Demystifying Social Change: Pay the Price

Why does social change seem so difficult? What can we do about it?

With the array of needs unmet, it’s fair to say that our collective efforts fall short. Worse, urgent outcomes may appear foreclosed to us: You can’t get there from here. With our lingering faith in human effort, however, we arise in the morning still facing our practical question of what to do next.

A starting point is a salutary motto intended originally for business but that has legs in every facet of life, Nelson Bunker Hunt’s three-step formula for success:

1. Decide on your goal.
2. Determine its price.
3. Pay the price.

The limits of our success in social change boil down to one sentence: When we do not pay the price, we fail.

To understand the implications of this idea, consider what price means. Fifty years ago I was preoccupied with ideas about social change. An elderly man who, in his youth, had been an organizer for the Communist Party in the 1930s, listened genially while I talked. Then he cautioned me with this: Nothing happens without first being made necessary. If I’d been able actually to grasp the point, it might have saved me much frustrating effort. He was telling me to expand my understanding of what it would take to get the changes I wanted.

Think about his point. What would make a change necessary? We’re not concerned here with all the possible randomness or complexity of events. Analogies in the physical world help clarify. If you want a bullet to go 2000 yards and hit a target precisely, certain conditions cause that. When the conditions are observed, the bullet necessarily hits the target. Similarly, years ago I was walking through an airport and passed an advertising kiosk posted in bold letters with the words: Zero Defects! The people who designed and promoted that product were willing to stake their reputation on a level of quality. They didn’t count on random conditions helping them but expected to bring under control everything affecting the product’s reliability.

A business magazine related the story of a family motoring across the wide spaces of the northwest in their new Rolls Royce when they developed engine trouble. They pulled off the road and found themselves marooned in a small town. They phoned the car company and asked what they should do. They were told to wait–help was on the way–and the company put them up at a motel. The next day a mechanic flew in, bringing with him a new Rolls engine, and made a complete engine exchange right there. Upon returning from the trip, the man inquired of the Rolls company what his bill was. They answered, “I’m sorry sir, but we have no record of that. Rolls Royces do not experience the kind of problem you describe.”

How would you bring to social change the attention to excellence implied in “pay the price,” “zero defects,” and “we have no record of that?” The answer is stark and simple, but extremely demanding. You master the influences that govern every step toward your goal. Either you manage them, or else you leave some of them random and sooner or later they turn and bite you. If instead of zero defects you back off and say “We’ll allow, let’s say, two defects,” those are the two that derail you. The Challenger space vehicle came apart because O-rings failed.

In the space program, hardware gets the most attention, but the game in social change turns on the soft stuff that nonetheless requires the same sort of attention to quality and excellence: how ideas are framed, how they are spread, how people perceive them and apply them personally. We’re told in The Tipping Point that to spread rapidly, a message has to be “sticky.” It has to fix itself in people’s minds effortlessly. You may be the best candidate, but without a sticky message, you may lose (think John Kerry versus George W. Bush). And recall John F. Kennedy’s win over Nixon. People later asked Lawrence O’Brien, JFK’s campaign manager, how they were able to mobilize an army of novices into a campaign juggernaut. O’Brien replied that they made everyone feel “wired into” the campaign. Think what it would take to do that: individual attention, tasks fitted to the person, pointed training, a team to work with, responsibilities assigned and monitored, glitches removed, problems solved–countless facets of the soft equipment that, soft or not, still must done excellently.

Understanding social change is a worthy study. But if you’re moved to become better at causing it, there’s more and different to talk about. In my next piece, I’ll discuss how hard it can be to clear your mind so that you can act effectively.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Finding Your Inner Lenin: Taking Responsibility for Global Change (Xlibris, 2006). He welcomes comments sent to him directly at and will email an ebook version of his book to anyone without charge upon request. Read other articles by John.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on January 20th, 2010 at 11:43am #

    Obviously, deciding what ur goal is, finding out what the price for achieving it is and deciding to pay the price are generalized directives.
    And no generalized question, answer, instruction can be understood.

    Questions arise form those instruction, Don’t we have goals and not a goal. And on’t we have them w.o. s’mbody telling us?
    Doesn’t evrybody want calm, a fair woman/kids/pay/security, sanity, equal rights for al, peace in the world, respect, love.
    So, it does seemto me humnas have goals.; not a goal.
    One cannot ever determine what is the price for marryng, having kids, etc., because the future cannot be known.

    And in ocean of lies by priests, pols, ‘educators’, media, congress, generals, spies, entertainment industry, advertising i cannot see how any person can know what is going on.
    And fair goal[s] can be chosen only if u have knowledge. In an asocialist and thus antihuman society like US, the goal[s] appear to be kill and let kill, rob and let rob, lie and let lie, abuse and let abuse.
    This all is american as aple pie. I am not saying that it is like that elsewhere! It is like that in most asocialist and thus antihuman societies.
    Oh my devil! U r happy ab this, aren’t u! tnx

  2. bozh said on January 20th, 2010 at 11:48am #

    Sorry ab typos, The devil made me do them. Thinking ab her, i forgot to reread my post. U do get the gist, don’t u?
    btw, god[s] r not much better than the devil! Please don’t throw rocks at me; i am just a messenger! tnx for ur patience!

  3. Don Hawkins said on January 20th, 2010 at 2:54pm #

    John let’s read this.
    A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive. (Albert Einstein, 1954)

    We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive. That’s a substantially new manner of thinking and we are there yes we are. Can it be done?

  4. bozh said on January 20th, 2010 at 7:05pm #

    Don, hi,
    Exactly. We are all of one seed. We are parts of nature. We are, so to speak, nature. And just like nature, infinitely-valued; capable of doing good, much good, and very much good.
    But like nature, we to can be bad, very bad, and extremely bad. When we wage wars of aggression that is an extremity that cannot be surpassed even by strongest quakes.

    This doesn’t mean that we cannot do less wrongs. Yes we can ! But not if we think like asocialists [fascists].
    It seems that politics is too important to leave to pols, Religion is also too important to leave to priests.
    Most pols and priests have been victimized and condioned to think wrong and yet we let them lead us! tnx

  5. observing said on January 21st, 2010 at 8:52am #

    “You master the influences that govern every step toward your goal. ”

    To that I say, “S**t happens.” Mastery is something most humans inherently strive to achieve, but in practice seldom do. And one person’s mastery is another’s waste of time.

    The universe is by definition chaotic and uncontrollable, as all the same rules don’t apply everywhere, always. Add in we don’t even know the “how” of some of the most fundamental rules, such as about gravity and light. We know a great deal about the effects and characteristics of light and gravity, but ask Hawkings HOW they work and he’ll have to admit ignorance.

    Similarly, our social systems have the potential to be as chaotic as the billions of consciences and thousands of cultures/subcultures that make them up. The massive failures we commonly see in social engineering projects are inevitable if human leaders of all types, at all social levels, attempt to enforce a simple, closed mechanistic model (such as “goal, cost, pay”) on an inherently open-ended system. By traditional business and behavioural models, Wikipedia should not exist, but there it is. Ask 10 theorists why Wikipedia works and you’ll get 10 different answers, but they’ll all basically agree it broke all the “rules”.

    Mechanistic models may be useful in focusing a groups efforts towards a short-term common outcome in an environment where the most significant variables are known and knowable. Mechanistic models are doomed to fail if all possible variables must be “managed” to ensure successful long term (multi-generational) outcomes. Humans are not machines, the earth’s ecology and the flora and fauna within it are not machines. Any strategy which assumes them to be so is flawed on its basic premise.

  6. rosemarie jackowski said on January 21st, 2010 at 1:31pm #

    An infinite amount of things can cause or prevent change. What any one individual does is usually ineffective. Optimism is usually a mistake – maybe it is better to be realistic. The power of the individual should not be over estimated.