Thoughts on innovation from a change skeptic


We like to think what we do matters. Has an impact. Changes lives. But does it?

I confess: I’m a “change skeptic.”

A change skeptic is someone who has trouble believing (often rosy) self-assessments about how our earnest actions lead to real change, to the betterment of lives.

This chronic cognitive condition is typically brought on by witnessing too much overly hopeful thinking about how change supposedly occurs. It is exacerbated by personally participating in supposed processes of radical transformation that turn out to be not so radical, or even transformational.

I’d like to share the story of my journey to – and through – being a change skeptic. While I’ve not left my skepticism behind, I have discovered the critical role serious innovation can play in bringing greater realism to the way we think about change. That means that I’m less likely than I once was to delude myself as to how change really happens. And I’m more likely to make people uncomfortable by asking pointed questions about how they think anything is supposed to change.

Big change vs. little change

I served churches full time for seven years, in Sydney, Australia, and in Northern California. I then became a seminary professor, teaching philosophy, theology and ethics. In parallel, I’ve run a business and founded a nonprofit corporation. That’s four quite different contexts, each offering a chance to understand the meaning of changed hearts, minds and societies — what really works versus what produces delusional thinking about real-world change.

A big caveat on my change skepticism is that small-group and one-on-one influence is real and important. In a religious setting, a good sermon really can create an aha! moment; a hospital chaplain really can comfort a patient or a family; and a youth leader really can inspire a troubled teenager. In an educational setting, the routine of teaching and learning is often effective at achieving vital learning goals. In a business setting, honest work is honorable, pays bills, creates employment and sometimes helps people. In a nonprofit setting, daily activities can keep a valuable organizational mission alive. This is “little change” and it’s truly valuable and beautiful.

My change skepticism arises when we imagine large-scale change and picture ourselves contributing to it. I’ll call it “big change” just to be clear. From eliminating poverty to ushering in the Kingdom of God on earth, enthusiasm is usually the enemy of big change. Enthusiasm displaces strategic thinking and can make us too easily content with forming good intentions, after which we quietly forget to conduct a brutally honest assessment of the actual impact of our actions.

Examples are legion. Here’s one that might be close to home for Christians.

Latin American liberation theology was born in academic solidarity with the poor and had the goal of liberating the poor, including by transforming economic conditions. Many ministers (like me) moved people with profound sermons about it. Plenty of professors (like me) proclaimed its revolutionary power. But it achieved very little. Instead, the spontaneous spread of Pentecostal Christianity did for millions of Latin American poor what the spontaneous spread of Methodism did for millions of North Atlantic poor a century and a half earlier: lifted people out of poverty by equipping them with impressive personal virtues such as honesty, diligence, self-discipline and solidarity with one another. In Latin America, more and more of those poor are now in the middle class, benefitting from advanced education, running for political office and exercising a civilization-transforming influence. Of course, Latin American liberation theologians have noticed the irony, to their dismay — I admire and respect their honest self-awareness. Some of their boosters in the U.S. have been slower on the uptake.

I’m glad to see poverty indicators improving in Latin American nations, along with increasing life expectancy, existential security and life satisfaction. Most people will agree with me that these outcomes are far more important than precisely how they occur. But surely it is a pointed lesson for people in the talk-about-big-change business: while we’re yammering on about big change, we can be steamrolled by real-world change that’s happening without us, and sometimes in spite of us.


Reframing approaches to change

After many years of preaching in churches and teaching in a university seminary, I became exhausted by what struck me as our self-congratulatory, delusional approach to big change, even as I deeply appreciated the often neglected power of small change. I grew weary of church ministers who spread visions of mass conversion, and felt more at home with pastors who walk the long road alongside people in all their complexity and ambiguity. I tired of seminary professors with a high estimate of the world-transforming importance of their research and became more comfortable with teachers who expertly guide their students toward the next stage of personal and professional development.

You’re probably thinking: That’s just giving up on big change altogether and focusing on little change!

Yep, that’s exactly what it is. I much prefer honest work toward little-change reality over the noisy tub-banging of big-change fantasy.

Still, I don’t want to completely surrender the territory of big change to the cultural luminaries, policy wonks and tech companies. So how does a pastor-preacher-professor like me enter the big-change stage without delusions of grandeur? Like many intellectuals, at times I’ve thought that my ideas are cool, with huge potential for change. Well, of course, my ideas really are cool, but that doesn’t mean they have any serious potential for change. Associating those two things is a cognitive fallacy and intellectuals (like me) routinely fall prey to it. So do preachers (like me). So how, then? How do we play a role in stimulating big change without being ridiculously self-deluded?

Identifying innovative toolkits

A nonprofit research venture, the Center for Mind and Culture (CMAC, pronounced see-mack;, is my response to becoming a change skeptic. Lots of nonprofits focus on creating change in relation to a particular problem: save the whales, defeat breast cancer, etc. That’s great. By contrast, CMAC strives to be an innovative toolkit, applicable to a lot of different problems when the timing is right. Think: Swiss Army knife. The two sides of the innovative vision are applying revolutionary computing and data sciences to seemingly intractable social problems, and transcending university departmental silos to build multidisciplinary teams working with stakeholders.

A couple of examples will help explain CMAC’s theory of change.

Consider the seemingly intractable problem of rural suicide. Experts know more than ever about suicide and all kinds of money and expert resources are being thrown at it, but the problem keeps getting worse. Somehow, the complex adaptive social system of minds in cultures produces suicide as a side effect. We don’t want it but we seem helpless to stop it. CMAC doesn’t specialize in suicide, so how can we offer anything of value? Well, we specialize in complex adaptive social systems. We build computational simulations of real-world complex social systems. These are a bit like computer games but with the aim of accuracy rather than entertainment. A well validated computational simulation allows us to investigate the complex social system within which suicide arises, run cost-benefit analyses on existing policies and potential new interventions, and discover the system’s hidden change-levers. No other research technique is capable of that. Why not just leave the problem to the suicide experts? Because that’s not working fast enough. An innovative approach is needed and CMAC’s approach – partnering with experts to apply a computing and data-science toolkit to a complex social system – offers a new way forward.

Now consider the problem of the exploitation of children in the commercial sex industry. This human blight has been with us since time immemorial, but the advent of social media has allowed a desperately depraved demand to connect conveniently with a desperately vulnerable supply, so the problem has deepened and spread to just about every city and town in the United States, and every country in the world. It’s safer and more profitable to recruit, groom and traffic minors than it is to run illegal drugs. From a complex-systems perspective, it is an unintended consequence of a complex adaptive social system. And child sex trafficking is proving to be extremely difficult to stop. Ultimately, the way to end it is to raise boys into men who want to protect and empower young girls, not exploit them, thereby throttling the demand that drives this multibillion-dollar niche economy. While we figure out the details of demand reduction, what can be done to reduce supply and support beleaguered law enforcement? As with rural suicide, CMAC’s approach is to partner with experts and stakeholders to build computational simulations that allow us to run virtual experiments, probe the underlying complex adaptive social system and uncover hidden change levers.

CMAC’s approach is innovative, it’s risky and ultimately it might not work. But this approach does promise breakthrough change, allowing us to test before we invest in new interventions. We use these techniques routinely when we design cars, bridges and factories. Why not apply them to complex social systems now that computing and data sciences have produced the right kinds of tools for the job?

And speaking for myself, a change skeptic, I finally feel I’m telling myself the truth about real-world change. I’ll keep up the rhythm of small-change activities. And I’ll make a very precise, limited and deliberate move on the big-change stage through CMAC.

Three ingredients for change

I’ve probably failed more than I’ve succeeded in creating change in the church, university, business and nonprofit sectors. But that’s in part because I keep trying to make a real difference. Along the way I’ve discovered a few things that even a big-change skeptic like me can appreciate. Think of it as a three-ingredient, experience-based recipe: honest self-assessment, innovative vision and hard work. Each of the three ingredients is essential to impactful change on a large scale.

Honest self-assessment. Christians are supposed to be experts at this, honestly reviewing our sinful lives and striving for holiness in thought, word and deed. I get lots of practice! But we’re not as expert when it comes to honestly evaluating our visions of change. For that, I think we need to look at life a bit like a venture capitalist or a banker reviewing business plans.

Is the change plan specific and actionable? Can progress be measured so we can figure out what’s working and what’s not? Is there room for refinement and adjustment? Is there a real audience sufficient to create good revenue flow? Can stakeholders – the people most directly impacted by the envisaged change – recognize the benefits? Are the leaders of the initiative up to the job?

These are tough questions and sometimes the honest answer is that we’re not ready to work on a big-change challenge. The questions are so difficult it’s easy to block them out. That’s why we need to ask for wisdom from people who will not hesitate to tell us the truth. Find the change skeptics you know and make use of them. Even if they’re more jaded about the prospects for real-world change than they need to be, you can learn a lot from them.

Innovative vision. For small change, what we need is character, skill and patience. But big change calls for novel perspectives capable of breaking through the noise of normalcy. Innovative big-change vision requires creativity, passion and imagination. Nothing less can disrupt the patterns that lock in the problems we want to mitigate.

Experts have all kinds of advice on how to generate creative, disruptive ideas. I think coming up with a serious innovation is a deeply personal achievement, integrating bits of your life that may never have seemed relevant to you before. In my case, I’m a philosopher of religion primarily, but I’m also a data scientist, an empathic person and I’ve thought a lot about complex adaptive social systems and their problematic side effects. All of that comes together in the innovation at the heart of the CMAC toolkit.

I suspect your innovative ideas for big-change transformation will have a similarly deeply personal story.

Hard work. The difference between a flash of creative insight that yields innovative big change and a mere flash in the pan might not be obvious at first. It takes persistence and hard work to prove out an idea, to demonstrate that it has substance and to recruit the networks of expertise and the financial resources needed to realize the potential for change latent within the innovation.

Sometimes I wake from a dream feeling certain I’ve made a major discovery. But as I review the dream-born flash of insight, I discover that it’s merely a juxtaposition of thoughts and emotions that adds up to nonsense. Similarly, a brilliant innovation needs to be thought through carefully — with the same kind of care needed to create a plan capable of convincing a venture capitalist to invest in a business idea. That’s where the hard work begins. And it continues on from there into a million tiny details.

Are you a change skeptic?

I’ve come to appreciate my skepticism about big change. I suppose it might have turned me into a grump, criticizing everyone’s idealism. And I acknowledge that my tough questions about theories of change might seem that way sometimes. But I think being a change skeptic has made me calmer, smarter, more creative and more determined to make myself useful in this troubled world of ours. I don’t just leap into action anymore. I focus my efforts in accordance with a theory of change that I can grasp and that other change skeptics find convincing.

Innovative ideas are exciting. But focused and disciplined innovation is where truly transformative power lies.

7/28/10 12:28:27 PM — Boston, Massachusetts
Portrait STH Assoc. Professor Wesley Wildman is for the Research Brochure .
Photo by Kalman Zabarsky for Boston University Photography

Wesley J. Wildman is a professor at Boston University in the School of Theology and executive director of the Center for Mind and Culture. His latest book, co-authored with Kate J. Stockly, is “Spirit Tech: The Brave New World of Consciousness Hacking and Enlightenment Engineering.” See