Is Meaningful Change Possible?

“The problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that we were at when we created the problems.” ~ Albert Einstein

There have been discussions about organizational change for decades now – about whether and why it’s necessary, and how to go about it. Yet despite all of the work in management schools and consulting firms, despite the multitude of how-to, why-to and what-to books, I sometimes wonder whether we’ve made any progress at all.

In fact, on some days, I wonder whether many of the approaches and efforts have taken us backwards. This is one reason why I and many others continue to ask the question: Is meaningful change possible in many organizations?

Though seemingly simple, this question – is meaningful change possible – is fully loaded. In asking such a question, for example, we have to consider what we’re changing from. A foray into recent and current events surely shows both need and ample opportunity for meaningful change, if only because our current “norm” is destructive and unsustainable.

In this article, we’ll look at one possible answer to this question, as well as review potential discussion-starters for action steps that are within your control regardless of what’s going on around you.

The case for change has (for too long) been in the headlines

The well-researched and well-received documentary, The Corporation, among other works, shined the light on other dark corners of the corporate boardroom, and questioned the very sanity of the corporate structure itself, as did the book by Joel Bakan upon which the documentary was based. (The prognosis? Many prevalent and dominant corporations can easily be diagnosed as psychopaths.)

With such a display of profit-gluttony – an out-of-control lust for quick financial wealth earned with the least possible effort (which means on the backs and out of the pockets of too many others) – it seems clear that we have a culture which encourages and protects this type of behavior, and leads to gluttony in other areas as well (such as public and Earth resources, people, etc.).

The Golden Rule of this set seemed (and perhaps still seems) to be “the wealth of the few at the expense of the many.” What’s even more strange is that many among the general populace, while angry and frustrated, seem to just swallow one more spoonful of scandal, and then up the dosage of their latest anxiety prescription. Perhaps to them, it seems an overwhelming dilemma.

New questions arise about alternatives to profit gluttony and destructive “business as usual” practices

The events of the past five-to-eight years have catalyzed new questions for the many people who are endeavoring to create something better – a way of living, working, trading goods and services with personal and civic integrity, enthusiasm for the common good, and the freedom to develop and put your gifts to good use in a way that yields a good quality of life. This way of working and living incorporates our highest priorities, including the ones that aren’t preceded by a dollar sign.

These civic-minded questions might include: How do we create a healthy, vibrant market that serves the public good? Are ethical, inspired leadership and true “good citizenship” possible from a large, publicly traded company? (Remember, many of these Fallen Corporations were only recently considered excellent models of corporate citizenship.)

How can we create organizations that provide valuable goods and services in a way that earns trust, builds healthy communities, honors the people doing the work, and operates in harmony with the environment that sustains our very lives? What can individual citizens do to insist on something better from those in whose hands we put the collective trust – and purse? Is meaningful change possible, and if it is, how can we approach it?

These are all worthy questions, given the current events and headlines taking their toll on millions of decent, hard-working people, not to mention the effects on the Earth and other creatures. And there are many other questions just like these. But we’ll focus, for now, on the last one: Is meaningful change possible, and if it is, how can we approach it?

What qualifies as meaningful change?

As we know, change isn’t just possible, it’s one of the few absolutes. Things are changing around you right now. You’re changing right now. The good news is that there are individuals, small groups, and even some larger organizations or systems that are endeavoring to plant the seeds of something that honors our best and fullest potential.

As for exploring and planting seeds for meaningful change, what’s meaningful? In this article, our definition of meaningful change folds in some of the other questions included above. For example, we might consider that meaningful change:

  • Is, on the whole, positive, sustainable, and learning- and life-supporting in its implementation and effect.
  • Includes public participation and decisive decision-making, rather than tyrannical, self-serving control of the many by the few.
  • Helps create a healthy, vibrant market that serves the public good, made up of organizations that do the same.
  • Includes and fosters ethical, inspired leadership and civic integrity at all levels of the organization or community – even in large, publicly traded companies (because anything else ruins chances for public support and good return on investment).
  • Has as the norm organizations that provide valuable goods and services in a way that earns trust, builds healthy communities, honors the people doing the work, and operates in harmony with the environment that sustains our very lives.
  • Includes accountability that is based in consumer or individual “public-citizen” awareness and decision-making – supporting people and organizations that contribute positively to the public good, a healthy community and vibrant market, or shunning those who breach the public trust out of greedy self-interest. For egregious violations of trust, civil and criminal penalties are enforced equally.

These elements can just as easily be applied to an individual as to a small business, non-profit organization, large corporation, community, church or government.

Despite the barrage of unpleasant news reports about the latest ethical scandal, there is a great deal of hope that something else, something more positive and prosperous, is possible. Naïve? Perhaps, but also well-founded. The idea that there is hope amidst even the most horrible of circumstances has been championed by many of our truly inspirational and ethical leaders or visionaries – A.T. Ariyaratne, Mohandas Gandhi, Vaclav Havel, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Sojourner Truth, and others.

Mr. Havel, who was ultimately elected president of Czechoslovakia, wrote the following while imprisoned for speaking out against tyranny:

“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world … It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons … Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Others, like Albert Einstein, reminded us that often, in the midst of even the most difficult or seemingly hopeless circumstances, we might also find an unrivaled richness of opportunity. Whether we see a multitude of possibilities or a lack thereof depends wholly on the perspective we choose to adopt.

For those seeking to plant the seeds of something better, there are plenty of inspiring role models. And there are many things you can do – individually or with a group. Small things, subtle things, bold things or more involved things, as best befits your personality and preference for participation. But participation of some sort is a must. Here’s one exercise to consider, and you’ll find many more suggestions throughout Ivy Sea Online and many of the sites linked from this one.

Meaningful Change
Suggestion #1 – Think globally, discuss and act very locally

Use the above meaningful-change list as a catalyst for personal reflection and then as a discussion-starter for your group. The reflection can start with the more global issues and circumstances, and then move to the more localized issues and circumstances.

For example, you might start with broader cultural or market conditions, then move to things happening in general with your market niche, organization, department or group, and even for you individually. As you settle into the smaller units – your group and you, individually – you enter the terrain over which you have the greatest control, and which can then ripple back out into to the broader system.

Once you’ve reflected and jotted personal notes, you might gather for conversation with your group, starting with the following questions:

  •  What else would you add to the above list of elements required for transformation to be meaningful to you?
  • What would each look, sound and feel like in action?
  • What values are behind each element on this list?
  • How would others experience your doing and being these things?
  • What is the possible “shadow side” of each element listed?
  • Where are you as an individual or group “complacent in your silence” of behaviors or activities that are unethical, uncivil, destructive or otherwise harmful to the public good?
  • What are some ways that you can skillfully and respectfully (as opposed to emotionally, harshly and judgmentally) raise awareness in these situations in a way that is appropriate for you and that diminishes neither your own or another’s dignity?
  • What positive traits and things do you do now that are aligned with this more positive view of what’s possible for you as an individual, group or organization?
  • What are other people doing in ways that you admire or find positive and interesting? How can you learn from their examples?
  • What simple, every day steps might you take – individually and as a group – that are aligned with the intentions and values behind the desire for meaningful evolution to a healthier organization and way of being?
  • How can you support one another in making this your norm (or, if you’re doing this individually, from whom can you get support so that it becomes the norm and perhaps inspires others as well)?

Start with simple gestures, and ripple outward

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones that are most responsive to change.” ~ Charles Darwin

In quantum physics, there is something known as the Butterfly Effect. Because we are all parts of one unified whole, the butterfly flapping its wings has an effect on weather elsewhere in the system. This and other new-science theories (which are actually ancient wisdom reborn using new language) suggest that your thinking and daily actions can and do have an effect on your reality, and thus on others. By starting small, and cultivating a practice that focuses on your own thinking and actions, you can have a positive effect that ripples outward.

Simple things that you can do each day might stem from a belief that the only thing you can truly control is your own thinking (and beliefs, etc.), the actions you choose to take, and how you choose to respond and participate, etc. If you have shared values and intentions with other individuals in your group, you can then define the actions and ways of thinking that you as a group are willing to explore and demonstrate, and you can provide one another with crucial support and encouragement as your practice and implement.

You can do this exercise in one longer session, or you can break it up for reflection and discussion over a series of group meetings.

As you discover other articles and tips on Ivy Sea Online, you’ll find many other suggestions for practical, everyday actions you can take to increase your enjoyment and skillfulness as you seize daily opportunities for planting the seeds of meaningful change.

So is meaningful change possible? Yes it is, and it starts with you, right now.

This article was originally featured at Ivy Sea Online and is reprinted with permission.

© 2005 – 2014, Jamie Walters. All rights reserved.