12 September 2008

Where Change Comes From - Insights from Peter Block's New Book

I watched and listened to and read transcripts of various speeches from the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. It occurred to me that political speeches and social progress have about as much to do with each other as drug use and songwriting; the two often happen in the same place, but it is not obvious that there is any causation between them or that it is positive.

The older I get, the more convinced I am that it is a lie to say that Reagan's denouncement of communism had anything to do with its collapse or even that Kennedy's goal of landing a man on the moon had anything to do with it happening. Deep structures and organic processes cause outcomes. God said "Let there be light" and there was light. By contrast, man speaks and God laughs.

It would be hard to imagine a worse approach to building social consensus and resultant change than bringing folks of the same ideology together into one room to cheer each other. The technical term might be ideological bubble.

Which brings me to a beautiful book I recently read. I have worked as a consultant for about 15 years. I have worked inside of organizations like the CIA, GM, Intel, and Lilly. I have formed strong opinions about work and management. This new book by Peter Block seems to me to get it right - to suggest a model for change that actually works.

I once heard Peter Block say, "Leadership is a collusion between control freaks and people who don't want to accept responsibility." His new book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, continues in that vein. He suggest something wonderfully different from what we see inside of most organizations and in our political process. To me, it defines essential elements behind sustainable change. I highly recommend the book and doubt that you could have much success with change without having somehow gained at least some of the insights he articulates.

To give you some sense of its message, here are some excerpts that I thought worth sharing.


... freedom being the choice to be a creator of our own experience and accept the unbearable responsibility that goes with that. Out of this insight grows the idea that perhaps the real task of leadership is to confront people with their freedom.

They know that learning best occurs when we structure meetings in a way that puts people in contact with each other where they experience in a conference the same dilemmas they face in life.

The most organizing conversation starter is "What do we want to create together?"

Bornstein concluded that well-funded efforts, with clear outcomes, that spell out the steps to get there do not work. Changes that begin on a large scale, are initiated or imposed from the top, and are driven to produce quick wins inevitably produce few lasting results. This may be a clue to why our wars such as those on drugs and poverty have been consistently disappointing and sometimes have even produced more of what they sought to eliminate
If you reflect on the stories of the successful leaders who Bornstein documents, you realize that these entrepreneurs were committed enough and patient enough to give their projects time to evolve and find their own way of operating. There were years spent simply learning what structures, agreements, leadership, and types of people were required to be successful.
It was after the model had evolved and succeeded on its own terms that it began to grow, gain attention, and achieve a level of scale that touched large numbers of people.
This means that sustainable change in community occur locally on a small scale, happen slowly, and are initiated at a grassroots level.

Allan Cohen claims the ability to herd cats, which many have said is impossible. He does this by tilting the floor, which changes the conditions under which the cats are operating. Emergent strategies focus on conditions more than on behaviors or predictable goals.

The media's power is the power to name the public debate. Or, in other words, the power to name "reality."

The essential aspect of restoration of community is a context in which each citizen chooses to be accountable rather than entitled.

Every gathering, in its composition and in its structure, has to be an example of the future we want to create.

The small group is the unit of transformation.

Questions that have the power to make a difference are ones that engage people in an intimate way, confront them with their freedom, and invite them to cocreate a future possibility.


Postive change will happen in your lifetime. It just might not come from where you expect.

Have a great weekend.


texasholly said...

"The essential aspect of restoration of community is a context in which each citizen chooses to be accountable rather than entitled." I think past politicians have been trying to move some of the public in a direction they don't want to go a place where they have no accountability. Like herding cats into a pool...no matter what slant the floor is the cats are going to be very mad and a bit disgruntled. I don't know if that made sense, but the visual is making me laugh.

I am going to get the book. I like him already.

Ron Davison said...

you are getting the book? I guess if anyone would know that the small group is the unit of transformation, it would be a mother who home schools. I'm glad you like his ideas.

Tim Coulter said...


Sounds like a great read.

Do you have success taking these types of ideas, and making part of your common lexicon and activities.

My challenge is that I nod yes while reading, and then put the book and ideas down. What has entered my mind never touches my actions.

Ron Davison said...

Oh, now you are hitting where it hurts. Yes, it is a challenge to put these suggestions into action. I took some comfort in seeing Dee Hock (founder of VISA and proponent of systems thinking as Chaordic) say that even with all his success at VISA, he only was able to apply about 30% of his ideas. I have had some success with some of the ideas Peter Block articulates. I would love to create a forum for trying the whole ball of wax.

Life Hiker said...

"The media's power is the power to name the public debate. Or, in other words, the power to name 'reality.'"

This quote really struck me.

Right now I feel like we are living in an election dreamworld. Much of the media is focusing on controversies about "lipstick" or making a new celebrity of Palin...remember when Obama was the new celebrity? They are defining the reality of this election.

Meanwhile the economy is in a nosedive, our national debt is mounting rapidly, our energy policy is not worth spit, and we face serious current and future threats.

What is the reality? The "lipstick" dust-up, the latest celebrity, or our need for a government that really has its act together? Is our media at fault for making its living on trivia, or are we at fault for paying attention to it?

Tim Coulter said...

Life Hiker,

Wouldn't it be great to take a systems approach to government. Actually tweak one component, like taxes and see what the result is? Raise taxes on everyone making more than 50,000 to 80% for every dollar after that and see how it affects the economy in one area of the country? Or set another region of the country with a national sales tax of $.08 and see how that region responds.

One example of taking a scientific approach was the book "The Bell Curve". The results didn't fit into PC thinking so the writers were demonized.

We get so carried away, talking about who's right and wrong, and forget that it is not who, it is what.

Some areas are not even open for discussion anymore, like Man Made Global warning. A large part of the arctic ice shelf collapsed a couple of weeks ago and it made headlines. The overall ice thickness in the arctic is significantly increased, this year, and it isn't reported on. Or the fact that this year has been cooler than the last 5 years. Doesn't fit the hockey stick, but also doesn't get the news because we aren't interested in facts.

Oh, and about the lipstick dustup, Obama was talking about Palin, IMHO, and that is how the crowd interpretted it if you watch the films. This was a prepared speech, so it isn't as if there wasn't some thought put into it. I actually thought that it was a pretty good twist of the words, but also pretty juvenile;-) He has done this before, like rubbing his cheek with his middle finger while talking about Hillary. Or the classic, texting the name of his VP running mate @ 3am. I see him chuckling and saying, "Hillary, here is another 3am phone call you won't have to worry about answering;-)". Witty, subtle, but oh so juvenile.

Politics are entertaining, and this has been one of the more enjoyable silly seasons in history. Cherish it;-)

Ron Davison said...

We do have such an experiment - we have more than 200 countries on the planet. In the last decade, a communist country (China) has had one of the best growth rates in the world, Mexico, with its 18.5% tax rate has per capita income less than 1/5th of Sweden's, with a 50.5% tax rate. There are some generalizations we could make, I think: communities that combine individual initiative and entrepreneurship (something that suggests tax cuts and deregulation) with big investments in infrastructure and education and standards and a healthy financial system (something that suggests government spending and regulation) seem to do well. As cliche as it sounds, neither unfettered markets nor centrally controlled economies seem to do as well as the Keynesian hybrid. The idea of an unfettered market is about as quaint and cute as the belief in communism. It is, however, fairly common in certain ideological backwaters of the country.

Tim Coulter said...


Excellent points.

China is a great example. So it went from an open unfettered economy, to a government controlled economy, and that obviously spurred the enormous growth, right?;-) You might agree that China could be used as an argument for both sides of this issue?

Or Mexico, the one truly unfettered market that it has, is the illegal drug industry, it seems to be prospering at a record rate.;-)

But seriously, what is holding Mexico's economy back is the government corruption, IMHO. The listed tax rate might be 18.5%, but when la mordida is taken into consideration, it is much larger.

A number of years ago, I tried to start a business in the Philippines. I was given the name of a family that would have to be given half ownership in the company if I wanted to start the business. All of the investment etc would be mine, but they would get half. I am guessing that Mexico would be similar?

I will concede your point that there are some very good examples to study, not just in current times but also in history.

Taking a scientific approach, doesn't mean ignoring good examples, but we would understand that the valid experiment would need to be in a controlled environment, in a petri dish, right?

Lifehiker said...

"Man-Made Climate Change" is not up for discussion? It's a fact that it doesn't exist? I guess 98% of the scientific community is wrong, then, and Tim is right. Let's just keep on pumping that good old CO2 into the air! Don't worry, it's harmless. Tim says so.

Somewhere I heard that "taking a scientific approach" might mean paying attention to the scientists, at least for us non-PhD's in science.

Just like we should have paid attention to those economists who said we shouldn't give 100% mortgages on inflated properties to people who haven't the income to make the payments.

I betcha Bear,Stearns and Lehman Brothers wishes that some good regulation had been in place to keep them from betting their firms on securities with the stability of jello.

Whether it be "reputable science" or "common-sense economic reguation", we know where the republican party takes its cue. The Energy and Real Estate lobbies own that party, and neither has any shame about screwing the American public to make a lot of bucks.

I'm awed by both these groups, though. Their PR campaigns work. They understand perfectly that America has more than enough boneheads who will buy just about any appeal to fear or greed. Fear and greed trump science and economics every day of the week, suckers!

Ron Davison said...

that would be a fascinating thing to look at - whether there is a correlation between tax rates and bribery. Norway is typically the most honest and transparent community and has what we think of terribly high tax rates. By contrast, many low tax rate countries have terribly high informal taxes in the form of bribes, etc.
But I had to laugh, Tim. You did have me going. "Bush is doing a great job. Climate change is dubious science but racism is good science." I should have realized earlier that you were being absurd rather than serious, but you did suck me into responding. You played me well.