“For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction out of the entire society, a revolution of values.”
- Martin Luther King
- Martin Luther King
The only effective way to change a piece of a system is to change the whole system it is part of.
Imagine you've been asked to "change" the missing piece of the puzzle in this picture. You have complete freedom to change this piece but you need to know two things about this change effort. One, no matter what you do, you still have to fit in with the pieces around you. Two, those pieces are not changing.
We live in a world of inter-locking pieces. What you can do with your second grade class (Sandi) is severely constrained by what is done in first and third grade. Further, all that is limited by what your society thinks is important, what they expect of education.
What you can do with your engineering design group is limited by marketing and manufacturing. What they do is, in turn, limited by what senior management thinks - or even what your customers think - is important, what they expect of your product and your company.
Given that we live in a world of inter-locking systems, change is evasive. It is nearly impossible. Once pieces are in place, they tend to prop one another up. Our education system creates a particular way of thinking and a particular kind of graduate who goes out into the world to work in companies that, among other things, have a particular kind of expectation about who to hire out of the education system. Government is shaped by business and education and religion - all these pieces shape and mold each other. And all of these pieces have to fit together. In any coherent and functioning society, that is.
If you want to make sweeping changes in design, you'll involve manufacturing and marketing. Any real change is, by definition, inclusive. And it does not begin with efficiency or improvement. Rather, it begins with a vision of what could be. And this vision doesn't know functional pigeonholes or fit neatly within a particular expertise. Rather, it gives all that a new context.
Of all the candidates, Barack Obama has become most closely associated with change. Given the approach and instincts (I cannot bring myself to call it a philosophy) of the current administration, one can only applaud a call for change. But if he is serious, it suggests a larger vision than an idea about how to change the presidency.
A real change to the presidency will involve far more than just the presidency. Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt were the last two presidents to transform the presidency. They did not initiate change, really, so much as display a genius for exploiting times of great upheaval. The changes they made to the presidency and government were almost incidental to the change they made to how Americans saw the world and America's role in it.
If Barack Obama can offer a compelling vision of the world and America's role in it, he can deliver the change he promises. If he shrinks from that - if he limits himself to defining the presidency and government only - he'll fail to change the very piece on which he focuses.
Whole system change always sweeps up the pieces with it. Piece-meal change always gets overwhelmed by un-moving, un-responsive, and larger systems. To effect change, you have to speak over the head of the what you want to change. A change in vision means a change in context. When the context changes, the pieces of the system respond. Given that systems reject pieces that don't support its functioning, the only real way to change a piece is to change the system. We need a conversation about the society we want to create.
[And thanks to Jordan for the conversation that provoked this today.]