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There is No Magic Lever to Change the Culture of a Community

October 6, 2013, 9:00 AM

One of the problems when we try to change behavior of people is that there’s no one thing that causes behavior.  Most of our behavior is caused by a thousand things.  So if you spend your time saying, what’s the one thing I can do? 

What’s the magic lever I can turn and it will shift the whole organization over in one direction?  Well that lever doesn’t exist because there are a million things that are all interplaying.  So if you want to change a culture, what you have to do is try to change everything all at once.  

Sometimes the physical environment really matters, sometimes rearranging the pieces  really matter and so you want to create not just a lever you change, you want to have a counter-culture. For example, in New York City there is something called the Harlem Children’s Zone.  The Harlem Children’s Zone was created to combat poverty.  And after 40 years they tried to pick a lever.  What’s the lever we can pull that will help alleviate poverty?  Well maybe we should give people housing vouchers.  Maybe we should give them better schools.  Maybe it should be after school programs.  And none of these individual things actually made that much difference.  

But what the Harlem Children’s Zone said is, "Okay, it’s not going to be one level, but we’ll do it all.  We’ll take this several block area and we will throw in everything."  And if poverty is an emergent system that’s dragging people down, then if you throw in the after school, the early childhood, the healthcare, the dental care all at once, you get an emergent system hopefully pulling people out.  

And so that’s the key that it’s not the one thing, it’s doing 20 things all at once and it’s the interplay of all those positive things that gives you a positive cycle.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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