Human beings can conjure up the future like no time before in history. As of the first half of 2016, Tesla plans to land a spaceship on Mars by 2018 and humans by 2024. Robots print 3D bridges. Genetically edited T-cells fight cancer in our bloodstreams. Amazon's Alexa, the beginning of consumer artificial intelligence, sits on kitchen counters, plays Spotify playlists, tracks the grocery list, and tells your kids jokes. To be sure this is a Promethean age, the latest stage in the deepest shifts of human evolution. Fire, wheel, printing press, internet.
But in one arena of human activity a gaping chasm is opening up between what we envision and what we can achieve. Organizations and institutions are still resistant to change.
In order to appreciate the depth and expanse of this chasm think of a place like Newark. In the 1950’s Newark had a public school system well recognized for exceptional education. But through the late 1960’s a declining industrial base steadily hammered away at city institutions. In the last few years Newark barely graduated 50% of its high school students.
On September 20, 2010 the stars aligned for the city. Newark’s then mayor Corey Booker and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Oprah and announced a $100 million effort to remake the city’s school system. With matching gifts Booker eventually gathered $200 million to invest in the new project. It was an awesome premise with all the right big conditions: Money, Power, Visibility, Good Intentions.
Within four years the Newark experiment failed.
Newark isn’t a toss away reference to another failed change effort. The story is incredibly complex. Analysts have only begun to tease out the many factors in play. But for us a larger observation stands. Established human systems rarely change, even under the most ideal situations.
Newark is a public example of the kinds of tales we all know by now. Think of 'the once-great list'. Blockbuster, Kodak, Nokia, Sears, Blackberry, Microsoft, Walmart, and so on and so forth. Yes the storylines are cliché. But they are genuinely human too, full of anguish, loss, and Greek-like tragedy. The perfect survival strategy for one generation becomes, under new circumstances, a devastating liability for its offspring.
Moments of decline seem to exact a massive human toll. Think of the slow decline and fast finish of places like Detroit or coal country in Appalachia, the managerialism and politics that plague so many stagnant institutions and corporations, or the grinding inertia in places that really matter for society like healthcare, public education, journalism and the environment.
At this point we are stuck with a terrible puzzle. How is it possible that society can put a human being on Mars but it can’t - not even with exceptional effort and resources - change a public school system? If a major current of the human spirit runs on the very possibility of transformation what happens if transformation isn’t possible?
The facts are helpful here. Many organizations stall before they get disrupted. Technology and innovation may be outpacing our institutional capacity to grow and adapt. But many organizations don’t fail because they are displaced by rivals but because they reach their limits. They continue to reproduce what works well beyond the point at which it’s adaptive to do so.
Neither is the current state of management thinking going to save us. The world has known about disruptive innovation for over 20 years now. Disruption is probably the most infectious meme in business. We now know how start-ups work and have the benefit of major advances in innovation techniques over the last 15 years. The thinking and ingenuity here have been remarkable. But it still not enough. Not by a long shot.
Here’s a final disquieting truth. The likelihood that an existing organization will transform itself is so small as to be a statistical anomaly. A bona fide miracle. An actual unicorn. For us this slate of facts pushes hard questions. If we knew so much, why aren’t organizations changing? Something essential is missing.
This situation had been eating at us for some time. Having tried to stimulate big strategic innovation as executives or as consultants, we realized that today’s models of change have reached their limits. Maybe we even hit our own personal limits.
It was with this backdrop that we found ourselves playing out a time honored ritual of the lost and the faithless. We went into exile. Over the course of two years in conversation with colleagues in different fields and drawing on unorthodox sources of inspiration we invented a new technology - a method - for how this might work, how it could possibly work.
What we came back with was Human Centered Transformation, which we've captured here in a series of simple statements:
Almost all organizations follow a universal arc of creation, momentum, growth, and stagnation.
This same arc occurs across communities, businesses, corporations, cities, and nations.
After years exploring how people escape this cycle we’ve discovered a way to remake organizations.
Human beings have an innate, powerful template for change.
When the world becomes stagnant, humans instinctively create subcultures.
Subcultures make something new and vital out of stalled circumstances.
These groups spot the future and shift the mainstream toward it.
We can tap into these very same deep patterns of human interaction,
Combine them with the best of design, innovation, and strategy
And apply them to organizations.
Human-centered transformation sprang from a universal thesis about how people, working together, build organizations that grow, change and thrive (and inversely how all human systems eventually die).
We follow a path cut by others. Pioneered by groups like IDEO human-centered design sparked a genuine revolution in product design. They did it by empathizing with every-day lived human experiences. Likewise, with human-centered transformation we build the future by empathizing with the practical ways that people actually interact with and produce change. This isn’t management in the conventional sense. The closer you look at the situations in which a small subculture changed society you realize that traditional management techniques are only a small part of the process. Hence human-centered transformation*.
At Subculture we use human-centered transformation to do seminal projects. Seminal projects happen when organizations make a break with the past. They put something new and categorically different into the world. In doing so they adopt a new way of being.
Because seminal projects often require people with deep backgrounds in diverse disciplines Subculture is a community of creatives, marketers, innovation experts, change agents and even scholars. And while there is a rich complexity to human-centered transformation our work usually boils down to a few core actions: we create a subculture that operates at the vanguard, help leaders cascade newly discovered behaviors throughout the organization, use small but proportionately powerful actions begin to trigger larger waves of change, and we replenish the underlying reason and moral force that fuels the organization.
That’s Subculture and is an introduction. But it is also an invitation. If you have a transformative project or find yourself in a stalled circumstance, if you want to get involved on a project and have a background in design, innovation or social sciences. If you have ideas or tools to offer up. Or if we can help you. Reach out. Build on the story that’s just begun. Join us in the effort to re-imagine how organizations and societies find new ways to thrive.