How to build influence in a world of competing ideas

Book Discussion: Breaking Out by John Butman.

breaking outI am lucky to be surrounded by thinking folk and people who explore their ideas and reading thoughtfully in order to grow. This book celebrates such people by showing how the more vocal amongst them have “broken out” with their ideas and built successful careers on the back of a single core “fascination”. Many of your popular non-fiction authors or TED speakers would fit the breaking out model that John Butman describes.

I liked the book and it helped me think about my own learning journey. A friend, Margie, wants to write a book so she was intrigued by the prerequisites proposed (I have always thought I wouldn’t have the discipline to write a book so I’m trying to chip away at blogs to capture my learning instead).

Butman refers to us all as idea entrepreneurs – where the successful ones are those who breathe life into their idea and go public so it can spread. He claims that success relies on a clear framework so in taking his own advice, his framework is:

  • idea entrepreneurs have a fascination that drives years of exploratory activity, whether they realise what the fascination is or not.
  • A sacred expression captures the idea and the framework in the idea entrepreneur’s best known work, be it a book, powerpoint presentation(Al Gore), workshop (Edward Tufte), television show or icon. The expression might be the way the idea entrepreneur ‘breaks out’ and goes public.
  • Respiration is the final key to success because the idea benefits from being spread but more importantly the entrepreneur tightens their thinking and understands the resonant parts of their idea through the interaction that occurs as other people breathe and share the idea.

Margie and I are holding each other to account in exploring the ramifications of this book. We are going to look at 5 things that have really grabbed our enthusiasm and prompted deep exploration over the years. We are going to look at these ‘fascinations’ and try to understand if their is a common thread – on the way to identifying a potential sacred expression.

In the book Butman talks about accumulation and asserts that if you can talk for a day about your stuff, you are probably ready to break out. I’m confident I could talk for a day about all the things I am trying to understand and have been fascinated by, so I’m using this exercise as an opportunity to try and weave a common thread through them all.

We are going to try the five whys method – ie asking Why? five times in order to drill down to core truths. So in the interest of ‘working out loud‘, here are the five fascinations, I’ve chosen for this thought exercise and my five whys for each:

First fascination: Web 2.0. I went to a talk about web 2.0 in 2011, joined facebook the next day and have been searching for something undefined in this space ever since. I seem to be looking for a productive, collaborative space but have been dissatisfied with different platforms. Why?????:

  1. ? I love Clay Shirky’s model for how web 2.0 gets rid of the inefficiencies of hierarchy and organisation. Possibly because I’m looking for:
    • power for the powerless (me?)
    • more can be built if its cheaper to build – more can be solved
    • a way to leverage everybody’s altruistic contributions
    • a way to find and work with collaborators
  2. ? I love that everyone can participate, ie a platform to support
    • the wisdom of crowds
    • the need for different perspectives to solve problems
    • the informality and truthfulness of discussion in contrast to the control of broadcast,
    • empowerment
  3. ? It really resonates for me when people point out the ways our evolution in using the internet reflects fundamental human truths:
    • we are social creatures. The everyday gossip and trivia intertwined with deeper philosophical undertakings happen face to face as well.
    • we are altruistic – even if the gift economy manifests differently on the internet
    • we seek connection and community
  4. ? I get excited when my notion that “there must be a better way” gets answered  – or at least the promise of an answer by new things. My example of what needed a better approach might be trying to engage community and lead an honest conversation about how to tackle climate change from a small climate change unit in state government. By extension, many of the wicked problems the world faces need a community journey, in order to get political leadership and prioritisation.
  5. ? Is my core driver about finding my place in improving the world? I’m not convinced, I feel I spend an inadequate amount of energy doing so…

Second fascination: Economics as a dominant discipline that is only measuring half the story. In 2003, I drafted a Pizza Theory which attempted to challenge GDP with my own measure of how we spend our time productively and highlighted that economists were only measuring half the pie (or pizza in this case). I’ve read some Adam Smith, been a fan of the new wave of behavioural economists and been continuously on the look out for economic models that embrace the roles of parents and part-timers in society because we often work a part-time paid role AND a full-time unpaid role. Why?????

  1. ? I came into state government with a suite of energy efficiency projects under my belt and ran slap bang into the question, “why should government intervene in energy efficiency if it pays for itself?”. I had to understand market failures and discount rates.
  2. ? It didn’t take me long to discover that I thought the simple economics model was flawed, I had to go back to basics, but even the basics were oversimplified for my liking.
  3. ? I wondered if the models we had could be tweaked to work for the non-financial economy and the bits I found missing in GDP. I loved the invisible hand as an organising force, far more efficient that planned economies. I loved that markets can be ruthlessly speedy in spotting opportunity and bringing about change. (I think I love these things about Web 2.0 hmmm)
  4. ? I’m searching for a model that better reflects life – our fundamental human truths come up again but I’m having trouble distinguishing between cultural norms shaped by the market economy we’ve given ourselves and those truths that run deeper.
  5. ? I worry that we speed along accepting the 40hr week work paradigm (and the rest), defining ourselves by our jobs and our busyness and not understanding the true sources of value in our lives. If we could understand what’s valuable better, we would focus our energy differently.
  6. ? I need a better model from a personal perspective as much as anything but I suspect I’m also hoping to unlock people’s time and effort for things I consider more valuable (saving the planet??) but first we need to have an assertive conversation about where our time is well spent.

Third fascination: Power, democracy and governance. I didn’t realise I was interested in this until recently but I have committed to spending this year on community energy and its governance – and I’ve applied for a Churchill Fellowship around that theme. The theory I’ve proposed is that we need the traditional players – utilities, regulators etc. at the table – as well as community voice in order to transition our electricity industry effectively to a new, clean, distributed energy model.

  1. ? I’ve had to confess that I’ve always been seduced by power. I told a boyfriend many years ago that I wanted to be famous and it wasn’t until he said Why? like there was a bad taste in his mouth that I realised it wasn’t a universal dream. The changes I’m seeing through Web 2.0 speak to power being delivered into different hands.
  2. ? I always wanted to uninvite those who came to meetings and didn’t contribute to a project. I placed a value on those who brought time and effort, $$ or status/authority (ie they kept Ministers informed). I’ve been cooking up some thoughts on formal vs informal sources of power because being a policy maker, I have a pretty strong idea about whose work effort gets to influence an agenda and why. (in my change blog too)
  3. ? I’d like the wielding of power to be democratic but I’ve seen some interesting worker-cooperative videos that remind us that we need help understanding what true democracy means because it is not normal practice. Democracy isn’t a founding principle in great volunteer efforts like Wikipedia but it plays a role. “If you don’t like it, leave” only works if a sizeable community stays. I’m not adverse to a benevolent (and keen listener) dictator model. Democracy is inefficient. But I’m definitely looking for something that can bring about change for the better.
  4. ? I’ve recently graduated from the Company Director’s course with AICD. I’d love to understand if the governance we have evolved over the last two centuries (for companies and for governments) is on the verge of being disrupted by our newfound communication tools. My course didn’t address informal sources of power – Directors need to be smart enough to recognise the risks to corporate reputation / social license / funding and permissions.
  5. ? I’d love to understand the system well enough to help it drive effective changes.

Fourth fascination: Giving people better tools to make sustainability decisions in their houses and lives. Many decisions about home improvements are based on gut or marketing – not on science. One of my backburner ideas is a theme about providing rules of thumb / quick calculators / community purchasing experiences / real measurements etc for better decision making and I get enthusiastic about it every 5 years or so. Why?????

  1. ? I want to empower people to make good decisions and to help each other discover the best decisions.
  2. ? Change is brought about by many individual decisions.
  3. We get ourselves so tangled up with conflicting results, different contexts, not being able to provide clear simple messages etc. and we don’t really learn from the people who are out there experimenting and making the changes.
  4. ? It’s hard to keep up with new products but a community can do this better than an individual. A sophisticated market of demanding consumers can drive better products and services – we desperately need the improvement of products and services to happen rapidly if we are going to tackle climate change and live more lightly and more equitably on the planet.
  5. ? There must be a better way. I will blog about my reading of the Nudge book one day – it inspired me too about helping decision makers follow the path of least resistance to an excellent (rather than a poor) decision.

Fifth fascination: Dysfunction in community groups and volunteer efforts where brilliant contributors can be blind to the shortcomings of their leadership. I’m thinking of my Dad here, who fell out of favour with a number of his projects (nothing to be ashamed of, so did Steve Jobs) but I have been petrified about not having enough humility and self-awareness to provide good leadership in my roles. (Or maybe I’m hiding behind excuse to avoid starting anything new)

  1. ? Everyone has different reasons for volunteering. Collaboration to further ones own goals relies on good alignment between what’s needed for an organisation and what each individual gets out of it. Cooperation is framed as slightly harder where we contribute because we’ve agreed to, even at our own cost, maybe for longer term goals. I’m only just starting to explore this.
  2. ?If people engage to different degrees, how do we avoid dismissing those with a smaller level of commitment. If people bring different skills, different self awareness and different abilities to see other perspectives, how do we embrace their contribution and help them make it a valuable one. I think this is important because I’m looking for a model where everyone can be empowered and everyone can contribute.
  3. ? Is it more important to embrace all calibres of leadership (because some self serving people can be incredibly effective at driving change) and become better at influencing the direction of change and understanding the levers for change in the system – leaving the showy jobs to the egomaniacs.

At this stage, I’m going to take a break and reflect on all these disparate thoughts. I’m suspecting there are some principles emerging for my framework and there might be a common theme where I’m searching for answers. I’m not sure I can yet to justice to John Butman’s framework by having a cool unifying idea for all these thoughts and I certianly can’t build my own framework until I’ve uncovered that.

There are many other areas of interest where I’m keeping a watching brief:

  • the sharing economy and various debates about whether it is simply about new markets disrupting old ways or a deeper human connection at play.
  • smart grid technology and its promise of modernising an old behemoth, the electricity industry, with a distributed generation paradigm that clever people like Amory Lovins have been pointing out are more economically efficient since the 70’s.
  • feminism and the current debate about domestic violence where we are starting to explicitly acknowledge some cultural norms and power differential between genders and have an entire society recognise the need to change. Still need more widespread discussions on what we value about being female and not accepting the male model of power and influence though.
  • How we understand our roles. I’ve always hoped everyone can contribute, but have a very independent streak where I try to do everything myself. Part of my personal growth journey needs to be about working well with others and understanding how I can best contribute to a greater good. I’m incredibly nervous about duplicating what others are doing or attempting to lead something new when I would be better off contributing to something established.

Thank you for reading to this point – It’s been longer than I intended, but an important first step to releasing 25 years or more of pent-up thinking and getting lost in research. Next step – more discussions and mentoring with Margie. Is there something here? Is there a common theme?

If nothing else, in reading this book I’ve picked up some more interesting authors that I hope to go off and explore.


About Heather

I am an energy and climate change specialist with a background in industrial energy efficiency and climate change policy.
This entry was posted in Booknotes, Changemaking and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How to build influence in a world of competing ideas

  1. Pingback: Questions and Frameworks to answer them | changing weather by Heather Smith

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