Transformational change: what can you do?

Are you feeling discouraged and tired? You’re not the only one. The global challenges are overwhelming and the pace of disruptive change is accelerating. Organizations and professionals are running to keep up, learn and innovate. Uncertainty, turmoil, despondency, and exhaustion are part of the equation. This period is tough, but also special. “We are the lucky ones who are experiencing a change of era,” says Jan Rotmans.

“We are not living in an era of change, but in a change of era,” says Jan Rotmans, professor of transition science and sustainability at Erasmus University. “That creates turmoil. But chaos is necessary for complex systems to move toward a transition.” In his new book “Embrace Chaos,” written by Rotmans and Mischa Verheijden, he offers a realistic but also positive perspective.

Crisis and chaos

Many systems no longer function well. We have a financial-economic crisis: the financial sector is four times larger than the real economy and financial values take precedence. In addition, an ecological crisis: loss of biodiversity and climate change. Also a moral crisis: through globalized trade, travel, food, and how we treat the planet, we use others and natural resources as means. We take but don’t give back. In capitalism, the human dimension has been lost. We have created cold systems: we live in a “spreadsheet society”. The Edelman Trust Barometer has been showing declining trust in governments, companies, media for years. Trust is also low on democracy. Divisions and inequalities are on the rise.

In terms of climate, we want to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees. At 2 degrees, the Arctic ice is gone, all the coral dies, and sea levels rise 20-30 centimeters. By 2050 greenhouse gases must be reduced to zero, so within thirty years we must get rid of oil and gas, within ten years we must stop using coal and start reforesting. These are stark figures for a world that runs for 95% on fossil energy. If we continue at the current rate (with emerging economies emitting two-thirds at present) we will end up with 3-4 degrees of warming. If we pull out all we can there is a small chance that it will stay at 2 degrees. Hence, Rotmans identifies ten major transitions that are needed in the fields of energy, raw materials, the economy, circular, financial education, healthcare, democracy, agriculture, and spatial planning.

You, too, make a difference

Rotman’s book is similar to Otto Scharmer’s work Leading from the Emerging Future, Rotmans also emphasizes how change emerges as a “social movement” that can grow exponentially. The linear top-down model of change management works less and less. We have to rely on bottom-up movements; people who show how things can be done differently and who are copied by others, influencing outdated ways of thinking and thus slowly but surely bringing about transformational change.

Rotmans’ vision and mine coincide. When you work on organizational culture, you work with a complex system that can react unexpectedly. Culture cannot be managed as a project but involves a collective and individual learning process. Everyone’s individual contribution influences the thinking and actions of others: culture is something you create together. This also happens in large organizations, because people in teams influence each other and that’s where real change starts. Real change is only successful if you persevere and get a social movement going. 

Rotmans also mentions this illusion of powerlessness in large organizations or systems. Structures and systems influence people but people can also influence structures and systems:

  • Think stationary and you underestimate your power.
  • Think transformative and you see that you too can make a difference: sometimes the direct effect is not so great, but the indirect effect is. For example, Urgenda’s climate lawsuit against the state of the Netherlands in 2015, inspired other lawsuits and initiatives.

Crisis as an opportunity

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. 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.

That’s not always easy for impatient people like me. But zooming out to a longer timeframe helps to prevent cynicism: a transition takes one to two generations. First, people have to become aware of what is going on, then change their opinions and beliefs, then their behavior. For example, smoking went from cool to not-done, and that took fifty years. If you smoke and eat fast food now, you’re consciously harming your health. Soon you’ll be a loser if you don’t have solar panels or still use oil and gas… We need time, but we do have to start given the urgency. For a transformational change in organizations, we need about ten years.

Transitions develop in an S-curve: 

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

Moreover, a transition cannot be managed. Like cultural development, it is not a project but a process. It is not goal-oriented but goal-seeking: the result arises in the course of doing and evolves because you adjust and navigate 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 program, says Rotmans. Start ‘deep’ and fast and bottom-up: start experimenting with those who want to. 

What next?

Whether you reason as an individual or as a company, we must learn to think differently. We all need to own less, consume less, pollute less. But consuming less must be done in a broader context: we must define economic growth differently and start making money differently: maybe not by selling products, but by selling services as a product. This way, you can lease your couch, rent your fridge and share your tools – and return them when you want something different.

Actions and interventions by individuals have an effect. The direct effect is still small in the beginning, but you do have indirect effects. So look at the long term, then you will see the change. Think of Occupy, the yellow gilets movement, MeToo, Black Lives Matter: all these movements influence the thinking of the ‘mainstream’. Rotmans’ advice is to unite in a group because together you can do more. Look at Greta Thunberg, Urgenda, Roger Cox, Boyan Slat: they too started small. Keep that in mind, just like with culture improvement: every action counts, every interaction influences the culture. Small interactions influence others and can go ‘viral’ exponentially.

So don’t despair. Be patient and persevere. Do what you can as an individual: choose an issue (social, environmental, bureaucratic/systemic) and commit to it.

Looking from an organizational perspective: what do these developments mean for your organization, your market, competition, customers, suppliers, and employees? How does this affect the thinking of your stakeholders? What transitions can you expect? How can you prepare for climate-neutral operations? Start exploring now, before you’ll be surprised. 

In the next blog post, let’s hear what Jan Rotmans thinks that organizations should do in this time of transition.

© Marcella Bremer, 2022

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