Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

The Future, Part II — More Trends

I recently returned from the Independent Sector’s annual conference. The message Foraker has communicated about the eventual changes to expect in our sector was reinforced by many of the presenters at the conference. All agree that this is not a time for complacency. The old notion, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” will inevitably be the downfall of all that adhere to keeping things the way they were. The world we live in is forever changed. For some this is a somber, even pessimistic message. For others it’s a message of hope. What I learned at the conference may provide a clearer understanding of why these changes are not to be feared. Actually, many are exciting.

As we describe in the Foraker Nonprofit Sustainability Model©, nonprofits must stay true to “who we are” – or our founding purpose. But if we don’t also focus on the future and adapt what we do and how we do it, (the answer to our question of “where we are going”), we will not survive. This has always been the case. But now the changes are coming at a rate that demands our ongoing attention.

At the conference many sessions led by visionaries like Bob Johansen, from the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, and Sendhil Mullainathan, an experimental economist from Harvard who recently receive a MacArthur Genius Award, reinforced my optimism. Both provided a consistent message of hope. But they also challenged leaders to be bold and rethink commonly held assumptions. As a result, they predict we will be better prepared for the ambiguity of the next few years.

Let me first recount what I learned from Dr. Mullainathan’s presentation. His research focuses on how we learn – or why we don’t learn. He has also done extensive work on the causes of criminal behavior. Like any good scientist, he validated his theories with measured results. I found his insights provocative and hopeful.

An example used in the presentation to get us thinking about the root cause of any issue was to compare the Star Trek character Mr. Spock, the master of logic, to an X-ray of Homer Simpson’s head – not much there. He suggested that most of us will never be Mr. Spock with the ability do the logical thing every time. Nor, thankfully, will most of us be like Homer Simpson and act only on impulse. Then he showed a picture of Brad Pitt – the one from a few years ago that was featured in the grocery store tabloids when he had long hair and beard and looked pretty shabby. He said we are like Brad Pitt. Humans are for the most part reasonable and make good decisions. But from time to time we make poor decisions – something that in hindsight we knew was a “Homer moment.” A recent example of this phenomenon would be General Petraeus. The point is that we all are capable now and then of making stupid decisions we later regret. But why?

Through his charitable foundation, Dr. Mullainathan has worked with some of the most at-risk inner city kids in Chicago to study their behavior and determine ways to reduce their involvement in crime and violence. His results are astounding! A common belief about these young people is that they engage in criminal behavior because they have a limited moral compass – that they haven’t been taught right from wrong. It is also assumed that living in poverty impacts their behavior. Dr. Mullainathan decided to test those assumptions to see if they could be validated.

What he found is that most of these young people have a moral compass. They know the difference between right and wrong. But he found that they lacked a skill that may be a more accurate indicator of why they get into trouble. And that lack of skill is magnified by poverty. These young people lacked the ability to stop and think before acting – a skill that he assumed could be learned!

With simple instruction conducted over a series of 24 classes with at-risk kids living in the community, the intervention significantly reduced their tendency to act on impulse. The rate of violent crime in the target neighborhoods, some of Chicago’s worst, went down! When he did the same classes for incarcerated kids, those that had been involved in the criminal justice system for years, recidivism went down significantly! Imagine, a scientifically proven method to decrease crime! And these results came from rethinking the root cause.

Dr. Mullainathan suggests that we should rethink why people do what they do. Our assumptions may get in the way of finding solutions to deal with many social problems. For example, in the past we tried programs that use scare tactics to change behavior. He thinks that such programs are based on flawed assumptions or root causes. The assumption most used in the past was that by providing a vivid consequence to bad behavior we could simply create a deterrence (remember DARE or Scared Straight?). Actually research has shown that programs based on those assumptions have limited impact. However, the solution is simpler and much less expensive to implement. We do not need to scare people into compliance, we just need to teach people to stop and think before acting. He has taken his theory, an assumption, created an intervention, and then measured what he expected as an outcome from that intervention. Through this process he was able to validate that his theory works.

He also looked at the impact of poverty on crime. He found that poverty impacts poor decisions through the same dynamic – it reduces the ability to think clearly and, therefore, people become more impulsive. His research found that while anyone can occasionally lack the ability to stop and think before acting, when we experience stress, hunger, or have a perceived scarcity for anything we think we need, we are more likely on impulse to make poor decisions. Therefore, those in poverty that likely feel a need for more will have a tendency to act on impulse. Impulse is the root of bad behavior, not morality.

In addition when we feel secure, when we are not hungry, we have money to pay our bills, when we are not overly fearful or stressed, we make better decisions. He also found we are literally smarter. Worry has an equivalent negative impact on cognitive performance as the loss of sleep or of drinking three beers. He proved the same conditions that impact our cognitive capacity also affect our ethical lens that allows us to stop and think before acting and, therefore, to make better decisions.

The core lesson from Dr. Mullainathan’s presentation is that the reason so many social problems we work to address seem intractable is that we have misdiagnosed the root cause. He encourages us to examine our assumptions and try new strategies. As in his experience, we may find a better way.

Also, Dr. Mullainathan is a great role model for the nonprofit sector. As a social scientist, he deals with the same kind of dilemmas we face about measuring outcomes. For sure the nonprofit sector finds it hard to measure and analyze. Yet he was able to test and prove his social theory of change. Perhaps by becoming more familiar with the processes used in experimental economics we can do a better job of measuring outcomes. And there’s good news on that front, one of our country’s leaders in experimental economics is Dr. Jim Murphy at UAA, the former Rasmuson Chair in Economics.

The other presentation I want to highlight was given by Bob Johansen, Ph.D., a futurist. He was the first person to predict the changes in society and technology to expect from the invention of the World Wide Web (the Internet) that we now know as the truth.

He describes the process behind a futurist’s predictions as nothing more than observing what already exists. Futurists observe the past, identify trends, and then include information from today to predict, with some certainty, the future. Toffler with Future Shock in the 1970s and Naisbitt with Megatrends in the 1980s popularized this science. With the right data, one can take what appears to be random, unconnected facts and make pretty good guesses about what will come next. Johansen and his colleagues consult many major corporations as well as the U.S. military about what to expect on the horizon.

Dr. Johansen is an optimist but thinks that during the next ten years we will experience what he calls the “VUCA World” – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. In his newest book entitled Leaders Make the Future, he suggests that today’s leaders will need the ability to articulate clarity, not certainty. In the VUCA World we will have to learn that in volatile times, vision is a major asset. Also uncertainty that creates angst can lead to an understanding of the context from where this uncertainty evolves, and that from the complexity we will work harder to find clarity. Finally, he predicts that ambiguity will yield to agility. The VUCA World is the “Icarus Paradox” personified. Challenges and threats can and should lead to opportunities, including a more inclusive, empowered population working together to solve problems.

That insight closely mirrors Margaret (Meg) Wheatley’s (Birkana Institute) concept of a host leader that we have described in recent articles. Such a leader is one who does not suffer the delusion that she or he has the capacity to be certain about anything in today’s very complex world. A host leader is someone with the humility to understand that input from many sources to analyze complex problems is required, now more than ever. Therefore, these new leaders must have the ability to gather many good minds, with diverse viewpoints, in order to reach the highest level of clarity. Meg Wheatley’s theory is that the world is far too complex for any one individual to be certain about anything, except that the world is unpredictable. Johansen agrees.

Some of the other predictions made in this presentation are equally compelling. Dr. Johansen labeled the generation after the Millennial Generation (born from 1980-1996) as “Digital Natives,” those young people under age 15. While the Millennial Generation has more technology acumen as a result of being born after the invention of the Internet, Digital Natives are already far more advanced in the use of technology. How many of you with young children have been amazed at their rapid understanding of how to access information through today’s technology? If you have not witnessed a one-year-old manipulate an iPad, look it up on YouTube. There are many videos that show little, little children doing amazing things with technology. Dr. Johansen suggests we should also engage in reverse mentoring where we ask our young adolescents to mentor us on ways to embrace technology.

But his insight does not stop there, he asserts that we are moving toward a world where “gaming,” the activity much criticized by parents who see their children spending too much time playing in front of a screen, as the new norm. He predicts that in the near future we will all engage with many productive activities through gaming. And before you think this is farfetched, the military already embraces gaming. Young people who enlist in the military are given aptitude tests in gaming. The same young people who have likely fought their parents over wasting time are treasured recruits. Today there are soldiers in remote, confidential sights flying drones in Afghanistan! Gaming is an alternate reality. But that fantasy world is also very real. Johansen says that in the not too distant future we should expect education, health, business, virtually everything to have a gaming component.

He also evoked the memory of another character from Star Trek, Dr. McCoy with his scanner that could quickly diagnose any ailment. Guess what? Such technology already exists and soon could reach the level of sophistication portrayed in that science fiction show. Imagine – soon we will have a device that can quickly and accurately diagnose what’s going on with a sick child. We can learn if we just need to provide simple relief at home or set up an appointment with a pediatrician.

The way technology will impact our health does not stop there. Imagine contact lenses that allow us to filter food packaging so we can easily know nutritional information. That capacity is almost a reality! Or with simple, discreet patches on our skin and an app, we can monitor blood pressure and more. These breakthroughs in technology have so much promise for improving health, and reinforce that science fiction often becomes science fact.

As far out as all this sounds, I encourage my fellow Boomers to remember the marvel of sending a letter through a telephone line – the fax. I don’t know about you but I had a lot of difficulty getting my head around that concept. But few Millennials even know what a fax is. The technology today dwarfs such achievements. Perhaps the more ideal society envisioned in Star Trek will also emerge when we learn to harness the power of our technology.

The core message from Dr. Johansen was that much of the chaos we now experience is adaption to the impact of ever increasing technology. His advice is to “embrace the change and do your best to not close down, but to continue to learn and embrace the enormous potential we have.” These rapid and constant enhancements are changing society. The Arab Spring and the ongoing unrest in many countries are examples where technology has transformed institutions. He predicts that for the next decade such events will continue and accelerate. That may scare some, but he encourages us to stay open to these changes and understand that once we figure out how to manage this increased capacity, we will enter into a new stability.

I found both of these presenters comforting. Dr. Johansen with his VUCA World eventually sees a more empowered, engaged, and connected world. What’s wrong with that? Dr. Mullainathan has produced breakthroughs that could eventually revolutionize the criminal justice and educational systems. He has provided an example for how we can rethink what we think we know. When we face the brutal facts and accept that what we have been doing is not getting us where we want to go, we may find better solutions.

Both of these leaders see a better world evolving out of the current chaos. Maybe I’m too much of an optimist, but their science compels us to become more optimistic and less fearful. In his inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the world, that we had “nothing to fear but fear itself.” FDR took office at the beginning of the depression, a time when fascists were taking over in Europe – a time like today of great uncertainty. We made it though those days with perseverance and through working together. We knew we could succeed, but like now, there were great political divisions. Maybe we should all see Lincoln and gain a clearer understanding that through turmoil and the ability to not give up, we can and should work together and succeed. That spirit is needed now more than ever before.

The recent unprecedented impact of Hurricane Sandy created a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous set of circumstances in our most densely populated region. While there was limited chaos and disorder, what happened should be an example of hope for mankind. The calmness and generosity of people on the East Coast to their neighbors should be a comfort to any naysayer about the human condition. Like in other disasters around the world, what we again witnessed was that for the most part, humans did what was right and took care of each other during a time of uncertainty. The VUCA World described by Johansen does not have to be scary. Maybe what we need is to regain faith in each other.

Meg Wheatley says the cure for despair is not just hope, “it is determining what you care about and doing something about it.”

Have a wonderful holiday season. Have hope for the future by doing something about it.