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David Bornstein: Unleash the change-making power

Institutional leaders today all face the same challenge, says author and journalist David Bornstein: How do I unleash the creative capacity of every person in our institution?

October 13, 2010

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, every institution is either busy dying or busy being born, said David Bornstein, a frequent writer on social innovation. There is no such thing as sustainability -- only continuous renewal.

Given the inevitability of change, leaders need to behave like social entrepreneurs, or intrapreneurs, turning everyone in their organizations into creative thinkers bold enough to remake their institutions every day, he said.

Bornstein, whose books have been translated into 20 languages, is the author, with Susan Davis, of “Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know.” He also wrote “How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.” His first book, “The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank,” chronicled the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Grameen Bank and the global emergence of microfinance as an anti-poverty strategy. He received the 2008 Leadership in Social Entrepreneurship Award from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

Bornstein spoke with Faith & Leadership about social entrepreneurship and lessons for institutional leaders. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: In your most recent book, “Social Entrepreneurship,” you talk about building institutions. What is the value of institutions?

There’s this expression: “There’s nothing more powerful in the world than an idea whose time has come.” But that’s not true. There are lots of ideas whose time has come -- and some whose time has come and gone -- because of a lack of institutions to embed them in reality, or the wrong institutions.

Look at the institutions in the Islamic world that promote Wahhabism; look at what happens when you have institutions promoting that brand of Islam that are very powerful and very well-financed. What would the world look like today if the institutions promoting religious pluralism had the same amount of power and reach to challenge those ideas? Institutions make ideas real, whether they’re religious ideas or whether they’re practical, social change ideas.

Q: How do established institutions encourage, support and integrate entrepreneurship?

There are two questions. One is, how do you create institutions that don’t already exist and breathe life into them? The next one is, how do you revitalize institutions that have been around for decades or hundreds of years? Really, the question of how to renew institutions gets to the question of entrepreneurship every bit as much as how to build them at the outset.

There is no such thing as sustainability. There is really only continuous renewal. Bob Dylan said, “If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.” To some degree, every institution is either busy dying or busy being born.

The question that every institution today faces is how do you unleash the change-making power of every single person in the institution? How do you turn everyone into a creative thinker who feels confident to try to advance an idea, someone who believes that it is his job or her job to improve upon things that they see and not just accept the status quo? How does the leadership of the institution communicate, reward people, excite people to see that their job is not merely to fulfill some function but to be a creative actor in the remaking of that institution every single day?

That’s an enormously difficult leadership challenge, one that requires extraordinary communication abilities. You now have essentially said, “Everybody in this institution is a creative actor. Now we have to work together, and what are we going to create together?” We have to be able to build teams.

We need empathy so that we can talk to each other even if we have different opinions about important questions. This is the challenge today in the field of social entrepreneurship, as people are building institutions across society. They’re all facing the same challenge, which is, how do I unleash the creative capacity of every single person in our institution and not just rely on 5 or 10 percent of the people to be the leaders?

Q: Do you have any examples of established institutions that have been successful in this kind of continuous renewal?

If you look at Ashoka, for example, an organization that supports social entrepreneurship around the world, they expect every one of their employees to be an “intrapreneur,” which is an entrepreneur who works inside an institution.

If you look at the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, they expect their bank workers to be not just people who administer loans; their job is to help villagers solve their problems.

At companies like Google, a certain percentage of everyone’s time can be devoted to projects of their own choosing. Most of their innovations come from that 20 percent of their time when people can work on whatever they feel like, as long as it is something good for the company. If you look at organizations like City Year or Teach For America or the Acumen Fund, you’ll find the same pattern. They have to be unleashing the creative capacity of everyone in their organization, or they wouldn’t have come so far.

Q: In your new book you describe the process of entrepreneurship as one of leadership more than of creating the best ideas. How is that kind of leadership unleashed and developed?

You have to break these things up into small boxes. From the point of recruitment, right from the outset when they come into an organization, you want to send them signals. You want to choose people who want to be creative actors.

We’re living in a world where people may be coming to a job with conditioning that makes them think, “I don’t want to be a creative actor. I want to know what’s expected of me, and I want to be able to deliver that and go home. It is too much pressure to have to be thinking all the time and to come up with new ideas and be expected to be bold and use my voice.” There’s a lot of old conditioning, which told people they should fit into a certain slot in society and deliver what’s expected of them.

Our test-taking culture -- which tells children that you should memorize this information or understand this and then give it back to the teacher on the test -- reflects that kind of conditioning. You want to make sure that you’re recruiting people, or at least enough people, who want to behave entrepreneurially and would like to be able to express their full range of talents in their work.

The second thing is the way you communicate. It’s very important to let people know through the storytelling culture -- through the speeches, through the newsletters, through whatever the organization rewards or highlights -- that we want people to be trying new things and we don’t penalize people for their experiments that didn’t work. We celebrate them for their effort. The one thing that we do penalize or we don’t pay much attention to is business as usual or people who respond to problems by hoping that things will just get better without some new action taken.

Then thirdly, it’s very important to bring in people in the organization who are very, very well versed and skillful at managing teams. The team is very different from the assembly line.

Q: In your previous book, “How to Change the World,” you discussed the importance of investing in young people. Which of these social entrepreneur organizations does a good job of bringing up another generation of young leaders?

One of the goals is to encourage people to grow up so that they have a sense of agency, which means if they see something is wrong they think, “I can fix it.” They don’t feel that something terrible is going to happen if they take the initiative. They can imagine the world better than it has been. How do you bring up children to have moral imagination and a sense of agency? We’ve been seeing organizations that come into children’s lives at a young age and teach them the skill of empathy.

There’s an organization in Canada called “Roots of Empathy.” They bring an infant into a classroom environment with the mother to show what empathy looks like. They ask young children to imagine the experiences of the baby at many different stages in the baby’s development. This process has been demonstrated through independent research to dramatically improve the children’s empathetic ethics. It’s a powerful change. It makes people more loving and kinder and more understanding.

How do you encourage that throughout childhood? One of the best ways to encourage that kind of behavior is by helping children to play in a more beneficial way. Many school districts in the United States have cut down or eliminated recess from the elementary school day because of disciplinary problems, and also because of pressures to cram in as much math and English practice as possible for the state assessment tests.

Recess games are very complex and meaningful. A game is an agreement. A bunch of kids come together and agree to abide by the same rules. In order to have the experience of playing, they have to subvert their own needs for the needs of the group, which is essentially what citizenship is all about. It’s a voluntary agreement to participate in this collective, even when it’s not in your own personal interest.

Organizations like Playworks go into public schools and help bring back this culture of play, not by telling children to play but by helping them become leaders in organizing successful games. This also allows them to demonstrate their teamwork and their leadership and their empathy -- all of the skills that any institution needs to be great.

Q: What would you identify as the critical or defining traits of social entrepreneurs, and how can those be taught?

The most important quality is the sense of agency, the sense that you can and you want to take action to change the status quo in any area. So the first thing is this belief that it’s a good thing to take initiative. That you’re not going to be yelled at for stepping out of line or challenging authority. That people will want to listen to you. That’s the first quality.

The second [encompasses] skills like empathy and leadership and teamwork, because as soon as you have an idea, the next thing you have to do is reach out to a bunch of people and say, “I have this idea. Would you like to work on it with me?” That’s about how well you communicate with people and how much they want to work with you and whether you can figure out how to co-create an idea and give everyone a sense of ownership.

Then the third thing is probably what meaning you give to failure, because once you’ve tried something, once you’ve gotten a group together, the next thing that’s going to happen is you’re going to do something, and most likely the first thing you try is not going to work that well. It may work all right, but usually not as you intended. Or, more likely, parts of it will work and parts of it won’t. Or you may believe that you have a great idea and you need to raise some money and it takes you a year before one person says “yes” after 50 “noes.” What does that process mean to you? Do you see it as a failure, or do you just see it as part of the process, not to be taken personally? One of the things that I’ve seen from successful social entrepreneurs is that they don’t take “no” as an answer. They take it as information -- that something that they’re doing is not working, which means that they’re going to have to change their approach. It doesn’t mean that “no” is the answer. It just means that “no” is a signal that something is not quite right. What many other people see as failure, they see as guideposts.

Q: Sometimes, for example in science, you can learn more from failure than from success.

If you set up the experiment the right way. And you can do this with children, by the way. You can play a game of 20 questions with children. You can say -- John Holt wrote about this in one of his books years ago -- “I’m thinking of a number between one and 10,000.” And as the first kid says, “Is it between one and 5,000?” and you say, “No,” you’ll see that the kids in the class will go, “Aw.” They’ll groan. They hear the “no” as a failure, when in fact “Is it between one and 5,000?” is the best question that the first child could ask, because it cuts the possible numbers in half. It’s exactly what you’re supposed to do in that game. Why do the kids hear the “no” as failure rather than as useful information?

Q: That’s interesting.

Every social entrepreneur I’ve interviewed or written about has heard the response “no,” like Thomas Edison, thousands of times. Thomas Edison said, “I didn’t fail. I just found 10,000 ways it won’t work.”

Anybody who is going to try to bring change within an institution, especially if it’s an old one with established practices, is going to immediately have people say, “But that’s not the way things are done here” or “That’s the way it has always been” or “Who do you think you are?” And those are all “noes.” I would encourage people to hear those phrases and think, “This is good information. I have to understand exactly who I’m dealing with and the sources of resistance I’m going to be facing in order to navigate this change. If I don’t understand that, I won’t be successful.” So to hear those words and not be disheartened, but to look upon them as helpful information -- that will let you know what your next question should be, and it will also help you keep up the courage to persist.