If you’re looking for a map for lasting social change, renowned expert Frances Westley can tell you that there is no direct route.
Instead, it’s going to be a long, winding road with many intersecting paths, and you’re unlikely to succeed if you try to navigate it alone, says Westley, JW McConnell Chair in Social Innovation at the Waterloo Institute for Social. Innovation and resilience.
“A discerning individual or group of individuals are necessary, but they are not enough. You’re going to need a lot of other actors along the way,” she says.
She often quotes Vietnamese researcher and revolutionary anti-colonial activist Nguyen Quyen who said that successful innovation is not a sprint towards a goal. It is more of a relay race where the torch is constantly passed.
Westley conveyed this message recently during an interview on the series Fast Company The new human movement. The series, hosted by renowned management consultants Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, features conversations with “bold thinkers and radical doers who are reimagining work, management, and capitalism for a new age.”
Westley guested on the show as one of those bold thinkers and radical doers.
Last year, she received the Order of Canada — the country’s highest honor — for her lifetime work on social innovation processes in Canada and abroad.
Among her many accomplishments is her work with a group that pioneered the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP), a powerful mechanism that helps people with disabilities gain financial security and avoid the poverty trap.
Her own journey as a guide in a changing world began with an interest in environmental sustainability.
She was a professor in the Faculty of Management at McGill University’s School of Business when she became involved in a project with a colleague at the University of Calgary who was interested in the Calgary Zoo’s efforts to raise endangered species and reintegrate them into the natural world.
This led to working with a larger organization that ran workshops for people working on species conservation. “We are committed to helping them design processes to make these workshops more effective.” Interest in saving endangered species has led to broader work with voluntary sector leaders to help them find strategies to create sustainable social innovation.
“It was indeed about transformation,” she says. “How does this kind of innovation happen? How was it similar or different from technological innovation? What is the relationship between the two? How can this happen?”
In 2007, when she became Chair of Social Innovation at the University of Waterloo, a position supported by the JW McConnell Family Foundation, she delved into these questions.
She has co-authored two books on the subject, including Getting to Maybe: How the World Has Changed and The Evolution of Social Innovation: Building Resilience Across Transitions.
Westley says some movements for social transformation, whether it’s women’s rights, racial equality, or changing our relationship with nature, can take decades or even hundreds of years. This is why it is important to pass the torch to others. “In many cases, people start an initiative and it dies with them,” says Westley.
It also involves making connections far beyond one’s own group. The work of establishing the Registered Disability Savings Plan, for example, involved connecting with people from all political backgrounds who might have a family member with a disability. “It didn’t matter if they were Conservatives, Liberals or New Democrats; be it finance or infrastructure. They would try to establish a connection with this person.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for people passionately committed to a cause, such as saving nature, is that they become rigidly attached to the “purity” of their goal, Westley says.
Organization founders need to be flexible enough to deal with strange bedfellows, adds Westley. “Founders who are too rigid and say, ‘No, my idea is pure, I can’t trade anything on it,’ tend not to be successful in the long run. »
It’s also important to be aware that there’s often a “shadow,” or unintended negative consequence, to any profound change, Westley says. “The brighter the light, the longer the shadow.”
Bringing about lasting, transformative change will require creating dialogue and dealing with backlash from people who will not agree with the changes, says Westley.
“Having an us versus them attitude is unlikely to succeed. You really have to see yourself as part of the system. There may be something about the system that you don’t like, but you can’t claim high moral character,” she says.
Transformative change takes a long time and can be a never-ending process, adds Westley.
“Social innovation is not a place where you arrive. This is to build the capacity for continuous intervention over long periods of time.