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  Getting to Maybe

Getting to Maybe book coverIn order to accomplish great social movements, we must stop looking at the discrete elements of social projects and start trying to understand the complex relationships between them.

Getting to Maybe recognizes the experiences of a wide range of people and organizations and applies the insights of complexity theory in an effort to lay out a brand new way of thinking about making change in communities, in business, and in the world.

There is knowledge embedded in different structures – illuminating and animating that knowledge is a creative exercise and that's what Frances Westley, who co-authored the book with Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton, does. She brings together different knowledge sets to solve problems. She helps to make the impossible happen.

On this page you’ll find:

Meet Frances Westley

Frances WestleyFrances Westley served as the Executive Director of the McGill-McConnell Program, the first program to offer specialized graduate-level education for national leaders in the voluntary sector. Frances is also the James McGill Professor of Strategy in the Faculty of Management at McGill University and leads the Social Innovation initiative, a partnership between DuPont Canada and the Faculty of Management.

She is currently heading up the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, a think tank for innovative thinking and environmental problem-solving at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the first woman to head the Institute.

Frances is an accomplished author and an active consultant. She co-authored the recent book, Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed with Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton. Learn more about Frances and her journey here.

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Getting to Maybe: A Summary

Writing Getting to Maybe

While both prominent social innovators and large-scale changes are often lauded and profiled, there are few resources available that marry the two.

Frances Westley sees her life as a complex journey through which she has gained unusual competencies. As an expert on thinking about thinking, on thinking about different knowledge sets, and then on incorporating such knowledge, Frances has used her interest in social innovation to support complexity.

Along with Brenda and Michael, she asks, “What could I offer? And, what does the world need?” Getting to Maybe reflects these questions and offers a practical guide to social innovation for others in the field, as well as for anyone who wants to make a difference but are unsure where to start.

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Finding synchronicity

A movement for change represents an important stage of social innovation. This stage begins when people begin to feel outrage or discontent towards larger system forces, such as changes in the economy or a disease epidemic.

When such people begin to feel as if they can no longer endure such large system forces, they begin to connect in a variety of ways. It is often at this moment that social innovators step in to help achieve synchronicity.

Part of the dynamic of social innovation that moves a movement from an exploration to a movement for change occurs when social innovators connect to a larger group of people. A social innovator can help to develop movements for change in a number of ways:

  • They are able to articulate the general malaise.
  • They are able to articulate and reflect a group’s discontent and contribute threads for a new way of doing things.
  • They are able to feed off of the movement so that it can move much more quickly.
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The link between social innovation and movements for change

Movements for change can be seen as one piece of the cycle of social innovation.

illustration of social innovationFor a movement to have an effect, it must move beyond the grassroots. That is why social innovators and their leadership is so critical.

Innovations can occur anywhere in a system. As social innovators seek transformation, they must shake loose the resources that are invested in the old way of doing things.

Social innovation is the first loop of the eco-cycle. The back loop is where people work together. The whole movement for change occurs when the movement is out and at play. Some leaders can operate beyond the initial stages of a movement, others are active only in particular stages of innovation, and few are present from beginning to end.

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Tips for social innovators

  • Most social innovators have a knack for sensing when a movement is underway, and this skill can be honed. Allow yourself to think deeply about this phase and build knowledge about your environment.
  • Despite deep thought, intuition is an important guide and indicator of developing movements for change. Chapter 5 of Getting to Maybe addresses the surge of energy that social innovators must be able to ride.
  • Power can be an emergent wave of energy that is difficult to control. Social innovators must understand how to go with the flow of a movement. At the same time, they must understand the system they are engaged in, complete with its authoritative hierarchy.
  • It is virtually impossible to engage in social innovation without facing extreme isolation and failure. The ability to see this as a deep place of learning in a complex system of innovation is important. This moment of isolation is also experienced in moments of success. Take care to find comfort somewhere in between these two extremes.
  • Not every social change is a social innovation. We spend most of our lives trying to address change where it is needed. These changes add up to make fundamental differences. Sometimes, however, change is only made in increments. The important thing to remember is that both fundamental and incremental changes are important to social innovation.
  • Do what you feel you can do and follow your capacities. If enough of us are following our beliefs, there is enormous room for change. There are times, along the way, when resources become available for new ways of doing things.
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Thoughts for further exploration

We asked Frances Westley to articulate some questions and ideas to help us expand our understanding of social innovation and movements for change. Here are some questions to consider:

  • How do we improve our ability to link our capacities to scale? How do we understand and get a handle on the richness of possibilities that are happening on the ground?
  • Social innovators can easily get burnt out from working on multiple levels. Do we have the resources to keep them energized?
  • How do we connect to today's young social innovators and incorporate their unique perspective?
  • How do you hold a paradox in place, especially when you never get to a perfect solution?
  • Brenda Zimmerman often speaks of, "The arrogance of the goal, and the humility of me." As little cogs in the wheel, what impact can we really have?
  • Visions often incorporate old ideas. How do we push ourselves and the hierarchies of power to generate new ideas for development?

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Resources & Links

Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed - In this book, authors Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton lay out a brand new way of thinking about making changes in communities, the business, and the world. Written for ordinary people who want to make connections that will create extraordinary outcomes, this book looks at complexity theory to make the impossible happen.

McGill-McConnell Program - The first program to offer specialized graduate-level education for national leaders in the voluntary sector

Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies - This institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison focuses on understanding the relationships between people and the planet, and on seeking solutions to environmental problems on all scales.

The Resilience Alliance - The Resilience Alliance is a multidisciplinary research group that explores the dynamics of complex adaptive systems.

Experiments in Consilience – This book, co-authored by Frances Westley, describes the work of the Biodiversity Research Network. Members of this network examine the ecology and population dynamics of key species in particular ecosystems in order to understand the impact of human populations, and to develop tools and processes for involving a greater variety of stakeholders in conservation efforts.

A Change Would Do You Good – This paper, co-authored by David Cooper of Case Western Reserve University, looks at how the failure to organize can cause an organization to become trapped in unsatisfactory situations.

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Audio Description

Interview: Getting to Maybe

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Audio Description

Q&A: Getting to Maybe

Run time 00:25:33









Access the Movements for Change report