Book Review:
Getting to Maybe
Authors: Westley, F., Zimmerman, B. & Patton, M.Q.

Westley, F., Zimmerman, B. & Patton, M.Q. (2006). Getting to Maybe Canada, Random House

Reviewed by: Leighton Jay

Over the past few months, I have read and reread this book. Throughout this time, I have eagerly introduced this book to a wide range of friends, colleagues and acquaintances as ‘my new best friend’. I have now lost count of the number of additional copies of it that have been ordered into Australia as a direct result of my urgings, but those who are ordering it are reading it and echoing my sentiments— this is a very well written and important book. In short, I rate this book very highly. But why?

The cover jacket reads: This book is for those who are not happy with the way things are and would like to make a difference. This book is for ordinary people who want to make connections that will create extraordinary outcomes. This is a book about making the impossible happen. Getting to maybe. How the world is changed.

With a front cover like that you can understand why the book initially grabbed my attention and resonated with my soul’s longing to make a difference in the world. It is a book about social innovation— how to apprehend the dynamics of, and contribute to, meaningful and positive change in the world. In opening to Chapter 1 I then discovered that the writers write from a ‘complexity science’ paradigm rather than a positivist paradigm. As a ‘management thinker’ myself, this belief is (in my opinion) profoundly important, because—as the authors say: ‘Complexity science embraces life as it is: unpredictable, emergent, evolving and adaptable—not the least bit machine like. And though it implies that even though we can’t control the world in the way we can control a machine, we are not powerless either. Using insights about how the world is changed, we can become active participants in shaping those changes’ (p. 7, italics original).

Throughout the remainder of Chapter 1 complexity science is explained in a very understandable way that also demonstrates why thinking from this paradigm is so necessary and valuable in domains that are rich with human activity. However, if you are now thinking that this is a dry academic book about management theory you would be incredibly wrong. The authors engagingly use many stories from a range of locations and spheres as the building blocks for their insights about how the world is changed. I personally love the use of stories in this way, but it is possible that some readers will think that the authors could have been more succinct in how they have told and used some of them. While the focus of the book is on ‘social innovation’ (broad social changes), the essential messages are equally applicable to changes within organisations and industries.

Towards the end of each chapter, various thoughts, insights and implications are succinctly summarised. For example, towards the end of Chapter 1, we are given several ‘points of orientation’ to guide readers on this journey: ‘Questions, tensions, uncertainties, relationships, mindset. These words are a curiously reflective description of what, surely, is all about action…. We’ve been taught that thinking is separate from doing. But in this book we offer thinking as a form of doing, and emphasise doing as an opportunity for thinking, reflecting and learning. Complexity science suggests that how we think about things matters’ (p. 22).

I hope I am whetting your appetite to delve into the book for yourself. Clearly, if I continue to write this review in such detail, it will become a mini book in its own right. Making choices about what to touch on while skating over it is difficult, but I will have a go.

In Chapter 2, we learn that successful social innovators (those who in hindsight prove to be highly effective) frequently initiate change with some tentative experimental steps that ‘they felt compelled by circumstance to try’ (p. 37). They do not map out a grand strategy that they then implement with reasonable certainty about the outcomes. Furthermore, the launch pad for their responses is based on who they are, who they know and what it is that they can do well. Sir Bob Geldof was a hedonistic lead singer of a moderately successful rock band before he initiated Band Aid and Live Aid in response to the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s. He didn’t receive a knighthood for his musicianship! He, like others whose stories inform the book, was successful ‘not so much [because] they led their troops like generals on horses, but rather [because] their responses both epitomised and provoked a new pattern of interactions’ (p. 37). The authors help us understand that there is a dynamic interplay between individuals wanting to initiate change and the systems that they are a part of. Sometimes, the system will invite or compel change. At other times, individuals catalyse changes although this is always in relationship with others who also want change. Willingness and skill to both act and reflect are critically important elements in provoking and shaping the changes that occur. An important implication of the reality of this dynamic interplay is that evaluation (by government or funding bodies) of efforts to initiate and create social change needs to account for the emergent nature of social innovation. Asking social innovators to predetermine the specific results that a change effort will produce and measuring performance strictly against those as goals is inappropriate. Developmental evaluation (described more fully in chapter 3) is a more appropriate form of evaluation that still provides a measure of accountability (Michael Quinn Patton is one of the world’s leading thinkers in the field of evaluation and has written and spoken extensively about this across the globe).

Chapter 3 focuses on the importance of ‘reflective practice as a centrepiece of your action’ (p. 89) and provides useful insights in how to build skills in this area. They call this ‘standing still’ and note that a key element of this skill is pattern recognition—being able to see emerging patterns both in local environments (where change efforts might be focused) and in broader systems. In chapter 5 it is apparent that without ‘standing still’ it is more difficult to analyse systems and patterns and so to build momentum for change. The discussion also links back to key points from earlier chapters (e.g., questions, tensions, uncertainties, relationships, mindset from chapter 1). These links assist readers to develop a coherent and understandable overview of complexity science as a way of thinking and in operation.

Chapter 4 explores themes related to power in social systems. How do you stay open enough to identify and engage with ‘powerful strangers’ who may prove to be pivotal in efforts to change systems? This is not as straightforward as we may initially think based on our deeply ingrained understandings of who has power and who does not. When it comes to effecting social change, it may be people who are outside the sector or system of interest who prove to be wondrously powerful strangers. Or it may be people who we typically consider to have very little power who prove to be mightily powerful because their passion for the cause is so strong. Additionally, the authors rightly note that each of us will benefit from reflective internal work when it comes to consideration of issues around power: ‘Be thoughtful and reflective about your place and role in the power dynamics that are part of your world. Become more skilful and sophisticated in assessing the role of power and connecting to those who have power. Understand that power is a two edged sword that can be used to both resist and foment change’ (p. 125).

Chapter 6 is intriguingly titled ‘Cold Heaven’ and is a sobering reality check. If social innovators are compelled to act in response to unacceptable levels of violence in their neighbourhood, at what point will they consider that they have been successful in achieving change? And if, after five years of ‘success’ in lowering violence it once again escalates, were their efforts successful? By its nature, social change rarely has a fixed destination or the opportunity to hang a ‘mission accomplished’ sign. The potential for burnout for those involved is considerable. How do you build resilience in the face of possible failure? How do you develop a capacity to balance an unrelenting belief in a better future with ruthless attention to reality? Read this chapter!

The last two chapters pull the themes of the book together and include an examination of how social innovators manage success if and when it comes their way (this can be more challenging than failure). Once again, the importance of reflection as part of action is emphasised. Without observing and analysing major trends and big picture issues, it is easy to miss opportunities to synchronise actions with others and create tipping points.

Finally, an innovative strength of the book itself is the way that the authors address their end of chapter summaries to particular audiences. The target groups include the boards and leaders of community benefit organisations (often not for profit agencies who frequently attempt to drive or initiate social innovation); organisations that fund community benefit organisations and social innovators; and policy makers. They challenge each group to think about familiar issues (e.g., strategic planning or evaluation) in different ways and implicitly (and at times explicitly) invite readers to do some internal work to reframe their mental models and core values.

Dr Leighton Jay
School of Management
Curtin University