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Complex social change is about data - and love

Blog 1 Comments

  • Leadership
  • Social innovation

Most attempts at complex social change fail. No, that's not right; nearly all attempts fail. We need different ways of thinking about change.

In a recent book on examples of highly successful social enterprise the authors – Sally Osberg and Roger Martin from the Skoll Foundation – identified recurrent factors in each case. One was a willingness to understand that every enduring state, however problematic its outcomes, must represent some kind of equilibrium, otherwise it wouldn’t persist.

Successful social enterprise shifts the equilibrium irreversibly. This is what Muhammad Yunus did with the idea and practice of microfinance in Bangladesh. This is what Molly Melching did when she mobilised thousands of Senegalese women to successfully challenge the ubiquity of female genital mutilation. To add an example closer to home, this is also what the London Challenge team did when they lifted the capital’s schools from the bottom to near the top in national performance.

In the face of shrinking budgets and growing needs, there is a growing industry in advice on how local authorities can be the catalyst for major change. SOLACE has just added its own useful reflections to that library with its pamphlet ‘Key Leadership Actions for Innovation’. It is difficult to argue with the list of ten characteristics of successful leadership including ‘clear, united and determined about the outcomes they want to achieve’, ‘engaging with key partners in an open way, evolving innovations together’ and ‘persisting for long enough to embed and scale up priority innovations’. 

SOLACE’s analysis provides a useful checklist for any leader seeking to foster more innovation. But the danger in any checklist is that by breaking up a big challenge into small parts we lose sight of the qualitative shift it involves.

Arguably, what most differentiates social innovation at scale from the day to day pursuit of improvement is its unpredictable quality. In seeking to change the underlying characteristics of a system we are engaging with high levels of complexity. We don’t know how change will unfold. Innovators don’t need a map and a list of instructions but more a compass and knapsack full of useful tools.

The terms ‘social innovation’ and ‘social entrepreneurship’ are often used interchangeably. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing as there are lessons for innovators to learn from what goes right and wrong with entrepreneurs. Successful commercial entrepreneurs often end up with a business which looks very different to the one they set up. Indeed, in his entertaining book on the reasons new businesses fail, my old friend Matthew Cain (now head of digital at Bucks CC) identifies a chief culprit in the habit of budding entrepreneurs to stick religiously to their initial idea even in the face of growing proof it isn’t working.

Unlike the often rigid and technocratic model of social impact assessment the RSA advocates ‘emergent impact’. This involves having a clear and agreed ultimate goal (as the SOLACE report says), a theory of change based on an understanding of the system in which we are working, then developing and testing a change hypothesis while being willing to adjust course at any moment. This works for us because, with a global ideas platform, major social media footprint, a range of research and development tools and a 28,000 strong Fellowship we have that bulging knapsack of tools. So too do local authorities, although this is something often councils fail to appreciate.

Talking this through recently with one of our Fellow activists I stumbled across an insight. I had spoken about the importance to emergent impact of fast feedback loops and high quality real time data. He countered by talking about ‘love’! Steve’s experience of social enterprise – one which chimes with the Skoll Foundation research - was that those who succeed demonstrate a deep empathy for those they are seeking to work with and on behalf of.

At first sight the soft skills of empathic connection and the hard skills of data analysis seem very different but on reflection we realised they were two aspects of the same discipline; listening patiently and carefully.

This sheds light on why most attempts at complex social innovation fail and the why it is so very hard to scale up successful practice. Society is complex and every problem simultaneously shares characteristics common to other similar problems while also having aspects which are unique to a particular place, system or organisation.

Emergent impact recognises the unpredictability of all attempts at social innovation while listening, and listening hard, to why things are as they are and what happens when we start to try to change them.     

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  • You say it is "difficult to argue: with SOLACE's "Key Leadership Actions for Innovation". This is typical of all management advice that relies on context-free "principles", "rules", "precepts", "imperatives" etc. etc. On inspection these turn out to be good intentions and desirable outcomes: hard to disagree with but impossible to "implement" because they are abstractions derived retrospectively. They assume knowledge of causality in complex systems with wicked problems, which is exactly what we lack! The verbs are not actions but what Gilbert Ryle called "achievement" verbs - outputs masquerading as inputs i.e. language games.


    The root cause of this is the Cartesian worldview that is still endemic in Anglo-American management thought and practice. What's needed, as philosopher, Stephen Toulmin suggests, is a "return to reason". Unfortunately with issues this deep there is no "we" to change "our" mindsets (that's Cartesian). It will take something outside of ourselves - a compelling experience - supplied, perhaps, by a Meadian "small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens" (e.g. the 17th Century Nonconformists, especially the Quakers) but more likely by something else, like nature...

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