Contribution to GTI Roundtable The Problem of Action

Sandra Waddock

Paul Raskin’s essay "How Do We Get There?" represents a significant call to action for the GTI community and well beyond. While disclaimers that we don’t know how such change will happen are pervasive, there are some things that we do know when we consider the nature of the systems that actually need to change. Maybe it is time to simply start making whatever shifts we can from wherever we are in the system. Let me explain why that seems both feasible and important.

Over the past year, I have attended a number of conferences on system change. Ultimately, it became clear that, at least collectively, we actually do have much of the knowledge needed to at least begin making the shift. Some of what is needed, of course, is the will to change. Beyond that, if we understand the nature of the systems to be changed as complex and fraught with wicked problems, we can recognize the dynamic, interactive nature of human and ecological systems and work within that understanding. We can also begin to recognize that there is no way that “planned change”—and certainly not planned change on a global scale—is realistic. Then individually and collectively, we can begin to think about how to generate the many experiments, initiatives, and different efforts on the part of people all over the world that will be needed to generate system change. That is, I think, what Paul Raskin means by a global citizens movement.

Briefly, the systems that need to change are inherently complex (complex adaptive systems) and are inherently fraught with wicked problems like climate change, inequality, discrimination, and political divisiveness, to name a few. Complex systems and wicked problems share the following characteristics. First, they are open-ended with no clear beginnings or endings, and are intricately and multiply connected with other issues and problems from which they cannot be successfully teased apart. Second, they have multiple (many) stakeholders who very likely have different ideas about the causes, possible solutions, means to resolve the problems, and what would constitute a good solution. Third, there is path dependency, meaning that once a plan or initiative is put into motion, there is no going back to the original state.

The key understanding that emerges from thinking about large system change in the context of wickedness and complexity is that in such systems, change can at best be guided—not planned. Since all stakeholders are unlikely to agree (e.g., on problem definition, means of resolution, or even end points), the chances that there is a single framework or vision that can incorporate the “full potential of our moment,” seems unlikely. At the same time, a more holistic sense of the oneness of the planet and all of its inhabitants, including all people, of course, but also all of the other living beings that connect in the web of life, can potentially “give life” to initiatives aimed at shifting the system. In that sense, a new story that we tell ourselves about what it means to be human today is vitally important. Equally important is that the story be able to connect with and reach very different peoples, in very different circumstances, all around the planet, so that everyone can participate—as they wish and are able—in the change process, and so that everyone can develop an understanding of the story that suits their purposes.

What then stimulates change? At the core of change is changing the stories that we tell ourselves, something that David Korten captures in his book title Change the Story, Change the World. Below the story or narrative, however, are the foundational memes out of which the stories and narratives are constructed that are vitally important—and frequently overlooked in the change process. Memes, as Susan Blackmore has documented, are the core units of culture. They include commonly occurring and replicating words, phrases, images, symbols, technologies (think smart phones), and even art (think the iconic Wall Street bull and more recent “Fearless Girl” statues).

Memes that resonate broadly provide a foundation for change because people can adapt them for their own uses while they simultaneously provide a sort of common language and metric. A (reasonably) shared set of memes could potentially provide a foundation that allows us, wherever we are in what Steve Waddell calls the change system, to create new stories that speak to local needs, initiatives, capacities, and capabilities—and that could potentially merge into what Raskin calls a global citizens movement.

If I am correct, then part of what is needed to shift human systems is a change in memes. Today’s dominant memes and the story they construct are largely about economics, at least in the Western and developed world. That “story” tells us that we humans are rational, that we are profit maximizers, that we have markets that are and need to be “free,” and that government should, as the Reagan-era phrase went, “stay off our backs.” It is that view of humanity that could shift if we recognize that we are one with each other, intimately connected to other people. Such a perspective recalls Ubuntu, the pan-African notion of “I am because we are,” where the “we” encompasses all living beings. That new understanding intimately connects us as humanity to the planet itself—to nature—rather than divorcing us from nature’s realities, potentialities, and constraints.

Indeed, what is needed is a social movement. As with all social movements, we need to recognize that the “movement” will look different in different contexts because the issues, needs, and interdependencies differ depending on circumstances. That is the nature of complexly wicked systems. Proposed solutions will also differ, and that needs to be okay. Foundational memes, perhaps the ones articulated by the Humanistic Management Network of dignity, well-being, and flourishing for all, maybe enhanced with the type of freedom articulated by Amartya Sen, i.e., a freedom to live up to one’s capabilities, and an understanding the we humans are “of nature” and hence intimately bound to her, could provide a starting place for creating new stories that can be adapted to the local context. Using memes that support end states of well-being, dignity, and flourishing for all, or some alternative commonly agreed set of memes, various actors in different places can tell stories or create their own elaborated and uniquely crafted narratives based on a common set of visions, goals, or values that guide the many different local, regional, national, and even global initiatives by actors in a wide variety of settings that will be needed to bring about systemic change.

Sandra Waddock
Sandra Waddock is Professor of Management at Boston College Carroll School of Management. Her latest book is Catalyzing Transformation: Making System Change Happen.

Cite as Sandra Waddock, contribution to GTI  Roundtable "The Problem of Action," Great Transition Initiative (December 2017),

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