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The ABC’S of Social Change – Part 1

3p Contributor | Thursday February 10th, 2011 | 0 Comments

by Lisa Chacón

What’s the best way to bring about social change? Many of us have learned from hard experience that while individual behavior change is a necessary part of social change, alone it is not sufficient for the systemic transformation the world needs today. So what might be a more effective recipe that takes into account the broader contexts surrounding behavior change?

The ABC’S of Social Change is a framework that I am proposing that will help you organize and synergize the smorgasbord of change theories popularized in bestsellers such as Switch, Drive and Nudge. The ABC’S are the four essential ingredients of social change – Awareness, Behavior, Culture and Systems. Each is critically important but insufficient on its own. From an integral* perspective, these ingredients can be thought of as “zones” that must be addressed simultaneously because they are the four basic threads that make up the fabric of social reality:

  • A = Awareness, or the interior experience of you being you – your intellect, beliefs, values, intentions, motivations and emotions
  • B = Behavior, actions and anything others can directly observe about you – essentially, any aspects of A that you express outwardly
  • C = Culture, cultural values, worldviews and paradigms – similar to A, but at a group level
  • S = Systems and stuff – the human-built environment and products, and the earth, biosphere and atmosphere

These four zones arise as a result of transcending and integrating two fundamental dichotomies:  interior-exterior and individual-collective. The four-box matrix shows how these axes and zones are related. “Interior” in this sense means the subjective, inner human experience, or simply – what is going on inside your mind, or our collective minds. “Exterior” means the objective, tangible, material world, or simply – physical reality, at the individual and collective level. Usually we tend to focus on one or two of these zones and ignore the rest, but the framework reminds us that they are equally important.

“Wow, that’s really cool,” you might think, “but how does this help me as a change agent?”

Well, in order to make a new behavior stick, my Awareness or “A”, must first be cultivated, so that I am aware of the need to change, and motivated to make the effort. Behavior is the second element. Once I know what needs to change and why, then I need to have the capacity and means to change my behavior, “B”. And since behavior takes place in a cultural context, sustained behavior change is much more difficult if I’m surrounded by a Culture, “C,” that doesn’t value the change. And just try sustaining your behavior change when System level forces, “S,” directly oppose it. In sum, for lasting change to happen, important shifts must take place in each of the zones, and change agents need to identify and address key barriers in each zone.

To analyze a situation, identify barriers to change and create an ABC’S Roadmap for Transformation, ask these four questions:

1.  What is the awareness level? Do people understand the rationale for change and buy in to the solution? Is anything standing in the way of understanding? How might we increase the awareness level? How can we link the change to individual values in order to motivate people? (For example, a bottom-line focused entrepreneur and an environmentalist can both embrace energy effiency, but for different reasons because it saves both money and the planet).

2.  What behavioral capacities are required to make the change? How big is the gap between where people are now? What new skills would enable the desired change? How can you support the baby steps towards behavior change?

3.  What cultural values and worldviews are relevant? Are there beliefs or values that undermine change? How might we position the behavior change with cultural relevance, a positive framing and make it fun?

4. What systems are involved? How does the system impact behavior? Are there institutional or physical barriers that prevent the desired change? How would a more supportive system function?

When you understand the basic ingredients for whole system change, you can then develop a customized “ABC’S Roadmap for Transformation” that will take you wherever you want to go. This simple yet powerful framework can help you recognize and overcome hidden obstacles to behavior change, especially at the Cultural and System levels. Change agents can increase their effectiveness dramatically by recognizing the broader context that surrounds behavior using the ABC’S for Social Change.

Join us for Part 2 of this article tomorrow, for some practical examples and to explore how well popular behavior change theories such as Switch, Drive and Nudge know their ABC’S.

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*Integral, or AQAL Theory, as defined by Ken Wilber, is the primary basis for an integral perspective and the ABC’S change model.

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Lisa Chacón is a Founding Partner at Innovive Group, the hybrid of a sustainability consultancy and a creative agency, offering business an innovative way to evolve culture and systems toward environmental and social sustainability. Learn more at www.innovive.net.

Ali Hart is a sustainability messaging and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and media. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to message green effectively.


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