Transformational Theses: Your Doorway to Changing the World


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by Robb Smith

We sit at a critical juncture of world-historical events where, because of our real-time global “informational nervous system”—from real-time news and social feedback to access to world history at our fingertips—we can sense the push and pull of history and evolution as it happens. Not only is this a new capacity for human civilization, it places a new and heightened demand on all of us in the integral community to become more skilled as integral transformation designers. No longer is history something that we just read about decades hence, we can actively picture our role in the evolutionary stream of events and take responsibility for our small part in it right now. And to do so, we need to better understand the concept of a Transformational Thesis , which I introduce below and outline this month for Integral Life members, who are a part of the most dedicated transformational change community in the world.

Summary

A Transformational Thesis (“TT”) is the name for a specific hypothesis that if you can effect this change, you can achieve that outcome, and in particular this process of change is a transformational one in which a person, organization, system, context etc. has moved to an overall fundamentally higher- and more-healthy form of long-term functioning.

Why Is It Important?

Everything in the universe is subject to constant change, and much of human life is characterized by focusing on a future that is different from the present: personal goals, organizational growth processes, political policies, business strategies, national initiatives, global crises… at every level of the evolutionary stack, and across every domain of knowing-being (all quadrants, states, structures, polarities, etc.), every occasion, every context, is also a process of ever-ongoing change. Sometimes the change is incremental and maintains the overall form and structure of the system/context, a change integralists call translational . But often we want to change the very form and structure of the system/context’s functioning such that qualitatively new, better and healthier forms of outcomes can emerge from the context: these changes are transformational , as they change the very shape of the system/context involved (i.e., they “trans”—go beyond, or change— the “form”—the shape).

But to understand how we’re attempting to effect a transformation, we need to bring some discipline to the precise hypothesis of what we’re going to change and why. If this process is not undergone, it is easy to inadvertently pursue translational change as if it were transformational, to have a sloppy understanding of our own objective, and to fall prey to the overwhelming power of pre-existing, dominant contexts, ideologies, energy patterns and the like. By going through the discipline of wrestling with a TT, these risks are mitigated (though never eliminated): we are forced to wrestle with the ambiguity of wicked contexts, to better articulate our grounding assumptions, to describe the actual mechanism by which we think a liberating structure can be newly-generated, and to expose the ways in which our thesis might really be just a recapitulation and regeneration of pre-existing, translational structures (to little transformative effect).

Caveats

This short introduction to the concept of a TT cannot do justice to the full process of creating one, but it can give you a very good start. Before I outline a version of a process to create one, let me offer a few key context-setters and caveats:

  1. Dynamic: The nature of wicked environments is their dynamism, and it wouldn’t be unusual for your initial TT to be found to be wrong or needing adjustment as you go. Don’t let perfect become the enemy of the good: whether you create a TT in 5 minutes for a small, personal change, or it takes you years to develop a deeply-elaborate portfolio of TTs for a radically-complex wicked environment, there is a point at which you will never change a thing without getting out of your head. Expect your TTs to be wrong in some ways, and know that you’ll dynamically steer as you go.
  2. Length: A TT should be short, sweet, and understandable in one sentence. More complex contexts might need a paragraph to unpack the summary, but don’t go over a page. The method to this madness is this: your TT is a specific hypothesis that if this is changed, that will be the outcome. By their nature complex contexts don’t always lend themselves to easy, measurable outcomes, so I’m not suggesting that your statement will always be empirically or objectively testable with simple empirics or data. But that emphasizes the point even more: when we have a hard time measuring outcomes, a sprawling, long-winded, multifaceted statement of the 23 things you want to change is not going to help, it’s going to make the process maddening and truly impossible to gauge.
  3. Holonic: First I said you might have a portfolio of TTs for a complex context. Then I said to keep them short and sweet. These aren’t contradictory statements. They’re holonic ones. The solution to a tough context that calls for seven different TTs operating to experiment with the transformational frontier is not to create one and list seven bullet points on one page. It’s to create seven separate TTs and see how they nest, how they leverage each other, how they might interpenetrate, and then to choose the one that itself is the first and key leverage point to start with. You might choose wrong, but that’s a far smaller error than never starting because you’re afraid to begin, or trying to do all seven at once. Even large organizations with lots of resources intuitively layer their TTs holonically by leader, department, team, domain, business, geography, etc.
  4. The Hidden TT: I’m going to write something that is both risky and a bit of cheating here. In my experience, there is a hidden TT at the very top of almost every other one we might create, and it basically asks the question Who am I? (in this context). This TT acknowledges that, if you’re the one involved in the seeing, analyzing, considering and creating the TTs, then who you are is central to what and how you’ll see, and who you’ll need to be for any of the rest of the TT to come into fruition. Another way to say this is that, by definition, we are constituted by, generative of, emergent from, and participative in the very contexts of our lifeworld we seek to help to transform. As we create TTs it often becomes so very obvious that the very top-level TT is some version of, and forgive the unwieldiness here, “Who do I need to be or become such that I can see this context adequately, creatively operate within it, and navigate the tricky boundary of being subject to it (so that I natively and empathically resonate with its dynamics) but also stand outside it (so I maintain the freedom, power and generativity I need to help transform it as an object)?”
    I say this is risky because much of the time this will not be the main TT of your context, nor should it be. Your TT really should attempt to focus on the specific context/system transformation you’re engaging with, not your own personal transformational process (unless, obviously, the change is really a purely personal one). However, it is also often the case that you won’t even be ready to engage with a wicked context, or feel like you can create a TT for it, without undergoing your own transformation. (This is a very native experience for a leader, and it’s the shortest explanation possible of why some leaders can rise to a challenge even if they’re not ready for it, some will remain in over their heads if they jump in, and others will decline to take on things they just don’t feel ready for. There’s no right answer here, everyone has to decide what their own appetite for risk/reward/learning curve etc. looks like.) But all of this to say that I have taken a risk by telling you what is often the hidden TT: only include it if it’s truly the single most important gating factor of a given context’s transformational potential, but if not, recognize that we all are always in transformational processes of some kind, and so your own TT can sort of sit off to the side in the bucket of lifelong development without being included in every other TT you create.
  5. False Linearity: It should go without saying that TTs work in nonlinear, emergent environments. The very act of saying, “do this, get that”, is a falsely linear, simple-causative statement when it comes to actual transformation. This should be understood and acknowledged upfront. However, the very nature of a TT is that, like a 3-bumper bank shot, it can hide a lot of calculated, strategic wisdom of complex, semi-emergent cause and effect chains in one simple statement. If anything, this is the real fun, creative and wondrous magic of these things to begin with. Just consider, we’ve all read stories about some incredible transformation occurring because someone changed something that seemed totally unrelated, or even miniscule, and it produced extraordinary long-run structural transformation in an otherwise intractable environment. To be an integral transformation designer is to revel in the alluring mystery of creating the conditions for these incredible outcomes to arise. And to do so, we need to be able to state a TT simply enough that others can understand it and be attracted to participating in it.

Generating the Transformational Thesis

Let’s dive into a simplified process of creating a TT, which could be a book-length topic but I’m going to condense (a lot).

  1. Map the Context : The first step, and by far the longest, is to map and understand the context. Integral Metatheory, as well as various standard “middle-range theories”—what most people think of when they think of “theories” from the social and hard sciences—are a great way to cycle through the epistemological lenses necessary to do this. As a simple example, the four quadrants are a very powerful tool for quickly mapping the conditions of a given context, examples of which abound here on Integral Life. Any occasion, system, or context in the real universe will always be too complex—and finally, ineffable—to map completely; it’s impossible. But what we can shoot for is a Pareto Rule that says “let me capture a summary of the context, and then focus on the 20% of those items I think might account for 80% of the effects I’m trying to change.”Given space constraints, I’ll choose a simple example: If I’m trying to change my diet, and I’ve done a reasonable job of mapping a lot of the conditions and dynamics that are involved in my diet and lifestyle, I might have to sit with that map and watch my own experience very closely before I notice what might be on that 20% list. For example, I might finally come to notice that during my workday, my fatigue and stress really tends to hit a tipping point at 3PM, and I run a quiet mental script that tells me “it’s OK to hit the candy bowl as an energizing reward”. But what went unnoticed was the carb crash that had me reaching for a beer when I got home, then overeating from unstable energy intake and lowered impulse control, which in turn caused me to stay up later, get a poor night’s sleep, and reinforced a feeling of fatigue in the morning. Now, there might be many places to intervene in this cycle, but one of the first places I’d try would be a TT like this: By bringing mindful attention to eating a low-GI snack in the afternoon, I hope to enhance my daily energy and sleep pattern . With TTs, we’re aiming for the smallest high-leverage change that might reasonably yield a high-value effect over time. And as you can imagine, for any tough real-world context, the mapping, noticing and participating in the context is an ongoing process of learning, acting, learning and iterating the TT (i.e., an action-learning process).
  2. Notice the Obstacles : As the mapping process is proceeding, the next step is noticing where the obstacles, energetic tweaks and blockages, shadow, under-integration, ignorance, problematic incentives, etc. are in the context you’re looking at. Each of these potential obstacles is also a potential venue for transformation. As you work with your context, or do more research, or engage with stakeholders, or observe the obstacles in action, or…[the list of the ongoing, in-context learning processes at each step of a transformational program is very broad], you’ll come to imagine some “if this, then that” scenarios that suggest which spots you might most focus on in your TT; we call these spots “transformational fulcrums”.
  3. Identify the Transformational Fulcrums : Transformational fulcrums are the exact spots to target a leveraged intervention in a complex system/context or environment. In my diet example above, the 3PM emotional-physiological state of my workday was the targeted fulcrum, that place that I hypothesized could yield an outsized, high-leverage transformational gain. One thing to note is that while fulcrums might be inspired or suggested by the obstacles identified in step 2 above, they don’t necessarily have to try to overcome the obstacle, per se. For example, in the spirit of Bucky Fuller’s guidance to not create transformation by tweaking a system from within, but by creating a new system that makes the old one obsolete, you might look at the context, energetic blockages, and mal-incentives in a given context and create a TT where the transformational fulcrum is creating a brand new structure, organization, innovation, movement, etc. that leverages the obstacles of the old one in order to create the tailwind for the new. Entrepreneurs live and breathe this move, building products, services, organizations and experiences that by the very nature of their better offering and people’s innate incentive to choose better for themselves, a new entity or context comes into being. This explains everything from the Lean Startup to the corporate “intrapreneurial” movements (though my longstanding critique of most of those efforts is that they’re not transformational, they are simply translational).
  4. Visualize the Better : The next step is to ask How can the system/context operate better, in a more healthy, more loving, more compassionate, more productive, more beautiful way? Here’s a paradox. The best outcomes should always surprise and humble us by making us feel a little stupid for even having had the gall to try to envision what an emergent future might look like. And yet, and yet… it’s amazing how, if we slow down and really use both our rational-analytical sense, and our brilliant, imaginary transrational capacities, we can often picture stunning futures that could come to be. As a practical matter, we need to be able to say something about the future we envision, about the better health of the context we aim to help transform; the goal should be to balance a picture that is compelling and draws us forward toward it while being realistic enough that it feels stretch-achievable. “Write the book that awakens every human on earth in my lifetime” is not realistic, but “write the book that introduces overworked K-12 teachers to the healing power of an integral Waking Up process” might be.
  5. Put it into Words : Put your TT into words by saying who/what is happening/changing in the following way that will produce this result for this person/context/system . In my example above, my 3PM physiological state was being made more energy-stable through mindful food choices that produced better sleep and lower fatigue for me . Again, notice I’ve kept the actual TT short, something akin to an elevator pitch. I haven’t detailed the longer causal chain I’m building in to my analysis, but that’s not because it’s not there: I could either unpack it further in the paragraph that follows, or if the context was more complicated I would probably have a range of underlying supporting analytical material (research, strategic plans, project outlines, team biographies, etc.), all of which are making the case of why this TT is credible, how it will be approached, and some of the assumptions I’m making about the cause-effect chains involved.

Concluding Thoughts

As I’ve alluded to, creating a good TT isn’t a slam dunk. While any of us can create if-then statements, it takes some time, effort and creativity to really develop enough of an integral view of a context such that the right set of TT candidates can be developed. And it’s important that we acknowledge that in most real-world, large-scale wicked environments, there are no silver bullets, no one single TT that overpowers the mass of competing forces, incentives, consciousness, etc. that is creating the wicked context to begin with. This is another way of saying that silver bullets mostly only exist wherever simple, dominant (i.e., superholonic) power relations exist: by definition, the power function of a superholon is measured by the quality of being able to change the sub-holons included within its developmental or ecological holarchy. But superholons are already relatively good at identifying and attempting to change what is in their control, and so any problem today that needs a TT is still a problem precisely because it’s an enduring context beyond the simple dominance of an existing superholon.

The wicked environment of climate change, to take an obvious example, is embedded in the human-civilizational superholon, and yet that superholon has no simple, overriding power function that can force compliance and adaptation by the millions of psychological, political, economic, cultural, ethnic, national etc. sub-holons that constitute its membership. Therefore, the TT “if we lower carbon emissions, then all will be swell” is not so much wrong as it is trivial and useless. What we need is to understand the full, integral evolutionary stack of the climate change context, and then a broad portfolio of TTs could be developed to intervene at hypothetical transformational fulcrums. This is being done, of course, in a haphazard way as part of the evolving dialectical learning matrix of human civilization itself, especially amongst the worldwide community of climate change policy analysts, think tanks, NGOs, governmental bodies, etc. But I can’t help but believe that an integral approach to doing this would have shortened the 53-year lag between the time Daniel Patrick Moynihan accurately advised President Nixon of the threat of climate change in 1969 and the passage of the United States’s first serious (though not fully adequate) climate change legislation this week. Was a 53-year lag in leadership and action from the world’s dominant superpower inevitable? If not, where were the fulcrums that went unattended? Why were they not identified and acted on? And so on. This one example, and its context, should itself be a warning and a blaring invitation that we need to radically uplevel our capacity for understanding contexts more integrally, identifying transformational theses within them, and running experiments at the fulcra we identify.

This is the work and calling of integral transformation designers.