Wednesday, May 09, 2018

How Will You Turn Those New Ideas into Action?

You've just come home from a conference. You finished a book. You aced that course. What are you going to do with all the notes in your journal and ideas in your head?

Over the past year, I've been learning more about what it takes to spark and lead large-scale social change (especially from these folks). One of the most important things I've learned is this: building awareness is not enough.

If you want to make change in this world, you need to start by raising awareness. There's a lot of evidence that suggests that people need to know about an issue before they will act on it. But there's also a lot of evidence that shows that knowledge alone will not catalyze action.

If you want to make change, you need to find ways to translate information into action. That means building organizational will and developing concrete ways to support behavior change. Information does not organically spawn organizational will to change. Organizational will does not magically morph to behavior change. Each of those is a leap, and you need to engineer the jumps.

Think about this in an individual context. Take sleep. Lots of us know that there are good arguments for sleeping 7+ hours each night. But only 40% of Americans do it. We are aware of the issues associated with too little sleep. We know what the solution is: sleep more. And yet few of us translate that knowledge into action. Why? Some people lack the will. Sure, it would be nice to sleep more, but if it's not a top priority, it may not feel worth trying to accomplish. Others have the will but lack the support to actually make the change. How will they carve out the time to sleep more? What can they change in daily routines to help them get to bed earlier? Without the will, without support for behavior change, we don't change. We stay tired.

Imagine efforts to enhance sleep that take the awareness as a given. You might focus on building will by showing before and after photos of people who have made the change. You might create a health calculator that helps people see how much they are hurting themselves by not sleeping. You might encourage couples to compete with each other to see who can sleep the longest.

Or think about behavior supports for change. You might offer sleep coaching and celebrate progress in terms of hours of sleep banked. You might make an alarm clock that will only wake a person 7 or more hours after it is set. You might create an app that rewards people for each morning they report 7+ hours of sleep.

I suspect any of these activities, even the silly ones, would achieve stronger outcomes than another research study on the benefits of sleep.

Now think about the parallels in institutional change. Take diversity and inclusion initiatives. Lots of us know that there are good arguments for making our institutions more inclusive of more diverse perspectives, stories, and participants. How can we translate that knowledge into organizational will? How can we translate that will into action? How can we spend more time and resources in those areas, and less in raising awareness?

As a writer and speaker, I spend a lot of time in the awareness-raising camp. Any time I write a blog post or give a talk, I'm contributing to knowledge that helps build awareness about issues and solutions related to community participation. That feels good. But as the executive director of a museum, I spend a lot less time raising awareness and a lot more time on will-building and behavior change. And that feels great. Any time we embark on an initiative at the MAH, my job is to rally people, get them moving, and support the change. We've led some major efforts at the MAH and in our community. We didn't do it through awareness. We did it through action.

It is incredibly satisfying to lead change in my community. Sometimes being a writer and speaker--raising awareness--can feel risky and fragile in comparison. I put ideas out into the universe without any infrastructure to help them blossom into change. I'm relying on readers and audiences--brilliant, amazing humans all--to do that work themselves. And while I have huge respect for how people convert these ideas into change, I believe there are ways I could be more helpful. I believe there are ways being helpful could help me keep learning and growing as an individual and as a leader of the MAH. I believe there are opportunities to actively, strategically build will and support change around the world.

I've spent the past year learning how to flex will-building and behavior change skills beyond our local context. I love being a participant in global conversations about the future of cultural and civic organizations, and I want to play a more action-oriented role. I suspect many of us do. Stay tuned for an announcement next week about a new MAH initiative to bring people together to do just that.

Let's turn awareness into action and change the world.
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