Breaking the Equilibrium

Breaking the Equilibrium

I’ve just finished reading “Getting Beyond Better… how Social Entrepreneurship works” by Roger L. Martin and Sally R. Osberg. It’s a great read and an important one whether you’re a social entrepreneur or in “normal” business.

One section in the introduction really resonated with me and I thought worth sharing here as its relevance to our today is beyond the Social Entrepreneurship topic. It’s about Equilibriums… and how to break them:

…the concept of equilibrium change looms large in our thinking. An equilibrium is a balanced, stable system. Left alone, a system in equilibrium will persist in its current state, according to its current structure. The system may well be corrupt, or evil, or unfair, but its forces are in balance and will remain so without intentional action to shift it (and sometimes it will remain even in the face of such action). A system of action can and often will produce a relatively stable equilibrium that is unpleasant and unproductive for some of these actors, typically for the most underprivileged and marginalised.

Unlike the equilibrium of the glass and pivot in the picture most human and societal equilibriums are really tough to break. This is true within organisations undergoing a transformation from the equilibrium of “this is the way things are done around here” and in society at large.

Transformation is hard… but the eventual outcomes are worth every effort as the authours show through great case studies.

The final chapter of the book talks of Paths to Transformation which really resonate if you’ve tried to do anything the “right” way:

  • Step1: Understanding the World — developing a real commitment to understanding a particular status quo, how it came to be, and the forces that hold it in place.
  • Step2: Envisioning a new future — developing a clear and defined idea of what we seek to achieve: a future resulting from equilibrium change rather than one that preserves the current state.
  • Step3: Building a model for change — through creativity and hard-nosed shrewdness!
  • Step4: Scaling the solution — scale measured not by an organisation’s size or budget but by the effectiveness of that organisation at shifting the equilibrium it targets.

This final step is perhaps the most intriguing when we compare social entrepreneurship to other, more traditional forms of business. It’s a step which has encouraged me to put this commentary out. It’s a step that suggests that it is only by working together, being transparent and open with others about our methods, can we really scale.

The final paragraph of the book reads:

With the drivers of change — and a four stage model of achieving it — better understood, our hope is that more social entrepreneurs will find their way forward more quickly and effectively, with more funders and supporters stepping up to help them achieve sustainable change. As more social entrepreneurs succeed in transforming injustice and righting the world, we all stand to benefit. Yes, the world can get beyond better — and social entrepreneurs prove it’s possible.

But why do we need to distinguish social entrepreneurship from other, more traditional, forms of business? Businesses and organisations that have inspired me over the years don’t need to distinguish between social entrepreneurship and traditional entrepreneurship. They have taken some of these ideas presented in Getting Beyond Better and tried to be a force for good.

I hope many more organisations take up the challenge of breaking equilibriums.

Originally published at

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