Economics and finance

The Changemaker effect: social innovation as a driver of change

The Changemaker effect: social innovation as a driver of change

We interviewed Henry De Sio, one of the great boosters of the huge social innovation development worldwide.

What is a “Changemaker”? This concept, which has inspired, among others, Ashoka, the world’s largest network of social entrepreneurs, refers to the social entrepreneur that we all carry within ourselves: it is about all of us being aware of our power to improve the world, and let’s use it. Discover it from who has coined it. 

We have interviewed Honorable Henry F. De Sio, Jr. He is well known as the global ambassador for changemakers. A leadership advisor, campaign and organizational strategist, and social sector executive, he has led both startups and large, complex organizations. As the 2008 Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and then serving as Deputy Assistant to the President in the Obama White House, De Sio came to be intimately acquainted with a new emerging pattern of societal change. He has since followed his campaign-driven passion for hope and change to make changemaking a global phenomenon. 

Henry’s new book, Changemaker Playbook: The New Physics of Leadership in a World of Explosive Change, is packed with tips for individuals and organizations navigating the new strategic landscape defined by disruptive change. His perspectives on a range of societal issues are uniquely influenced by “The Changemaker Effect” — a term he coined to describe how rising citizen agency, coupled with dynamic technological advancements and the democratization of leadership, is driving explosive social change. 

Next, the interview we had with him: 

You say that there is a new nature of change driving society today. What do you mean? 

This is an important theme running throughout Changemaker Playbook. Our society has long had a distinctive organizational design characterized by repetition and hierarchy. That system was about honing and monetizing a specialized skill and repeating it over and again—the rise of the assembly line marking its zenith. A few bosses orchestrated the rest in squeezing out productivity. Management was hierarchized, fields and departments were siloed, the flow of information was controlled from the top down. Those few people at the top controlled not only the means of mass production, but also mass communication and the levers of mass social power—research, publishing, broadcasting, filmmaking, advertising. 

That world is fast dying out. Jobs based on repeating a specialized skill are going extinct.  Technology will increasingly take care of specialization and repetition. Robots are doing it on factory floors, machine learning is doing it in professional fields like fintech.   

At the same time, the tools of change that were once available to a few are at the fingertips of the many – certainly anyone with a smartphone. We can be content creators and broadcasters. We carry a research department, a printing press, and a film studio in our pockets. We can even be part of the first responder equation. This is utterly different from the era when one put a coin in the phone box and waited for specialized professionals to show up. 

But it’s not just technology.  The pace and pervasiveness of change is really a deeper change in consciousness and society. Change is the new constant. Norm busting is the new normal. A new paradigm is taking hold, and it’s accelerating across the board.  

The strategic landscape has shifted, and our one-leader-at-a-time past is giving way to a new present where more and more of us are changemakers. The extraordinary level of individual empowerment has lowered barriers to individual participation. Hierarchies are flattening, silos are collapsing. The tools of change are increasingly available. When anyone can make and lead change, leadership itself is democratized. 

In this emerging system, the speed of change accelerates relative to our one-leader-at-a-time past. And change is more explosive. Why? Because if everything you change changes everything, and everyone is doing it, then you are in an everyone-a-changemaker universe, and this is a different game requiring very different skills. Change isn’t linear and faster, it is explosive and omnidirectional. It’s what I call “the changemaker effect.” This is the new nature of change at work in our world today.   

New problems outpace solutions almost as soon as they’re implemented, so solutions can’t simply be innovative, they must rapidly, continually evolve. That requires eliciting the talent, passion, and full agency of every member of an organization, every member of society.  This is the critical factor for success in the new strategic landscape. Some people and organizations understand this; some don’t. It’s imperative we close the gap.  

Why is empathy critical for leaders and teams alike in 2021 and beyond? 

This new reality requires rewiring our collective thinking about leadership. The old game was about siloed, specialized departments and top-down control. The new one requires a different, much more collaborative organizational model: a fluid, open, diverse, integrated team of teams. Everyone on the team must be empowered and respected, no one’s contribution can be marginalized or lost.  That requires empathy.  Everyone has to be able to understand and integrate diverse views different from their own.  

Old game leaders were supposed to have “vision”—meaning they saw an endpoint that others didn’t see and directed everybody else toward it—linear 20/20 vision needed by just a few. In the New Game, everyone in the system must have 360-degree vision. Everyone must see and engage the big picture and collectively advance solutions. That requires a level of attunement of each to all. 

The old game had static rulebooks and protocols for employees to follow.  But in the New Game, change is accelerating, explosive, and omnidirectional, making rules obsolete almost as soon as they are written. So more than rules, we’ll need a strong sense of cognitive, empathy-based ethics to guide us through uncharted territory. 

How did your experience working with the Obama campaign as the COO and the White House as Deputy Assistant to the President open your eyes to this new everyone-a-changemaker world?  

When candidate Obama announced his candidacy, he didn’t have an organization. In a burst of hope and chaos, the campaign opened its headquarters in Chicago seven weeks later.  That organization was set up in the traditional way—on the one-leader-at-a-time model. To keep up with the crushing level of interest and demand, we built it out silo by silo. But as I describe in Changemaker Playbook, as the campaign progressed, the hope and chaos of the early days gave way to change on steroids, and challenges began to outpace solutions.  We had to open the organization so that everyone could step into their BIGness and be leaders. We really had no choice.  

That’s how I stumbled onto the changemaker effect. It wasn’t a theory, it was a discovery. In that shift from one-leader-at-a-time to everyone-leading-in-every-moment, what I discovered was a new physics of leadership – the polar opposite of old-style leadership. Part of that meant we had to stop the notion of underlings in silos and empower everyone to step out of their boundaries and collaborate creatively to solve for the firehose of problems coming at us.  

After the campaign, I spent a few years inside the White House bubble, and when I emerged on the other side of that experience, I saw how the changemaker effect was at work in society broadly, even if my neighbors weren’t fully aware of these new dynamics. There is a profound shift underway everywhere—the shift from repetition and hierarchy to changemaking—and we all must learn to master how we live and work together in this new reality. 

When empowering others at such scale, how do you ensure that everyone is moving in the same direction?  

That’s the exact question we faced on the campaign the moment Hillary Clinton left the race, and everything mushroomed heading into the general election against John McCain. During the first sixteen months, we grew from a staff of about 100 to 2000. In those last 16 weeks we grew to about 6000. Our revenues went from $40 million a month to over $100 million. We were literally bringing changemakers into the organization by the thousands. How could we assimilate them all without breaking apart? I saw that static rules or protocols couldn’t keep up with that level of change. Rule makers couldn’t keep up. I knew, because I was one of the rule makers.  

So, I had my team fan out across the organization to explain our open system and the values and protocols that guided our work to incoming staff, and we reinforced these ideals with existing staff. And then the rest was up to all of us together. Remarkably we had no issues of rogue behavior—you know, the win-at-any-cost recklessness that often plagues a campaign. We had shifted from a permission-based system to one that was trust-based. This helped me understand the important principle for working in a space of empowerment: empathy-based ethics is foundational. Like the old-style leaders, everybody on the team has the capacity to lead and make change—so it’s up to them to use it wisely. By and large, in our case, people did. When everyone is a leader, everyone is a stakeholder. And when everyone is a stakeholder, everyone is a steward. The community took charge of itself to ensure change was put to work responsibly and for the greater good.  

But isn’t everyone-a-leader just chaos? 

Again, this was not an organizational model I chose. It was a reality I had to learn to live within, and that is true for us in society as well. Today, in a world in which explosive change is the only constant, everyone has to be enabled as a full contributor—to see the big picture and put their capacities and talents to work for the greater good. No one can be passive. And no one can be left out or marginalized. This is the new imperative. Individual integrity, a premium standard in this system, is directly connected to change pursued for the good of all. 

What can we learn from changemakers? And how can we take this knowledge and become changemakers ourselves? 

I loved working in the White House and serving the President. But I also felt these discoveries pulling me out into the wider world—the new nature of change and the new physics of leadership. I was passionate about it, and I wanted to explore it more and find out how it applies in everyday life. I left went on to work with the world’s leading social entrepreneurs over the next seven years, and I got to learn the operating systems of these remarkable changemakers. The pages of Changemaker Playbook are filled with familiar individuals you know and recognize—like Michelle Obama—but also, these amazing everyday changemakers you will meet and never forget.  

In the end, this is not a playbook for business or organizational leaders, or even just parents. Everybody everywhere – North and South, rich and poor, young and old, whether in the corridors of power or here in our communities—everyone needs to understand how the world is changing and build new skills to navigate and lead change. And we need a global blast of empathy to be sure that everyone is brought forward to be a free and full contributor in creating a just society.  

The requisite new leadership skill for everyone today is the ability to tear down walls and bring two or more sides together that wouldn’t otherwise connect around a problem or opportunity. That’s when real innovation happens. It requires empathy to see diverse stakeholders’ needs and bring them into collaboration. It requires healthy self-definition because with self-definition comes the self-permission to exert leadership and tear down walls. Most importantly, it requires individual integrity, which is what drives the pursuit of change for the good of all. These are the capacities every child and every adult must possess today.   

What advice do you have for the next generation of leaders? 

Embrace changemaking as the new literacy. The new KPI [key performance indicator] for any household, any community, any business or organization, and any nation is: how many of our people are changemakers? Our systems, mindsets, and frameworks fitted for the world of repetition no longer serve us in an era of explosive, omnidirectional change. Getting our cultures, systems, and approaches aligned with this new fluid, open, integrated team-of-teams paradigm is the task of emerging leaders. It’s fundamental to how we live and work together, how we prepare our kids for a world of explosive change, how we solve problems collectively, and extend opportunity to all. To succeed as an organization or a society, to stay ahead of massive change and make something good out of it, everyone needs to thrive and contribute. We all must have the capacity for social-response-ability.  

Put another way, “the next generation of leaders” needs to be all of us. In this future that is rapidly emerging all around us, everyone—everyone—must be a confident, fully contributing changemaker. 

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