After people and companies have finally accepted a change and come to value it, I frequently hear a similar set of questions: “Why did I (we) have to be told something three, five, 10, 20 times? Why did it take so long to grasp it and act?” In hindsight, it frequently looks obvious. When the insight comes, we feel as though we’re surrounded and we can’t imagine how we could have missed it for so long. Often, we notice there are usually friends and colleagues who have already understood for quite some time, some who are just waking up, and others who are still asleep. I’d summarize the issue as, “How do we wake up faster to change?”
Barbara Shipka is an example of how to do this, as is the organization she describes. She works with many systems issues, including global, interdepartmental, interteam, and interpersonal ones, helping to further an organization’s vision through the creativity, innovation, and experimentation of its employees. She’s also a contributing author in the forthcoming anthology, When the Canary Stops Singing: Women’s Perspectives on Transforming Business. Her experience with learning to see systems is extensive and stems from living in Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South America, Asia and the Caribbean. Shipka discusses how we are in the midst of global transformation and why we need it.
She shares her perspective that a critical part of this transformation is taking place inside the minds and hearts of each individual and results in changes in beliefs. She also speaks of her desire to find a community that is exploring questions such as: “What is the nature of this transformation? What does it mean for me? What is the role of business?” She found that community in an organization called the World Business Academy. In the process of her discussion, we gain insights about the meaning of global transformation and how to move through it with earlier awareness and less pain.
I thought about her comments in regards to myself. Recycling was one of those slow changes for me. My life was so full and time was so short. I can’t see now why recycling was so hard to start, but it was. I don’t even know if I had seen some of the data or not. It seems that sometimes I can’t see what’s right in front of my eyes or hear what’s passing through my ears until the moment of readiness comes. In light of Shipka’s comments, I wonder if I wasn’t trying too hard to change behaviors without having identified what beliefs they were attached to. Her comments were also a good reminder that recycling is dealing with symptoms, not systemic change.
Having a child of my own helped me understand why the environment had to become a real priority. Part of my recycling experience came to mind when Barbara Shipka talks about the WBA providing a safe harbor to explore changing beliefs. I think that’s what my daughter was in this instance: a safe harbor. She learned about recycling early from one of our child care providers who was an early environmentalist, and from pre-school. I started seeing the earth more clearly through her eyes. Then the data scared me into action. I saw that her life and all of our children’s really were in danger. I heard Fritz Capra, a leading high-energy physicist, comment in a speech on how he moved from being a research-oriented scientist to being more action-oriented after he had a daughter and realized how little time was left.
We need support when we’re exploring any change. Being a heavy-duty, independent, solo-type myself – that was a hard lesson to learn. We need a place to discuss ideas, get new information, and explore old beliefs where we don’t feel attacked and where we have an atmosphere of exploration rather than evaluation. Facts, alone, don’t seem to work. When we have a group like this, it seems to provide a place for early learners to share what they know and wonder. I think we’re very hard on those who are early in trying to challenge the current paradigms.One of my friends, Anne, was very early in “getting it” when it came to the environment. She was frustrated with the rest of us. We were frustrated with her and sometimes embarrassed by her suggestions, like taking our plastic stuff back to our favorite Chinese take-out. Now we respond much faster to her latest ideas and honor her for them. She has speeded up our evolution. It wasn’t easy for her, though.
It would be wonderful if we had more ability to work through these times with more awareness and better tools. There are five things I find to be simple and helpful:
¨ We need to become aware of our patterns around not hearing, and how we block out views that are different from those we hold. Awareness is much of the solution.
¨ We can seek safe places within which we can explore new ideas, in fact, will be encouraged to do so. We seldom change alone and we need help to stretch our edges.
¨ We could learn a dialogue process like Shipka mentions. This creates a better environment for exploration and safety. David Bohm has written on this.
¨ When someone challenges us, asking hard questions, offering unheard of suggestions and observations, making astounding remarks, we can remind ourselves they might be one of the first graders who is one step ahead of us. We should learn to respect and honor them. They are serving us well.
¨ When I am overwhelmed with the magnitude of global transformation, I remember Shipka’s comments about a quiet change of mind and bring my focus back to who I want to be and how I need to act to be a responsible, caring part of a global community.
Barbara Shipka’s Story
My experiences have led me to understand that we are in the midst of a desperately-needed global transformation. I have been an educator and a corporate consultant for over 20 years. That includes three years of work in Somalia, the Sudan, and Ethiopia, under the auspices of the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees. As I worked with refugees, I began to realize that we provided temporary relief, but we didn’t change anything in the big picture, nothing systemic. We were saving lives as long as food continued to arrive from the outside. While people perhaps become physically weaker. I began to realize that many of the ways we try to “fix” problems lead us deeper into symptoms, and/or create more of them.
With that awareness, I decided I wanted to work with the whole system change rather than treating the symptoms. An example of working on a symptom is encouraging recycling. That helps with the short term symptom of waste. On the other hand, eliminating waste generation would be closer to creating fundamental systemic change. Nonetheless, it’s important to work with both symptoms and systemic change. As symptoms are managed it increases the time we have to better understand how to change the whole system. But focusing on symptoms isn’t enough.
I wanted a place to share hope and support for my own change process, to explore the meaning of a global transformation and my role in it. I decided business had the greatest capacity to respond to this, so I left international work and returned to my business practice. I eventually became a member of a global organization called the World Business Academy and an organizer of one of 15 local chapters that range from Bombay to London to Chicago to Seoul.
A person who has influenced my thinking tremendously and, at times, has articulated things I was already thinking is Willis Harman, one of the founders of the WBA. He sees two response paths to our global crisis. The way I see the first path, which can be represented by organizations like Businesses for Social Responsibility and the Business Council for Sustainable development, is focused on trying to change the current system through policy, advocacy, and legislation.
The World Business Academy is on a second path. This is one of exploration of the transformation, and the sharing of this knowledge with others. The focus is on learning about fundamental change in the system at the level of cause. We have much to learn about what this really means. One part of our process is to provide a safe harbor for members to engage in this learning and explore what the role of business is in relationship to that. For many of us, looking into both the large, apparently unanswerable questions and the personal, vulnerable questions is easier when we find a safe place to do it. The idea of a harbor brings to mind protection from the weather, a place to get nourished, to rest, and to take on new stores so we can return to our purpose – our ocean passage. Local chapter groups meet periodically in order to develop a bond that can facilitate personal change.
When we come together, it’s as a group of learners. Since, by definition, transformation means something we’ve never seen or experienced, it’s like going to first grade in a way. It’s a classroom, but it doesn’t have a teacher. Some students can read a little better than others, have thought more about the issues, and have been around a little longer. We go to this classroom to learn and to play together. We’re making up the curriculum together and it’s a continuous learning experience. We take our learnings back home with us – to our organizations.
I’ve begun to learn things that tell me when we are focusing on a symptom instead of a cause. One is when we apply great energy and resources and the problem gets worse. Unfortunately, almost every social problem I can think of is responding this way. The war on drugs and the effort to reduce teen pregnancies are two examples.
Another big example is unemployment and the poverty it creates. Our assumption is everything would be okay in the United States if we could create more jobs. The first fallacy in this assumption is the belief that we can separate ourselves from the rest of the world. A second fallacy is the assumption that we will have less unemployment through creating new jobs. Many of the people who have lost their jobs in the last few years may never work in a traditional job again. In addition, we’re adding 250,000 people to the planet every day. Can we really create that many jobs? What would they be? And if we were able to create that many jobs, what would it do to the environment? So, believing in more jobs as a solution to our current ills is a myth.
We need to explore new alternatives that allow everyone to make a contribution, and in return, receive a way to live decently. Creating a system based on meaningful contribution may mean that our current ways of employment totally disappear because they represent an insufficient idea. “Contribution” is a much larger framework.
Another assumption I think needs challenging is the idea that expansion equals progress. As a culture, we’re like a teenager who is at a point in a cycle of life where the growth and development of the body is the main focus. We need to move into maturity and develop an understanding that progress may mean lessening quantitative growth and increasing qualitative growth. What qualitative growth of business and society could look like is part of the mystery we are encountering.
I believe that transformation happens inside each individual and in the world simultaneously. Our individual beliefs create our values and behaviors. These, in turn, create our organizations and our world. “Systemic” means we can’t easily break things into parts as a means of understanding them better. I have come to realize that global transformation is underway, regardless of whether we choose to see it or whether we want it. To the extent we can align ourselves with it, we can develop attitudes that reduce the suffering that tends to go with transformative times.
We have to change ourselves, one by one, rather than trying to solve individual symptoms, one by one. In Global Mind Change, Willis Harman says, “When historians look back on the 21st century they will say that the most significant change was the change of the mind, a quiet, but pervasive change of the mind.” I suspect that dialogue and relationships will help stimulate this change of mind. Dialogue is about creating a place where we can explore the unanswerable questions. This includes acknowledging we aren’t in a debate or even a discussion. We do a different kind of listening and we look more deeply. Dialogue means “with the word” of “with spirit,” so it is a reverent conversation. True dialogue may allow the creative process to bring us something new, something transformative. Therefore, I believe this kind of dialogue is very important in the business setting. Business has become the most powerful institution on the planet and therefore it has a significant role and responsibility in the world today and tomorrow.
Inseparable from my intellectual thoughts is spirituality. My experience is that as I grasp what’s really going on in the world, I deepen my spiritual journey. When I look at some of the external reality, it can be scary. There’s no choice but to draw upon spirit and to look inward. When I’m in touch with my spiritual path, what’s happening isn’t quite so scary. I’m not talking about religion per se. I’m talking about a sense of connectedness with each other, a sense of something larger than we are, recognition of the miracle of life on earth and the preciousness of that. It’s a humbling experience to realize we can’t easily think our way out of our global dilemmas. They aren’t rational problems. The depth of who we are, our spiritual essence, is a primary human resource that we can draw on wherever we go – including the workplace.
I feel like I am in a partnership where I support change in myself and in the world. I feel tremendous hope because I’m in first grade with people who are captured by the opportunity for innovation and creativity beyond our dreams.
Who We Could Be At Work, Margaret Lulic, Butterworth-Heinemann, 1996.