it’s mistakes. In complete freedom, not through coercion, or bombastic pulpit yelling and hysteria.

So, that means we have to work together to create a collective shift at the level of worldview — our fundamental beliefs about how the world works — the very source of all our troubles.

4. Co-creation is the only way forward, folks

Yes, it feels pretty urgent that we “wake up”, AND, we also might want to consider NOT fighting the hydra, or trying to enforce change via distant authorities, but instead build the world we want to see, the world that’s already trying to be born. The task before us is to learn how to co-create with others whom we may not particularly know, like, or trust — with love, respect, and consideration.

There is hardly anyone who knows how to do this skillfully, masterfully. Social change agents are not taught how to collaborate, how to create, and how to build community all the way down to how they communicate with others on a daily basis. All those soft skills are considered increasingly important, sure, but not vital. Helpful yes, but not foundational to the degree of skill that any musician would take for grated if expected to perform on stage.

And that is my point: social change requires a specialized skill-set, a thorough knowledge base about that most complex and deep of creative mediums: the human being and the social commons.

If you really and truly want to help change the world, then you cannot do so without such a skill-set.

5. Don’t be the brilliant idea hero

Honestly, in the school of harsh reality, brilliant ideas will get you maybe 10% of the way there. And that other 90%? Your presence and your creativity. The time for heroic ideas is long past. We need something else now.

The funny thing is, most people I say that to don’t want to believe it. They can’t let go of the belief that the brilliance of their idea is most if not all of the solution needed.

Don’t be that person.

The biggest gift you can give anyone or any project, is the gift of your presence — cleansed of noise, distraction, and ego. Showing up with your full and honed attention and applying your creative contribution in complete service, with others, is what matters most of all.

And that requires training, practice, and know-how. Like with any discipline, there is no limit to how masterful you can become.

I know, that’s not glamorous, excitingly ambitious, or easy. But it’s practical and what the world needs right now.

That’s my distillation from 20 years of working in social change.

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