Why change is unpredictable

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Here's a great podcast (including a transcript) of an interview with Cass Sunstein: How social change happens - and why it's so often abrupt and unpredictable.

Sunstein has been fascinated by how social change happens. He suggests that it's fundamentally unpredictable for a variety of reasons:

"In brief, people constantly misrepresent their true views, even to close friends and family. They themselves aren’t quite sure how socially acceptable their feelings would have to become before they revealed them or joined a campaign for change. And a chance meeting between a few strangers can be the spark that radicalises a handful of people who then find a message that can spread their beliefs to millions."

Sunstein references examples from the Arab Spring to Brexit to MeToo to illustrate how the potential for big change can lie hidden below the surface, and how hard it is to predict what might catalyse it.

He suggests it's hard to initiate change in a controlled and predictable way - which is bad news for a lot of organisations that might wish it were so. And it's a good reminder to us, as facilitators, to be wary of predicting what will get a group to change or act in a certain way.

We work with events of a few to a few hundred people, rather than whole societies. But we recognise that shifts in attitudes and behaviour can be stubbornly hard to stimulate at some times, and impossible to stop at others.

One of Sunstein's themes is group polarisation: when like-minded people get together, they are liable to reinforce and deepen entrenched beliefs - something most of us will have noticed happening a lot in organisations and politics. Finding ways to generate diverse perspectives and connections to different groups and tribes is an important task.

The podcast (or transcript) and linked lecture are well worth your time.