Six key ideas on changing the world

Are you trying to change something simple – something that you already know can easily be changed – something requiring no further thought? Yes? Then you don’t need this article.

Or are you trying to change something difficult – but in a situation where you know the recipe? You know exactly how you’re going to achieve a guaranteed difference even if it’s going to take time and effort? It’s simply one foot in front of the other – step by step? Yes? Then you don’t need this article either.

For the rest of us…

We’re working “on encouraging more people to cycle” or “towards walkable neighbourhoods” or on “inspiring the creation of liveable cities”…  or on many other equally complex and difficult problems.

Essentially: We’re wanting to change the way that the world works.

This article will be a quick run-through of six key ideas which I feel to be particularly important when we’re looking at this kind of difficult change. These ideas aren’t complicated. This isn’t an academic article. These things are easily understood, and immediately useful. But all of them are often forgotten.

Which leads me nicely onto the first key idea.

(By the way, if you’re new to the idea that ‘change’ can be difficult then start with my article ‘This isn’t going to be easy‘ and come back here afterwards.)

1. Labelling the problem


A really good starting point is simply to recognise that we’re working on this special kind of difficult change. We need to actually notice that we’re not just working on a difficult change, but that it’s a special kind of difficult change.

What we specifically need to notice is that the change we’re working on is difficult in these ways:

  • There is no recipe which guarantees positive results (and there never will be). We’ll need to make up what we’re going to do as we go along.
  • Therefore to make progress we’re going to need to experiment.
  • Because we’re experimenting we’re going to fail quite a lot of the time. If we’re not willing to fail we won’t be able to properly experiment (and therefore we’ll not make progress)
  • Every intervention is risky, no intervention is guaranteed to make things better, and even interventions which do good probably do harm at the same time.
  • There’s no guarantee that what worked yesterday will continue working tomorrow because the landscape we’re navigating is continually changing. In particular, there will be effective reactions corresponding to any effective action which we take.
  • Money and time and effort alone will not be sufficient.

Some people may be reading this and thinking that it doesn’t apply to them (even though I told them at the beginning that they shouldn’t read any further). They may think that they DO know what the recipe for change is – that they DO know what’s required to make change happen – that with enough work they WILL make a difference. This might be true – they may be working on simple (but difficult) change. But THE biggest mistake when working on the kind of change that I describe above, is not to notice that this is the case.

Once we’ve noticed that this is what we’re up against it helps to find some words or phrases to act as shorthand to mean “the kinds of changes which are difficult to achieve, and where there’s no guarantee that we’ll be successful” (since this is a mouthful in regular conversation). We need to find a label we can apply…

Personally the phrases I use most often are “system change”, “cultural change”, “systemic change”, “social change”, or “adaptive change”. You might like one of those, but it really doesn’t matter too much. Make up your own if you like. Or go and read some theories. This kind of ‘change’ is studied widely, and there is no shortage of words associated with it.

2. Humility

tools7People involved in work on system change need to be humble – they need to not be too sure of themselves.

Are you happy that you’re making a real difference and that things are definitely going well? Are you happy that you are genuinely making real change happen? Are you happy that you are negotiating all the challenges successfully?

If your answer is ‘yes’ then I’m going to (humbly) suggest two possibilities (bearing point 1 in mind):

The first possibility is that your beliefs about your ability to make change happen have blinded you to the fact that actually you’re having very little or no real effect. Everything is going well because you’re not creating any effective opposition. You’re not creating any effective opposition because there’s not really anything really significant to oppose. The world at large is happy with what you’re doing specifically because you’re not really disturbing it in any significant way.

The second possibility is that you ARE making real change happen, but that you’ve not looked behind you. Something is coming to get you. You’re happy because you’ve not noticed how much your intervention is at risk…. because if you’re making real change happen then you WILL be generating some kind of social response, and it WILL be powerful and effective.

The whole reason that phrases like ‘cultural change’ exist in the first place is because of the common experiences, shared by people from all walks of life, over centuries and centuries, in finding out that human systems can’t be made to change as easily as it is at first thought/assumed.

People have learned the hard way.

Here’s an analogy: What would you think if you met someone who declared confidently “I understand people.”  Personally I’d simply not believe them. No matter how much training a person had in counselling or psychology or any similar subject (about people) you’d think them overly confident. Some may ‘understand people’ more than others ‘understand people’ but nobody ‘understands people’ completely. You should apply the same logic to anyone or any organisation who/which thinks they know how to make human systems change. Nobody knows the answers. It’s not that easy.

So take note! Humility is vital. If we’re absolutely sure that we’re making a difference, or if we can’t see some really difficult problems ahead, then we need to be asking others to help us to understand what we’re missing.

3. Dreaming

tools3So we’ve recognised that we’re engaged in systemic change. And we’re feeling humble and uncertain of a way forward.

One very powerful (and essential) next step is to start to dream…

Okay so as soon as I start using the word ‘dream’ or ‘dreaming’ I’m going to put some people off.

But on the other hand if I use the word ‘vision’ I bring to mind all sorts of corporate stuff which will get in the way of my main point. So bear with me…

What I want to say is this: It is vital that when we explain what we’re working for we can point at something that people can buy into. For this to happen – if we’re asking people to buy into something very different and to fundamentally change their beliefs – then they will need to feel an emotional connection with what we’re offering. Facts and figures, reports and logic, fear and worry – these aren’t going to help very much. We need to give them something they are drawn towards.

And if we’re going to describe something in a way that makes it attractive it’s going to need depth, and colour, and feeling. And with this depth and colour we’ll create something memorable.

I use the word ‘dream’ for this. You can call it ‘vision’ if you like.

What’s important, whatever you call it, is that we think deeply about our dream.

Maybe you are working for safe cycle tracks? But that’s not terribly inspiring for most people, and certainly not for someone who doesn’t ever imagine themselves on a bicycle. Wouldn’t it be better to tell people that you’re working for a future where children could cycle safely? That’s a bit more exciting and engaging isn’t it?

But we can easily push that further. We could tell people “we’re fighting for a city where young and old can choose to get around on bicycles and where cycling is fun.” That’s better isn’t it?

But maybe you’re still not listening – I’m talking of a dream which will be engaging for a much wider audience, not just something of interest to people who already like bicycles. We’re going to have to think much bigger…

What will it mean for ordinary people when cycling becomes ordinary? What will the city or town feel like? What will it smell like? What will it sound like? Once more people are cycling what else will change? And forget bicycles, what will it feel like to walk around? What will it be like to shop in? How will people spend their time differently? AND why will they like it that way?

If we can provide people with a convincing vision which captures these things, only then – once it’s properly imaginative – is it going to become properly believable.

What else is important in a dream? Well here’s one thing to look out for: it should be a dream not an anti-nightmare. It needs to capture what it is that you’re working toward, not what we want to get rid of.

So my suggestion is to talk about your dreams – explore them in depth. Draw pictures. Take photos of stuff that inspires you. Write about it. Describe why the world would be better for everyone. Fill in the detail.

And I’d suggest that we mostly stop talking about ‘more cycling’ and ‘more walking’, stop telling people why driving is bad, stop telling people that cycling and walking are good, and stop telling them why the current situation is so problematic. These things are important for people to know. The DO matter. BUT most people almost certainly know all of these things already so in general terms we’re wasting our effort.

4. Storytelling

tools4Boring facts and figures – however right they are – however dramatic they are – don’t tend to inspire people. Can you remember what percentage of people it was that you read about the other day? Can you quote me the economic value of something or other? Maybe you can – but do you think that the people you quote that figure to will remember it?

On the other hand a story can be accessible – memorable – and it can convey emotion, be engaging, communicate passion.

Take a look at my blog post “What nobody told me“.  Why do you think I wrote it in the way I did? I turned it into a story because it communicated what I wanted to communicate more effectively that way. It’s had tens of thousands of readers from across the globe. My observations might be good observations – but can you imagine how much less engaging this article would be (how much smaller the audience would have been) if I’d just listed my observations in a factual way?

And what good is a dream without the ability to communicate it to others? Stories are good for communicating dreams (or nightmares).

So stories need to become one of our most important tools for communication connected with our efforts on systemic change.

5. Recruitment

tools6We’re wanting to change “how things are done around here”. We want other people to come and join us in thinking a different way – in behaving in a different way.

A few people are happy to be out in front, all alone, doing things differently, doing things “not how things are done around here.” But that’s a difficult place to be, and people like this are very unusual.

The vast majority of us don’t want to be out in front and all alone. Most people are a bit sheep like. They may be adventurous sheep – or cautious sheep – but one way or another they’re going to stay relatively close to the other sheep.

But there are plenty of people prepared to join others in doing things differently – to join a different group of sheep, even if it’s just a small flock. People vary in their willingness to do this, but one way or another a really key way that change happens is through this process of joining up.

Have you noticed that people who drive (even those who really really like cars) rarely would put ‘driver’ on their twitter profile – but many of those for whom cycling is important are quite happy to label themselves ‘cyclist’. Why is that?  That’s people joining something different – identifying that they aren’t alone. Their colleagues might think them a bit odd for using a bicycle, but with this action they are saying ‘I’m not alone’ and ‘it’s not just me’.

So when we’re wanting people to think or act differently then one of the most powerful tools we have is if we connect them in with others who are already thinking or acting differently. And I’m not talking here about people becoming ‘cyclists’  but about them joining up with a much wider set of practices and ideas… designing differently, or talking differently, or imagining a different future city.

Think of this as recruiting people to the new way – not pushing them into the new way, not educating them, not persuading them, not even informing them, but recruiting them.

Think about this: if we stopped persuading and started recruiting what would change in our approach?

6. Being light on our feet

tools5System change – as we’ve discussed now at some length – is very very difficult. Systems are very effective at resisting change.

But systems can also be really slow to react…

The system we’re trying to change is already on to us – it’s already finding ways to fight back. It has the advantage in terms of power. It has lots of other advantages in terms of its ability to find gaps in our armour – gaps in our argument. After all ‘the system’ in this sense is simply the sum of all the human habits and beliefs held by all those many people who don’t see the world in the way we see it. So the system’s opposition to us needn’t be coordinated – it can arise organically, built around whatever is currently proving to be effective in undermining our efforts.

But – and this is important – we have the advantage in terms of flexibility. Systems are slow. We can be nimble. We can do something different. We can stay light on our feet. We can move onto the next tactic as soon as the current one stops working.

The system will respond – and it’ll do so effectively – but a key way to make change happen is to stay a step ahead of this.


This article was never intended as the complete guide to change (not least because it would be ridiculous to try to write such a thing). I’ve not written down THE six key ideas that people need to remember. This is just six selected key ideas to get started with. There are plenty more out there.

But based on the above, here is a quick set of summary questions for people trying to think this through:

  • Do you have words available that you can use to talk to other people about this kind of difficult change? Have you recognised that what you’re doing isn’t just difficult, but that there is no recipe for change? That everything you do creates a reaction (which lessens its effect)?
  • Are you always thinking about what’s working and what’s not working? Or are you doing tomorrow what you did yesterday?
  • Can you say what kind of world you’re dreaming of? Can you put this into words (or pictures)? Have you managed to get that our of your head and into a form that will inspire other people?
  • Do you have some stories to tell? Do you use these? Are they deep and rich? Are they memorable? Do they convey the complex ideas that you’re trying to convey? Do they communicate your dream?
  • Are you recruiting people to your way of thinking, or are you trying to persuade them? Are you offering people something to join? Or are you only telling them they need to leave something behind?
  • And are you staying light on your feet?


See also…

and the short articles…


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  1. If only I’d read this before last night’s meeting, I’d have lower blood pressure. (We were listening to Edinburgh council give their presentation on their proposed tram extension and what – or more what it didn’t – mean for cycling).

    Excellent. I’ll be pointing thoughtful (humble?) folk here for the meta- view, along with katsdekker’s old WordPress blog.


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