Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed

GettingToMaybeCover200w260h“WARNING: This book is not for heroes or saints or perfectionists.

This book is for flawed people (and we are all flawed in one way or another) who are not happy with the way things are and would like to make a difference.

This book is for ordinary people who want to make connections that create extraordinary outcomes.”

So reads the first inside page of this refreshing, accessible and thought-provoking guide for those involved in social change, from social innovators and philanthropists to policy-makers and leaders of socially-conscious corporations. Written by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman & Michael Quinn Patton and published by Random House Canada, Getting to Maybe: how the world is changed is out to do just that, one reader at a time.

What it’s all about

The burning issue that Getting to Maybe addresses is that too many attempts to improve our society, lead by social innovators, usually working in not-for-profit structures and funded by philanthropy, business and government, fail because well-meaning people set out to address symptoms without understanding the behaviour of the larger system. This book introduces a “systems approach” for making change. It does this by focusing on the work of social innovators and the stages they characteristically go through in trying to right a social wrong. Other key players, such as philanthropists, politicians and business leaders, are invited into the narrative to re-think their approaches to social innovation, where appropriate.

Simple and complicated vs. complex

The authors make the point early on that not all problems are the same, and that different classes of problems require different approaches if the social innovator is to have a hope of effecting lasting change.

The three classes of problems are:

  • simple (baking a cake – quite easily replicable);

  • complicated (putting a man on the moon – very tricky, but the more you do it, the better you get);

  • complex (raising a child – just because you successfully raised the first does not mean the same approach will work with the next. It is interactive and ever-changing.)

“Successful social innovation combines all three problems – simple, complicated and complex – but the least understood is the complex. And yet complexity is the most fundamental level when we try to understand how social innovations occur.

Single individuals, single actions and single organizations all play a part, but it is the subtle rules of engagement, between and among the elements, that is the force that seems to give initiatives a life of their own. In other words, complex systems comprise relationships.” – p. 10

They go on to point out the disasters that can occur when complex issues are managed as if merely complicated or even simple, such as with a pharmaceutical approach to mental illness, which ignores the fact that many of the patients are too ill to follow the drug regimens designed to cure them.

Successful social innovators, then, are the ones who can widen their view and study patterns of behaviour in a system, looking for relationship between the elements. They must be prepared for the fact that, as they attempt changes to a system, unpredictable new behaviours and insights will probably emerge that will require them – the innovators themselves – to learn and change as well, in order to advance.

Many case studies are woven throughout the book. Included are new perspectives on widely recognized stories such as Band Aid and Live Aid, celebrity-filled fundraising rock concerts which raised over 60 million pounds in the aftermaths of famine in Ethiopia, and genocide in Rwanda. Less well-known are stories about Brazil’s successful fight against AIDS/HIV, Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy program to eliminate bullying in schools, and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, which provides microloans to groups of impoverished people so they can become self-sufficient. (The Grameen’s founder, Mohamed Yunus, won the 2005 Nobel Prize for his micro-credit approach to alleviating poverty.)

This book traces its roots to 1999, when Dupont Canada was developing its corporate citizenship strategy. Accustomed in their business to taking large innovative leaps, they took up a bold suggestion from consultant, Eric Young to make social innovation itself their cause of choice – to develop tools and perspectives for radical innovation linked to an approach that studies the whole system that gives rise to the problem. Called the Social Innovation Enterprise, the venture spawned Opportunities 2000 (one of the book’s case studies), and in 2002, the McGill-Dupont Social Innovation Think Tank. Getting to Maybe is an outgrowth of the Think Tank’s discussions.

A beautifully-crafted structure

This book does a far better job than most books of its kind in delivering the content because of its structure. From the words and images on the cover, through the design and content of the foreword and body, to the useful notes and index inside the back cover, nothing appears to be without purpose.

Each chapter begins with a quote, poem or passage that beautifully teases out the chapter’s theme. Researching and finding these beautiful and fitting passages is impressive in itself. A few authors, such as Yeats, I recognized, but most were delightfully new to me, and all of the passages caused me to reflect for a moment. Then, the chapter took me quickly to clear, well-told stories that illustrate the key points, ending with tactful but clear how-to principles, in narrative and bullet form, for its various audiences.

Exploring the thinking behind the book.

There are other books on systems thinking, such as Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, which are more sophisticated than this one. Getting to Maybe is pitched at practitioners rather than academics, concentrating on the various stages that social innovators commonly go through in their work.

The chapter on relating to those who hold the money or power in the system to be changed – “Powerful Strangers” – is a very important one. Too often, social innovators do not take the time to understand the powerful person’s motivations (and perhaps, their humanity), the motivations of their funders, whether in government, corporations or private foundations, and what they must do to be credible in the eyes of those funders. They often fail to frame their cause in language that is relevant to the funder’s concerns and goals.

I would also underscore the importance the book places on more effective ways for those who fund social innovation to evaluate success and failure of initiatives to penetrate truly complex issues, especially in the early stages.

“Evaluation, almost always scary, has become a major barrier to social innovation. Premature and sceptical demands for accountability can shut down social innovations just as they’re starting to take off.” – p. 51

So the social innovator, resources already stretched, finds ways to comply with reporting requirements, rather than transparently revealing early failures, even if the lessons learned might lead to future success. The book suggests that developmental evaluation – an approach involving more collaboration and co-exploration – is far more effective, supportive and informative for both the innovator and the funding party.

While the case studies in the book were all apt examples of systems (many elements and forces in play), some did not appear complex, in the ways predicting weather or parenting children are complex. This book is intended as an introduction to systems thinking, and so this is appropriate. Disciplines such as systems thinking and structural dynamics work well in domains where the patterns are knowable, even though cause and effect are separated in space and time. They are not, however, the best tools in the face of true complexity.

The good news is that truly complex issues are not quite as prevalent as the popular business books (Getting to Maybe included) would have us believe. Just as there is a danger in mis-classifying a complex problem as simple, so too, is there a risk of calling something complex that is not – one ends up using the wrong tools for the job. For a more detailed (but still very readable) article on these important distinctions, I would suggest The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world, by C. F. Kurtz and D. J. Snowden. It is free, online from the IBM Systems Journal. (

Living a paradox?

I think the authors unnecessarily mystified and muddied up how the creative process works to orchestrate sustained change, and how structural conflict keeps things as they are. The authors open on the right track when, on page 24, they explain their choice and use of the word, ‘maybe’:

“MAY – possibility, what might be, the essence of intentionality as a vision of what could happen, if only…

BE – state of being, the way things are, presence, reality…”

‘MAY’ is the intended vision, in the future. ‘BE’ is current reality, now. The tension they describe between the two elements is the same dynamic described as creative tension in The Fifth Discipline.

They then describe leaders who focus both on the vision and current reality as “living a paradox”. In delving into the endnotes, it becomes clear that many innovators interviewed might have described it as such, although I contend it is simply a conflict between seeing reality for what it is so one can learn from it, vs. hiding reality to minimize the risk of losing funding over a perceived failure of a program.

It is very important to help the social innovator reframe this concept. At any point in time, a social innovator can become more effective by simultaneously picturing their future vision, comparing it to the relevant current reality, and studying the discrepancy. There is no paradox here – simply a basic, critical skill in the creative process, and in learning.

To augment the valuable approach presented in Getting to Maybe, I would recommend that readers refer to the work of Robert Fritz to learn more about structural dynamics and the creative process. Fritz’s concept of creative tension is introduced in The Fifth Discipline, but I would direct those interested in organizational and systemic change to his book, The Path of Least Resistance for Managers (1999 Berrett-Koehler Publications, ISBN: 1576750655).

Get it. Read it. Change the world.

This book will undoubtedly help social innovators, socially-conscious corporations and philanthropists in their missions. The authors are to be commended for investing in our collective future in this way.

© 2007 Gary Ralston

About the author

Gary Ralston is a partner and business consultant at Ralston Consulting Inc., with corporate and non-profit clients across North America. Originally from Vancouver, BC, he now lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and business partner, Ann. Gary would like to thank Bronwyn Drainie, Troy Angrignon and Charles Holmes for their contributions to this review.


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