Leading Against Change

One of the advantages of reading from every section of the bookstore is seeing the connections between seemingly disparate genres and viewpoints. Case in point: While reading Kotter’s classic Leading Change for its business content, what struck me and stuck with me is its relevance for mitigating against climate change.

Kotter’s book, originally published in the breathlessly fast-paced 1980s (yes, that does seem like a quaint perspective now), outlines an eight-stage process for successful change movements within business organizations seeking to adapt to changing business circumstances. 70% of change movements fail, he writes, because the people leading them don’t understand the basic dynamics of successful organization change–to wit:

Step 1. Establish a sense of urgency
Step 2. Create the guiding coalition
Step 3. Developing a change vision
Step 4. Communicating the vision for buy-in
Step 5. Empowering broad-based action
Step 6. Generating short-term wins
Step 7. Never let up
Step 8. Incorporating changes into the culture

He’s quite emphatic on the importance of following the steps in order, and describes what happened to change movements that tried to do things out of step (summary: it got ugly, and people lost their jobs). But just to put a pin in his eye, or maybe to avoid putting the conclusion into the middle of the blog post, I’m going to discuss how each of these have been applied to the global climate change movement so far, in reverse:

Step 8. Incorporating changes into the culture

Tumbleweeds. Have you seen any changes incorporated into the culture? Maybe a $0.05 fee for plastic bags, and widespread support for compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Over 30 years of activism. Pardon me while I catch my breath from considering the dramatic scope of our collective, cultural response. We’ve collectively shown more initiative in adapting to changes in cable television subscription options than we have in adapting to the greatest environmental crisis of all time.

Step 7. Never letting up

Absolutely true of the die-hard climate activists. Society as a whole and our politicians in particular let up whenever a manufacturing plant closes down or there’s a cold snap in Arkansas.

Step 6. Generating short term wins

Indeed, on a global level, we seem to take a particular glee in dismantling any short-term wins we actually manage to achieve. Kyoto! is dead. The UN climate negotiating process! died, for all intents and purposes, in 2009 at Copenhagen. Carbon tax! is a political opportunity to exploit the ruling party at the expense of the climate, and will be dismantled with all possible speed. You get the idea. If you’ve got a short-term climate win from North America that hasn’t died due to political expediency, or isn’t yet on the chopping block, please share it.

There are small-scale short-term wins on a local level. But globally? Not so much. Even national short-term wins are hard to find, and easily swamped by the Short Term Not Even Thinking About Global Warmings (see: China and India–though China, bless its despotic heart, is coming around).

Step 5. Empowering broad-based action

If the broad-based action you are attempting to empower is consumerism, congratulations! There are now thousands of products on store shelves with green labels, promising to reduce pollution and waste and species loss. But when Kotter writes about empowering broad-based action, he’s talking about making sure that all employees right down to the front line have the tools and authority they need to align all of their work tasks with the new corporate vision. Not just giving them a new colour of rubbish bin and a pin that says “I recycle!”

Instead of empowering citizens to engage in broad-based action to mitigate climate change, we collectively pat them on the head, tell them not to worry about it too much, go shopping–and maybe pick up some recycled toilet paper while you’re at the mall.

Step 4. Communicating the Vision for Buy-In

If you’re asking “What Vision?” you are asking the right question.

Step 3. Developing a Change Vision

See above.

You absolutely can go to any mid-sized bookstore and find a few books outlining the author’s change vision; some of them will even be coherent and well-thought out. You can visit any number of green blogs and websites for the same. Lots of visions. Too many visions. So many visions that there isn’t any real Change Vision on a societal level, certainly not here in North America. In fact, what we have are conflicting visions: “Stop burning all fossil fuels now!” vs. “Implement carbon capture technologies now!” vs. “Return to a pre-industrial technology level!” vs. “A high-tech-low-carbon future for all!” ad infinitum. Competing Change Visions on the part of the Good Guys, splitting public attention and commitment, vs. one over-reaching enormous Static Vision from the oil lobby: “climate change action will destroy the economy and there’s no such thing as climate change anyway, so unless you want purposeless poverty, DO ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.” Guess who’s winning?

Step 2. Create the guiding coalition

Once upon a time, that was supposed to be the UN. No longer.

We also might have looked to national governments to take that on. In Canada, our guiding coalition, then, is an oil-beholden Alberta-based retrogressive nightmare absolutely determined to develop the tar sands at all costs, and maybe someday get around to some generally ineffective carbon targets once it’s much too late for them to actually accomplish anything. We are 50% of the way to our target! they say, and what they neglect to mention is that, a) the target is dumb and completely inadequate, and b) most of the work done to get Canada to the target to date has been taken on by municipalities and provincial governments, and that rather than supporting those actions, the federal government has been sitting in the wings, throwing darts at them.

Some countries in Europe actually seem to have guiding coalitions that are  effectively navigating their countries towards actual change. Good for them. Here in North America, all our politicians live in fear of the Tea Party–whether they’re in the US or not.

Step 1. Create a sense of urgency

Are you feeling urgency on climate change? On a daily basis? Weekly? Monthly? Or when there is a hot spell in Sudbury? Do we have a collective, cultural sense of urgency for dealing with climate change?

I’d suggest not.

In fact, I’d suggest further that a number of environmental organizations have been careful not to create a sense of urgency. We don’t want to be called a Cassandra, they say; fear turns people off and demotivates them. We need to create a sense of the positive future we can create by dealing with climate change.

In other words, they’re determined to skip to Steps 3 and 4, and sell people on a new future without having created any sense of why the old future isn’t going to be so hot. (Actually, it’s going to be very hot–too hot. Pardon the pun.) As a result, our newspapers, governments, and the regular Guy on the Street holding his cup of Tim Horton’s coffee persist in engaging in a completely futile and utterly pointless comparison of The Future the Greenies Are Trying to Coerce Me Into and The Future I Was Promised by the Jetson Family in Grade 2, complete with jet-packs and robot maids and jobs for everyone in a stable climate with cities that aren’t underwater and agricultural regions that aren’t permanently drought-stricken, which is actually at this point impossible, since we have already dumped enough carbon in the atmosphere to prevent ice ages for the next 130,000 years.

As Kotter says, if you don’t spend enough time in Step 1 and actually create a real and lasting sense of urgency, your change project will fail. And so here we are. Without any cultural sense of urgency, and with a well-funded anti-urgency machine in oil-backed anti-change think tanks still successfully creating public confusion over whether climate change is even a thing or not.

That’s not for lack of trying on everyone’s part. 350, for instance, is trying very hard to build a larger movement and raise a collective sense or urgency to drive political and corporate will towards this problem. They’ve had a number of successes, but it’s far from being front-page material across the continent. James Hansen has been single-handedly trying to ratchet up urgency on global warming–and facing a lot of hostility for doing so. But in general, those who do try to ratchet up urgency over climate change lose the attention battle to the Kardashian family on a regular basis, and after a decade or two of trying some of them reasonably conclude that the problem must be that urgency is the wrong route, let’s compete directly with the Kardashians by engaging short-term attention via celebrity endorsements and branding exercises.

No can do. Yes, raising urgency is a long-term project that requires patience and repetition, and yes, it’s a long slow painful haul that possibly ends in the rocky bottom of a steep cliff. Granted. But according to Kotter, urgency is the needed first step of the only game in town, and  until we figure it out, we’re going nowhere.

Oddly enough, after drafting this post, I came across Kotter’s book on creating urgency while browsing in the library. I’m looking forward to seeing if it has any more climate change insights for me.

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