12 habits of successful change-makers: taking responsible risks (or failing effectively)

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s Social Change Project investigated how social change happens. The research identified “the 12 habits of successful change-makers”, behaviours found in both individuals and organisations. Every month in 2019, SMK CEO and ACEVO trustee Sue Tibballs will reflect on what these habits mean for civil society leaders and invite you to do the same.

Habit #12: One of the greatest threats to effective change can be risk-aversion itself. Is it possible to embrace risk responsibly?

I am repeatedly struck by the double standards applied to business and civil society. Though 90% of business start-ups fail, they are not regarded as irresponsible or reckless but as brave pathfinders carving out new routes to success. Those who invest are regarded as champions of entrepreneurship. Yet civil society organisations are rarely permitted to take risks in order to achieve their social missions, while funders and donors often want cast-iron guarantees of impact.

I fear this lack of entrepreneurial zeal inhibits civil society from reaching its full potential. I’m not suggesting that I want to see 90% of charities fail, or that the cost of failure is only financial. Indeed, the cost of failure can be much greater – damaging people’s wellbeing or even survival. But whether you are re-designing a service or trying to shift political opinion, the cost of not acting or ignoring a hunch can be just as high.

The barriers to pursuing change effectively, confidently and, above all, humanely are varied. Yet, again and again, our conversations with change-makers lead back to the same place – a civil society culture that requires certainty. Organisations that experience on a daily basis how beautifully complicated human beings are will also claim that campaigns and services can be calculated on the basis that ‘if we input x and y, we will get z’. Our ability to live with this dissonance is what also allows us, in too many cases, to ignore the risk that we are fiddling while Rome burns.

When it comes to campaigning, there is a real risk in regarding it as distinct from, say, service delivery or attitudinal change. A winnable change with a clear end goal that we can plan a ‘campaign’ to reach should be part of the broader, richer social change the organisation is committed to. Indeed, helping people to speak up or campaign is itself a service.

Campaigners often report that they are under pressure to create ‘quick win’ campaigns, rather than ensuring that goals arise out the wider work of the organisation. This can require tactics that will get us to our goal quickly, whatever the costs. Who gets left behind if we win, and would it ultimately be worth it? Can we say that we are successful if we win a campaign, but our narratives and actions damage other parts of civil society in the process? I’m thinking about the ‘local homes for local people’ narrative devised to defeat NIMBYism but that plays into anti-immigration rhetoric. Or the portrayal of people in developing nations as ‘victims’ in need of immediate help that actually plays into the case against overseas aid.

To create a culture of responsible risk-taking, you first need to make room for failure. Allow people to try out new ideas where there is a good case for doing so. With the right contingency planning and monitoring, sometimes taking risks can be the most responsible action. The good news is that there are signs that funders increasingly recognise this, with many working hard to relax reporting frameworks and make room for learning.

Economist Tim Harford offers three steps to failing effectively:

  1. Try new things, expecting some will fail.
  2. Make failure survivable: create safe spaces for failure and move forward in small steps.
  3. Make sure you know when you’ve failed, or you will never learn.

Failing takes time, effort and money – but it might be the most effective way to get where you’re going.

Read the full series.

Photo by Loic Leray on Unsplash

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