Rethinking Impact at Scale

These days, a lot of folks are talking about scaling up impact. Typically, the idea is to take a good thing (or more accurately, a less bad thing) that we are doing and do it faster/bigger/better/more. Unfortunately, our do good/less bad efforts are generally deeply rooted in extractive and mechanistic worldviews and systems, so they inherently fail to address that which is truly needed to realize increasing levels of health and vitality in our communities.

I have spent my entire career working to understand how change happens — to develop a theory of change — particularly as it relates to “doing good work in the world.” The arena that I have chosen is focused on the built environment: buildings, campuses, neighborhoods, and infrastructure such as water utilities, parks, transportation, and other community amenities. The work I do is to structure and guide group processes in ways that help realize the highest potential outcomes for a given effort. Sometimes I’m helping project teams to identify and deliver on goals for a particular project or program, while other times I’m helping to develop organizational culture and business strategy. Increasingly my work is focused on engaging diverse stakeholders on challenging topics centered around climate action, local and regional development, and government policies and programs. The outcomes are higher performing built environments, corporate responsibility programs, and occasionally social and/or ecological regeneration. One of my most persistent challenges is figuring out how and where to intervene and invest effort to create the greatest positive impact.

A (flawed) theory of change – the business case

My first theory of change went something like this: “We live in a capitalist society, and as such, proving a good business case will motivate people to do the right thing.” Yet, when presenting a compelling business case, I found some who were interested but many who were not. It turns out that people tend to see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear.

Without entirely realizing it, I kept bumping into people’s pre-existing ideas and beliefs about how the world works and why. Effectively, people’s existing ideas were serving as a filter for interpreting a given business case, no matter how compelling. Psychology calls this confirmation bias — a relatively well-known phenomenon in which people tend to embrace or reject information based on what they already believe to be true. Thus, only those who already identified with the cause I was promoting were likely to believe the business case I was presenting because it affirmed something they already want to do or be. That’s not to say that an enterprising person might not get excited about a “do good” opportunity for the shear financial promise, but even then, the excitement is because of the appeal to their entrepreneurial spirit that is imbued with their existing ideas around money, success, etc.

Even more importantly, I observed that different business owners, organizational leaders, and real estate developers, all working under similar constraints and within the same capitalist frame, were realizing vastly different outcomes. For example, some were realizing impressive energy efficiency in their buildings, while others proclaimed that such things were totally impossible and prohibitively expensive, even among similar types of construction in the same or similar markets. Why was that? Slowly, I began to see a pattern that is something we’ve all heard before: when there’s a will, there’s a way.

The realization that will is a key force for driving change prompted me to delve into a decades-long inquiry into understanding how to activate and engage will, instead of focusing attention on the business case. I found that when will is activated, the business case usually plays a supporting role, although it is rarely the driver for change or the desire to do good. It turns out that when the will of a project team or group was galvanized, they made their own business cases and found ways to resolve their own challenges. Voilà!

From numbers to systems, mindsets, and communities of practice – oh my!

The incompleteness and shortcomings in my initial theory of change are too vast to number, but hey, I was in my early 20’s! Suffice to say, I’ve spent 20 years since seeking to better understand how to generate requisite will toward doing the increasingly urgent and important work of our time — namely, regenerating health and vitality in our nested social and ecological systems.

Rapid, yet flawed change is actually the slow way.

The real and perceived urgency of our time invites and even incites action. People are quick to jump into a problem-solution approach with speed being the driver that determines “success.” We seem trapped in a frantic cycle of identifying what’s wrong and then rushing to fix the problem as fast as possible, without ever taking the time to examine if how we are seeing the world might be the real issue. The action feels good. It feels productive and satisfying because we are doing something. And in some cases, we are making a real difference. But too often, our change efforts don’t have the full effect at the scale we envision because they are grounded in the same mechanical, aristocratic, and Newtonian mindsets that created the problems in the first place. The antidote is not more quickly doing less harm within those flawed worldviews and structures. Instead, it is in taking the time to develop a new way of understanding and engaging in the world — to evolve how we are thinking by examining and upgrading our underlying worldviews and reconsidering how we see the role of our species. There is a lot of unlearning and re-forming that is needed to build a new mind — replacing mechanical thinking with living systems understanding, aristocratic tendencies with inherent reciprocity, and Newtonian physics with quantum physics.

I’ve come to believe that working on how people think — as time-consuming and laborious as it is — is the most powerful, and ultimately fastest, way to effect change. Flawed mental models and ways of being in the world need to be replaced with principles and understanding of living systems. Therein lies our best hope for long-term, authentic, and positive change. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary. Otherwise we are destined to continue chasing solutions using the same ways of thinking that caused the problems in the first place, all the while hoping against all odds that our efforts will yield whole, healthy, and beneficial outcomes. Instead, we need to invest in evolving our ability to see and understand whole systems, work from principles life itself, and increase our ability to discern where and how to intervene in a system for greatest positive effect. Anything less than that is a lot of doing that feels productive yet produces limited or even further damaging results.

A case in point

Let’s explore a little further this idea of where and how to engage in a system for greatest effect (AKA creating impact at scale). I have recently been working with a statewide organization that is responsible for convening a number of advisory boards, community coalitions, and working groups. They create policy, establish and enforce regulations, engage industry leaders, and work with community members across a variety of important issues. Through a series of developmental education sessions, my colleague Elizabeth Walsh and I have been working within the organization to evolve the way a number of directors and program managers think about their roles in the context of the groups that they lead and administer. The participants in our program are deepening their capability to catalyze and support their respective groups. In turn, the various groups are more able to fulfill the value-adding role that they play in the larger context of the stakeholders, communities, and industries that they serve. By inviting people to explore their work in ways that begin to evolve how they think, see, and are in their roles, we improve not only the outcomes of their current efforts, but in their efforts yet to come. Instead of focusing on the doing, we are focusing on evolving how they are thinking about what they are doing.

Our educational program is helping participants develop self-awareness and discernment about how they are able to effect and catalyze their groups, increasing their ability to create spaces for conversation that invite higher-order participation, and regenerating individual and collective understanding of their purpose and potential. Through shifting mindsets and building capability with a small group of people, we are ultimately affecting the lives and work of thousands of people, millions of dollars of resources, and entire industries in Colorado and beyond. The scale of impact is so much more significant than if I tried to be a part of all of those working groups, advisory boards, and coalitions (if they would even let me join). According to our program participants, they are seeing and engaging in their work in entirely new ways and they are excited about the tremendous impact and potential they are seeing to level up their work. This is an example of a little positive disruption, skillfully positioned, that is resulting in significant impacts at scale.

An evolved theory of change

My working theory of change is more complex and nuanced today than it was when I was early in my career. I now understand that change efforts are most successful when sourced from a place of identity, a sense of becoming, and a larger context of what is emergent in a community, industry, or organization. I now see my role as helping to evolve how people are seeing and thinking about their work and creating conditions that invite their will to show up in service to something that matters.

My theory of change today goes something like this: By developing my ability to invite will to show up in myself and others, and increasing our collective awareness and capability around the potential and nature of our work, we have a profound opportunity to regenerate health, vitality, and creative expression across multiple scales and systems, simultaneously. It’s a mouthful and a mindful, I’ll admit. But it is also more powerful, complete, and effective than my earlier version. Perhaps a more elegant way of saying it would be that we can effect change at scale by moving from who we are, and how we have been, toward who we are becoming — together.


This post was originally published by Josie Plaut on on February 11, 2021.