Ready for exponential change and transitions?

We work and live in a VUCA-world, that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Climate change and social inequality create new challenges for people, societies, and organizations. The issues are also time sensitive, as global warming doesn’t wait for us while we try to agree and come up with effective actions. 

How well prepared is your organization’s or team’s culture for grassroots, exponential change in transitions? Let’s see how change works as a social movement with crisis as an opportunity. If you don’t change in time you might encounter “civil resistance”.

“We are not living in an era of change, but in a change of era,” according to Jan Rotmans, professor of transition science and sustainability at Erasmus University. “Chaos is necessary for complex systems to move toward a transition.” Is your organizational culture ready to support a transition?

In this series, I explore organizational culture and what we need to face our current ecological, social, and governance challenges and become future-fit. Organizations can play a crucial role in humanity’s transition to a healthy future when they make their products, services, and actions sustainable and just. Organizations can be spaces where people learn crucial new ways of thinking and doing, and where they find support and meaning. People take this new culture home to their communities and spread it. Organizations can help people learn and adapt as the world faces several transitions.

A future-fit culture provides the glue, the speed and trust, the shared identity, the narrative, the purpose, the core values and priorities, the key behaviors, and the openness to learn new skills needed in the VUCA-world, that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

Isn’t big system change always slow and top-down? Isn’t it inevitable that we will be too late to mitigate climate change? Especially since people, countries, and organizations disagree on so many topics.
We have to see what happens – but the future is not fixed in stone. There’s still some time to take action and transition to an economy and way of living that respects ecological boundaries.

First, if you worry about polarization and fierce debates – I hear you. But as a consolation: research shows that the higher the uncertainty and the newer the situation – the higher the disagreement is. It’s a natural consequence. We’re all new to this. We have to find out what happens, what’s most urgent, and what we can do about it. That’s why conflicts and unhealthy debates (or lack of debate and blaming other groups) arise. That’s why we need dialogue skills as discussed in some of my other blog posts. It might help to see the polarization for what it is, stay calm, and use dialogue to have meaningful conversations.

Second, if you think you and your organization are powerless, let’s look at how change works:

Does change start at the top?

This is what we are taught to believe. Most of us are used to top-down thinking. There’s a leader or a system with power that tells people what to do. Our organizations are often organized as pyramids or hierarchies. Our governments govern countries. Our parliaments make laws. We, the people, are just individuals, subject to those systems and leaders. We can only do so much. We can vote, and we can decide where we spend our money. But we cannot escape or transform the hierarchy we’re in. Or can we?
Our top-down thinking frames what we see. We don’t see our own power to take action – we notice the power of the system and the leaders. The top-down pyramid makes us wait for the leaders – they make decisions. It’s slow and while we wait, we disengage or distract ourselves. “They” will find solutions, they are supposed to solve the challenges.
But the global ecological, social, and governance challenges will affect all of us, our children and grandchildren. Global warming is happening everywhere and will increase. We all need to take action to mitigate its effects and prepare. We cannot wait for slow decisions or denial.

Sometimes, change starts at the top. But often, change starts somewhere else in an organization or society, or system. It starts with an individual with an idea, convincing one other person and thus doubling their impact. Those two change makers talk with some others and so the change takes off and influences more people. As the crowd grows and the ideas and actions become more mainstream, the change may be adopted by the leaders at the top and supported.

Even if leaders don’t like and support the change, they cannot ignore it. As it is embraced by the majority they must come up with a response. Research shows that elites, politicians, top executives, or boards respond by adjusting their plans, offering a compromise, and so on. So, if the mass is large enough, it’s hard to not move with the change.
Often, this grassroots change that started somewhere in the (organizational) system is adopted after some dialogue. That’s the healthy way.

Civil resistance

But what if leaders don’t want to adjust their plans? We can learn from Erica Chenoweth and her book Civil Resistance. Her research focuses on civil resistance in societies but resonates with change in organizations or other populations as well.

Civil resistance is a form of collective action that seeks to affect the status quo without using violence or the threat of violence against people. Civil resistance is about change – a group of change makers is ready to walk their talk. While the top and the majority still think and do things “the way we used to do things over here” – civil resistance challenges this existing culture (identity, story, beliefs, behaviors) and the status quo.

Civil resistance is used when dialogue hasn’t been effective. Its methods can be disruptive and confrontational—like strikes, protests, demonstrations, boycotts, alternative institution-building, or refusing to vacate an official’s office. The leaders can feel threatened as it jeopardizes their power, status, and comfort. It disrupts the culture, be it the global capitalist culture, the national culture, or your organizational culture and way of doing things.

Chenoweth mentions the “3.5% rule”: the idea that no revolutions have failed once 3.5% of the population has actively participated in a demonstration, or some other form of mass noncooperation. When 3.5% are resisting – they are probably backed up by a larger silent majority that adds up to that 20-25% that you need to reach sustainable change.

Change as a social movement

Because that is what science suggests. By the time 20-25% are thinking and acting differently, the change is adopted by the others as well. Change often develops in an exponential way, not in a linear way.

Several researchers, like Mayer Zald, have shown this. In a network, (grassroots) change can start anywhere. In a complex human system, small actions can have a big impact. This is often underestimated. We somehow can’t believe that small behaviors can bring forward substantial transformation. Our linear thinking expects big, well-planned initiatives to be rolled out top-down that lead to big outcomes.

Mayer Zald pointed out that social movements happen in organizations much as they do in society—including coups d’état, insurgencies, and mass movements. Internal social movements can be a source of innovation and change to help the organization adapt to a rapidly changing environment, as Davis and White explain in their book Changing your company from the inside out.

They describe a process to create change in organizations regardless of your position:

  • Survey the terrain; the strategy, structure, and culture.
  • Consider the timing; those things that are prone to signaling opportunities (a new CEO, a new product line, etc.).
  • Find a few allies who are on the same page, preferably with some ranking power – and develop a small movement while finding relevant others in the organizational network.
  • Frame your idea so that it aligns with what is seen as important and use the right language that shows you’re an insider who understands the culture.
  • Build the business case of why your idea must be realized and pitch it – or start working on a pilot to showcase the first results.

Social movements may sound scary, but influencing others happens continuously, conscious or not. You are already working in a field of influential forces instead of neat boxes on the organization chart. It might be wise to learn how to influence your organization

Rotmans also mentions that social approval and disapproval are powerful influences on human behavior. We influence each other, and therefore, we eventually change the systems.
Structures and systems influence people but people can also influence structures and systems:

  • Think in a linear way and you underestimate your power.
  • Think transformative and you see that you too can make a difference: sometimes the direct effect takes time, but it will come once 20% of the population embraces the change.

Crisis as an opportunity

A crisis serves as an opportunity in a complex system. Especially in chaos, you can achieve change with a smart energetic group. Moreover, every crisis helps, because about 5-10% of people start thinking differently because of a crisis. At 25% you reach a tipping point in systems, also in organizational change. After the first quarter of people, change can continue exponentially. So hang in there, because it takes a while for the first 25% to start thinking and acting differently.

This aligns with the innovation theory by Rogers. A few people start something new – they are the innovators (2.5%) then followed by the early adopters (13.5%) who are curious to try it, too. When the idea or practice spreads we reach the early majority (34%) and the late majority (34%) and then finally the laggards (16%) will copy.
By the time that innovators and early adopters think and act in a new way – you have reached 16% of the population (be it a nation, team, or organization) and it looks as if not much is happening. Very often, change-makers and organizations become discouraged by that time. “Ah, it’s not working!” But, invisibly, the early majority is intrigued and triggered… All of a sudden, they leap in, change becomes exponential (up 34%) and the others will follow inevitably.

Transitions develop in an S-curve: 

  1. pre-development: innovation and experimentation,
  2. tipping period or interim: here’s the chaos, uncertainty, and disagreement, and yet you have to make decisions,
  3. development phase: of the dominant new ways of thinking, doing, and being

A transition is not goal-oriented but goal-seeking: the result arises in the course of doing. It emerges as you adjust and look for what works in the complex reality. You cannot design this in advance on paper. So, don’t start with a broad top-down change program, says Rotmans. Start fast and bottom-up: start experimenting with those who want to.

Get started so you won’t be surprised by resistance. Chenoweth notes that global inaction on climate change has prompted an explosion of civil resistance campaigns. Greenpeace, Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, and others demand urgent, systemic action to change the economic and social practices that threaten life on Earth.
This can happen outside of your organization, against your organization, or within your organization.
Beware and develop your organization’s culture so that people feel free to talk about anything with anyone. If that is possible you can use dialogue to make any change easier and less stressful.

A culture that fosters learning and change

Third, is your organizational culture ready?

An organizational culture that supports change is a positive culture, based on the four elements: positive thinking, positive purpose, collaboration, and learning & autonomy.

  1. Positive thinking helps to see potential and new options and solutions.
  2. The positive purpose motivates people to add real value for customers and stakeholders – such a purpose naturally addresses ecological and social issues.
  3. Collaboration entails openness to other ideas, trust, dialogue and no taboos. So, people can have a crucial, meaningful conversation about anything and respect differences.
  4. Moreover, Learning & autonomy stimulate learning from differences, learning new practices and adjusting quickly. It is agile and people take ownership for their actions and how to respond to the current challenges. The culture embraces grassroots, exponential change in transitions!

> Rating these four elements of culture – how well prepared is your organization’s or team’s culture?
> What do you need to improve?

© Marcella Bremer, 2023

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