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.