"Unlike social service providers, social entrepreneurs explicitly aim to permanently and systematically transform a miserable or unfair societal condition. Unlike social advocates, social entrepreneurs act directly, creating a product, service, or methodology that spurs the transformation of the status quo."
Social entrepreneurship is a nascent concept that defines how the world’s most successful leaders transform societies. In Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurs Work, Roger L. Martin and Sally R. Osberg explain the stages of transformation through incredible stories of social injustice and the steps remarkable leaders took to become catalysts for change.
Martin and Osberg give us a basic framework for thinking about the process of social entrepreneurship rather than a specified set of instructions. The process consists of four stages. The first step is understanding the system as it and how to navigate within accepted parameters. The second phase is envisioning specific changes for a segment of the population. The third step is building a model for change that reduces costs or increases value systemically and permanently. The last stage is scaling the solution in a way creates value, and does not require reapplication or continued investment at the initial level. The leader becomes a catalyst for change, the solution is affordable and practical and adopted by the beneficiaries. The result is widespread acceptance of the new idea that changes the equilibrium of thought throughout the society, and the old idea is obsolete.
With the best of intentions, we donate our time and money to charity. We feel we’ve done our part to fix the problem and absolve ourselves of responsibility for the solution. However, we fail to empower those we wish to help, they don’t identify the problem as we see it and they don’t share responsibility for the solution. All too often the problem persists. In this summary I want to focus on the first stage of social transformation: understanding the system and the problem. All leaders should begin here; we waste resources when we apply a solution before understanding the problem.
The Big Idea
Understand the world you want to change
"Social entrepreneurs must navigate three powerful tensions in understanding the world they wish to change: abhorrence and appreciation; expertise and apprenticeship; and experimentation and commitment."
The first step every leader needs to take is understanding the problem we want to change. It may be obvious to an outsider how a custom has harmful consequences, like causing suffering or inequality. It’s important to recognize how and why the practice serves the needs of that population. What are the accepted beliefs and rules within this world? Understand and appreciate the perspective of the lives you seek to change as you preserve abhorrence of the outcome.
The process requires us to accept a contradiction. We gain an insiders perspective as we learn about what we don’t yet understand. At the same time, we retain what we already know from an outsider’s perspective. Merging these two viewpoints generates innovative solutions. Then, as we gain understanding and experiment with ideas, we gather information about what works. Finally, we commit to ideas that solve problems.
This type of thinking is a grueling process. It requires the leader to understand and appreciate two opposing ideas. Not just comprehending that people think differently, but to work within the group to share ideas and experiment with change. Too often the paradox is hard to resolve, so we skip to the solution, and it’s ineffective or rejected by the population we wish to help.
Communicate curiosity and respect
"The current equilibrium feels to them certain and unchangeable. It is just the way things are—and it is the way it is for a reason; accordingly, advocates for change can be seen as both delusional and dangerous. Those who most appreciate the current equilibrium, in other words, may be least likely to want to change it."
We should not assume others want or need our help to change. It’s human nature to accept the status quo and find our identity within our traditions. Communication is the key to understanding the perspective of another culture. However distasteful a practice or attitude is, it’s important to appreciate how it serves a purpose to the population we wish to change. Genuine respect for another person’s perspective has to come before communication lines open, we examine new ideas, and develop solutions.
The first step is to communicate genuine friendship through curiosity and respect. If you approach the situation that you wish to change with judgment, convey disgust, and demand action, your changes will be rejected. It feels safe to keep things as they are and dangerous to alter conventions. Practices serve a purpose within their context. Agents of change don’t work against accepted policies. Instead, they work to change them in a way that creates new value.
Exchange ideas, experiment, and commit
"The most successful social entrepreneurs demonstrate a willingness to question assumptions and a resilience that prevents them from being devastated when those assumptions turn out to be invalid. They know the only way to really learn about the world, and certainly the best way to learn how to change it, is to test and experiment in that world."
A leader gains an understanding of the world they wish to change by openly communicating. At the same time, they retain and contribute their expertise. Initial assumptions may be misleading. Effective leaders experiment with new ideas to gain knowledge, revise invalid assumptions, and begin again to find the most useful solutions. Finally, they commit to actions and more experiments using their best results. Unless the leader is engaged in a dialog with the world, their wish to change this type of analysis is not possible.
A good leader implements a solution and follows the results. As more members of a group accept changes, the equilibrium gradually shifts until they abandon old ways and the new idea becomes the norm. During this process many changes take place, and we need to make gradual adjustments, or the transformation will fail. The leader must be deeply committed and aware of the impact of the changes. Change is a long term process that is very different from a one-time intervention or provision to assuage suffering.
The stories in Getting Beyond Better are not exclusively, but primarily, about social entrepreneurship in a third world context. The process the authors describe is a framework that is applicable as a guideline for stimulating social changes in a global context or within your community or organization. This summary is about how to begin, which I think this is the most important step. We must approach an unfair situation we want to change with understanding and respect. If we start by communicating hatred or assuming we understand, we squander our well-meant contribution of money and hard work.