Transition Culture

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21 Jan 2014

Les Robinson on Changeology, scaling up, and solutions that "stick"


One of the books I read recently which had useful insights to offer for our current discussions about scaling up was Les Robinson’s book Changeology, subtitled “how to enable groups, communities and societies to do things they’ve never done before”.  Sounds like just the thing.  It’s a book about creating social change solutions that stick, and much of it resonates with Transition.  I managed to catch up with Les just before he headed out on an 8 day camping trip, and started by asking him to introduce himself to any readers who have never come across his work before. 

“I once worked for a small social marketing company in Sydney, designing ad campaigns to get people to recycle, compost their waste, not smoke in front of their kids, not give their best from his last drink, that kind of thing. I had an epiphany about 15 years ago, when I realised that using advertising to change behaviour was probably a waste of time because advertising, after all, had never got me to change my own behaviour. So, what might?

I realised that, when I adopted new behaviours in my own life, I was choosing behaviours that I thought bettered my life and which felt safe and controllable. Reasons didn’t seem to matter much, it was more about imagination, about being able to visualize myself living a dream. So this was the start of the journey of discovery that led to Changeology.

Les Robinson

I currently have my own business training change makers in project design, and work with practically every kind of state agency, local government and NGOs.

Could you give us an overview of Changeology and the ideas it presents?

coverChangeology is a good hard look at what the last 40 years of scholarship, activism and practice have taught us about influencing the human behaviour at the scale of groups and communities.

I wanted to make it really useful for practitioners, so it’s packed with ideas and inspiring examples.

I realised that five success factors tend to be built into successful change efforts, no matter what the scale:

First, the buzz was right. People were talking, in a positive, empowered way, about the new behaviour, idea or product.

Second, the new behaviour was about scratching people’s itches, letting them overcome frustrations in their lives, becoming healthier, closer, stronger, safer, increasing their autonomy and control of the details of their lives and also adding to their self-esteem.

Third, the new behaviour was easy to understand and do. Design for convenience is vital if you want to move beyond the totally committed. The new behaviour should be an easy fit for people’s complicated lives.

Fourth, successful change projects paid great attention to helping people manage the perceived risks of change. Change is scary. People who ride bikes, for example, tend to discount the fears of those who don’t. We always need to focus on expanding people’s comfort zones so they feel safe, especially from the possibility of humiliation if they don’t get it right the first time. Fortunately there are lots of ways to do this, which I cover in the book.

Fifthly, change is like a dinner party. Even if you are all dressed to go, someone has to invite you along. Finding the right inviter – someone who is passionate, similar, respected, connected, and powerless – matters greatly.

Changeology is about how we, as practitioners, go about activating these five ingredients in our projects.

In the book you mention the ‘Diffusion of Innovation’ model. What’s your sense of what an innovation needs in order to step across from the Early Adopters to the Early Majority?

Typically, early adopters are 20% or so of a social system. If you have a good idea, getting them involved is often pretty easy because they are already looking for advantages in their lives, businesses, farms etc and they have the resources and confidence to put new ideas into practice. “Crossing the chasm” to involve the rest of a social system is much trickier.

What seems to make the difference is having the courage to put aside your Version 1.0 that worked well with the first 20% and take the risk of redesigning a Version 2.0 that’s specifically suited to people with fewer resources, less time and less interest in the reasons you think are important. Instead of, for example, focusing on the reason (climate change), you would aim to get people adopting energy efficient products simply because they work really well and fit people’s lives (and look cool too). This calls on us to think like designers, becoming immersed in people’s lives, imaginatively inventing solutions to their problems, and getting used to “rapid prototyping” our ideas, whether the idea is a garden party or a solar cell. And then discard our Version 2.0 for an equally risky and experimental Version 3.0. 

What compromises does something like Transition need to make in order to do that? 

Well, yes, “compromise”, unfortunately, is probably the right term. Grass roots movements like Transition often carry a big burden of ideology and missionary purism. We can be so focused on the big picture, and so desperately want others to see the world as we do, that we unintentionally create the resistance we so despise. No one wants to be told how to live their lives and the human capacity for resistance is infinite. The more we pressure people, inadvertently or not, the more they push back.

ChangeologyFor example, if we want someone to use an alternative to the car, “messaging” the disadvantages of driving will only create resistance. Instead we need to promote solutions that get people to where they want to go faster than driving. That’s because people hate spending time in transit. If we want a transport solution to spread, it has to be rapid. Without a solution that actually works, no form of communication will make any difference.

Pretty much similar considerations apply to every new idea. If we want people to join a Transition group, for example, it has to be more fun, sociable, buzz-worthy and personally rewarding than the thing they would otherwise be doing with their discretionary time.

People really only listen to each other, so the experience of a new idea is what really sells it. That new behaviour has to be a credible, buzz-worthy pathway to WHAT PEOPLE WANT, not just to what we want. The question we need to ask is not “How do we convince people?” but “How can we hand people, on a platter, a credible answer to their real life frustrations (while also tackling our environmental problem)?” This kind of thinking calls for a lot of empathy, imagination and flexibility in change makers.

What are the key components of an “effective change” project?

Well, the most important things are about how you set up your project BEFORE you start strategizing.

FIRST, convene a brains trust to help design your project, one that mixes disciplines and world-views, including technical experts, members of your “target” audience, and experienced community activators like a choir leader, an ethnic community activist, an urban gardening activist, and so on.

SECOND, don’t do any strategizing until you have got on Google for a week and prepared a briefing for your brains trust, that exposes it to unexpected solutions from around the world, as well as a good knowledge about the community you’re working with. Now is also a good time to do some interviews, focus groups or observational research to better understand your community.

THIRD, once you start strategizing together, make space for wacky ideas (they’ll end up being the best ones) by having fun, playing with toys, or Lego, or wearing party hats, and so on. It’s only by mucking around in this space that you can be really creative.

Then, of course, there’s other things good change managers do…listen for inspiring stories, keep your eyes peeled for great grass-roots advocates, figure out what you want to measure, collect results as you go, stay in touch with supporters, and so on.

You mention “tipping points”, and argue that they are an over-rated idea because they encourage complacency. Why?

Les RobinsonIn the book I argue that ideas like “tipping point” and “critical mass” are delusions because no one solution suits everyone in a social system. What suits the first 20% will have to be reinvented for the next 20%, and so on. It’s really about continuous reinvention, not just reaching a magic percentage with your existing iteration and then sitting back and waiting for your idea to conquer all.

What, for you, makes people change? Why do they do it?

People change because they’re not satisfied with their lives. Things feel wrong. A solution appears. They try it. It works or it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s a purely personal thing: taking more walks, quitting smoking. Sometimes it’s a chance to be the kind of person who makes a difference: donating time to a Transition project.

What is a Theory of Change, and why does it matter that people have one?

This is critical. Too many change projects proceed with no clear idea about why they might succeed. A Theory of Change is a simple, testable statement about why you think your project will work. It can be as simple as “IF parents observe good parenting techniques AND IF parents have a chance to discuss parenting together THEN parents will adopt better parenting techniques.” This statement is the theory of your project and your project is an experiment that tests and improves the theory. It explains what you believe you need to do to be successful in your unique situation. I suggest that change makers spend a lot more time getting clarity about their Theories of Change before they start their projects, using their brains trusts and Google searches to get ideas from around the world about what might work, then reducing it to a simple version to try in your particular situation. No Theory of Change can be perfect of course. It’s always a hunch based on the best information available to you and your brains trust, with a pinch of imagination thrown in.

What’s your observation of what might help Transition to scale up its impact?

Be visible. Develop a reputation for fun and sociability. Be the solution to needs your communities have that are unrelated to climate change. Be wacky and celebrate each time you break one of your own unspoken rules. Spend time feeling great about what you’ve done and don’t be afraid to share what inspires you about the work you do. Create delight. Seriously, it’s delight that carries stories and hopes along social networks. I think we ought to develop a Delight Index and only run projects that break 8/10.

You write of the need to “create a buzz”, but what are your thoughts on how to best sustain momentum once you’ve done that? 

Buzz or conversation is the carrier wave of change. In the book I explain how surprise and delight drive stories along social networks on a wave of peer-peer buzz. But buzz alone doesn’t make change. It’s just the carrier. You need to pay attention to the other four factors I mentioned above: make sure you’re scratching people’s itches, make it easy, make it safe, and find the right inviter. Get all four right and there’s a very good chance you’ll see new behaviours spread. And then to sustain the buzz, you’ll always need to find new ways to surprise people, which means continually upturning their stereotypes about, for instance, what Transition groups get up to. And that means surprising ourselves…a delightful challenge that, again, puts our own imaginations and flexibility to the fore!

You’ve been writing about playfulness lately, how does that help?

Beginners are often the most creative thinkers and the most successful change makers. It’s about seeing the world afresh, like children with “beginners minds”.  The simplest way to think like a child is to practice playfulness.

I’ve been experimenting with different methods in workshops lately. I discovered the most striking increase in group creativity simply by giving people party hats to wear. And kids games, like Who’s afraid of Mr Wolf? work well. I’ve made it a rule that every person has to come up with at least one ludicrous idea and I’ve offered prizes for the wackiest ideas. Even just using coloured paper makes a difference. I’ve also been giving each group a supply of Lego to play with while they’re thinking. My next experiment will be to supply each table with a pile of my 4-year old’s plastic toys and figures to play with while they’re strategizing. These methods are simple, but their effect on creativity is amazing. Of course it’s all a little unfamiliar and somewhat confronting for hard-headed activists, but if we can’t change ourselves, how can we expect others to change?

Les’s website has lots of ideas and resources for change makers.