Thriving in a Changing World

Perhaps it’s a truism to say the only thing that stays the same is change.  But this little bit of wisdom has taken on new meaning in the midst of global economic upheaval, destabilized planetary climate, and a plethora of new challenges each decade that couldn’t have been fathomed a few years prior.

The challenge for humanity in the 21st Century will be to survive – and thrive – in a world of ongoing dramatic change. And yet, our institutions are not well equipped to handle this.  Nor are we as a people prepared for living through these turbulent times.

To thrive no longer means “getting enough resources to grow.”  That might have sufficed in the last millennium when the world felt too big for humans to make a dent.  But it’s not a safe bet anymore.  In our times to thrive means having well-built public infrastructure, quality schools, a safe place to live, fulfilling work, and much more.  We need viable institutions that we can depend upon – and plan around – that we can trust to be there when we need them.

This is made evident to me every time a shock goes through the financial system.  When the mortgage crisis began, it seemed that the problem was about housing.  Now it is clear that the entire system is less robust than it seemed.  Millions are out of work.  Entire industrial sectors (Manufacturing automobiles?) that were once bedrocks of society are slipping away.  And the future is less clear, especially to young people, about just what they can to do make a living.

Planning in the face of momentous change is always difficult.  What if this condition remains chronic and doesn’t go away?  This is a real possibility.  How should young people prepare themselves for the future?  What are the right choices for stability and security among mid and late-career workers? Are things going to calm down in a year or two, or is this transition going to span an entire generation?  Will it become the new norm and persist indefinitely?

People in all walks of life are going to need help adapting amidst this global transition.  This situation is profoundly personal and goes to the heart of our day-to-day lives.  What’s more, the people I serve in non-profits and social businesses yearn for insights and skills at the management of societal change.  There is a real hunger for a sense of empowerment that each of us can make a positive difference in the world, even as the old systems unravel around us.

At Cognitive Policy Works, we are keenly aware of the need for new tools and practices for the management of social change.  Our clients recognize that the old ways of doing things aren’t working.  They struggle year after year to affect change in their communities, often seeing their advances dissipate with each new wave of opposition.  All the while, new challenges emerge – like the financial meltdown and global warming – that exascerbate everything.

To thrive in a changing world will require an organizational capacity that is largely absent today.  Not only must employees be effective change agents navigating a shifting landscape, but they also must have the fortitude to do so in a manner that promotes psychological well-being.  This will require that they understand what it really means to be human.

The 20th Century model for humanity was “self-interested rational actors” – human machines who do what is best for themselves so far as they can tell from the information before them.  This model underlies the notion that people only need the right facts and they’ll reason to the right conclusions.

Research in fields like psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and sociology show how empty this model ultimately is.  The reality of human nature is much more complex, and complimentary to the human spirit.  We perceive the world through interpretive filters that meld beliefs, feelings, and knowledge into coherent worldviews.  Our bodies play a crucial role in reasoning, with the most basic concepts involving parts of the brain that coordinate bodily movements.  And the structures of our lived experiences contribute to the millieu of meaning that emerges for conscious introspection.

I’ve argued for the importance of these insights elsewhere with a call for cultures of trust and 21st Century political systems.  Now I’d like to share with you some of the things we are doing now to start building this better world.

Cultivating New Practices: A Social Change Toolbox

We will soon unveil our first tool for managing social change, Shifting Horizons: A Cognitive Strategy for Social Change Agendas.  It will be followed by a growing suite of resources for training the next generation of change agents in strategic planning, the psychology of social change, political transformation, and much more.

Our tools are all designed to serve dual purposes:

  1. Train you and your staff to understand key concepts and put them to practice in your work;
  2. Role-model their application with expert guidance from our team of trainers and advisers to guide you through the learning process.

Each tool distills our understandings of the political mind into easy-to-use guides that help you learn to manage social change.  It is based on foundational insights from contemporary cognitive science.  Using these tools will help you cultivate new practices that work where others have failed.

Collaborative Learning Environments

We recognize how difficult it is to solve societal problems.  No one can do it on their own.  It is going to require people with diverse backgrounds working together and sharing insights with one another on an unprecedented scale for solutions to emerge and spread to where they are needed.

For our part, we are designing collaborative learning environments based on insights from social psychology and educational leadership.  New technologies in the social media/networking realm will be incorporated routinely to enhance capabilities of participants to build interactive communities capable of solving previously intractable problems.  Watch for opportunities to get involved!  If you are doing something similar, contact us and let’s work together.

Guidance in the Management of Change

Our community of experts covers a wide array of knowledge and experience.  We work with client organizations over time to assess their organizational processes and facilitate difficult transitions necessary in order to thrive.

For example, we are working with unions in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom to promote greater civic engagement and shift paradigms around education, public service, taxation, health care, and organized labor.  Each organization faces a unique set of challenges that can only be addressed through ongoing interactions with consulting teams devoted to training union staff and offering strategic guidance through the rapidly changing terrain they traverse.

We also work with social businesses on the forefront of their economic sectors to understand the complex interplay of culture, vision, and management to expand their reach at shifting expectations about what it means to be a for-profit.  Over time, these inspirational groups will pave the way for a new paradigm of wealth and personal fulfillment in one’s work unimaginable in the corporate world of yesterday (and largely absent today).

And we’re working with environmental organizations to address the “behavior gap” that lies between where we are now as a society and where we need to be in order to live sustainably.  This ambitious – and vital – transition will take many years to complete and will require that future generations think and act in fundamentally different ways than our ancestors did in the past.

Rolling Up Our Sleeves

It’s time to get to work.  The world keeps turning and there’s a lot to do.  Thriving in a changing world is going to take more than the ability to adapt.  We have to become agents of change.  Every last one of us.  Our team is doing what we can.  We’re going to need your help.  You can:

Together, we believe it is possible to do more than merely survive.  Change is inevitable, after all.  We believe it truly is possible to thrive.


Joe Brewer

Founder, Cognitive Policy Works

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Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.