May 31, 2006


Bring "Change Method" into Management (Change Agent Inc.)

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.45 (May 2006)
Toward a Sustainable Japan--Corporations at Work Article Series No. 43 (Japanese)

In April 2005, an innovative and unique company, Change Agent Inc., was established with the mission of mass-producing "change agents"--people with a desire to improve society, organizations, and themselves. People creating positive change in their chosen fields.

Founders Junko Edahiro (chairperson) and Riichiro Oda (chief executive) manage its main activities as change agents themselves and also work as core members of the NGO "Japan for Sustainability."

What are the Obstacles for People Who Hope to Change Society for the Better? Many people in the world are trying to bring about positive change, protect the global environment, and create a more sustainable and happier society. But unfortunately, the disappointments are numerous. Why? Often, those striving to change things lack the skills to convey and spread their ideas, or because their well-intentioned activities create new problems by failing to grasp the root causes of the problems they were trying to solve. Edahiro and Oda came upon the idea that a combination three factors can more effectively create a wave of positive change: the enthusiasm to create change, the ability to identify the fundamental and invisible factors in a problem from a long-term and broad perspective, and communication and marketing skills.

In Japan, people mostly rely on schools and companies as places for education and training, and have few places to learn general management, visioning, perspective, thinking methods, and communication skills. Solving social and environmental problems requires people to work with people in various fields, but in some ways Japan suffers from a shortage of opportunities for people to make interdisciplinary connections.

Edahiro says, "Society is headed in an unsustainable direction. This is because important linkages are missing, for example, with nature, the future and all living things. If we could restore these linkages and consider the long-term, not the short-term, things will start going on the right track by themselves."

Edahiro and Oda began to focus on "systems thinking," a method to guide ideas for desirable change by identifying linkages and underlying structures, beyond time and space, and by optimizing the whole instead of each separate factor. With systems thinking, people can expand our perspective, more correctly grasp the situation, and discover leverage points. It is possible to create change that will make organizations and societies better, by intentionally creating and strengthening virtuous cycles, and by weakening and breaking away from undesirable linkages.

Systems thinking is still relatively unknown in Japan, but it has been adopted by many companies and organizations overseas and produced good results for them. There are many examples in which troubled companies and factories have found a way to solve their problems or to make positive change by applying this approach. Many initially thought that their problems were due to external factors, like the economy or the competition, but systems thinking prompted them to question their assumptions and review the underlying causes of their problems--internal issues that grew out of their systems.

Systems thinking is a way of understanding that a problem has arisen from the "structure" of a system, not simply from the behavior of the people involved. It implies that anyone in the same situation would have the same problems if the structure is the same. Focusing on the structure of the problem without blaming the people, this method allows those involved to enhance their communication and facilitates the discovery of fundamental solutions. Systems thinking is a useful communication tool as a common language for people both inside and outside of the organization.

Edahiro and Oda regard systems thinking as a core skill of any change agent. To help create the human resources of agents of change in society, they established their company, Change Agent, which offers a series of skills-training programs consisting of visioning, identifying problems, and effective approaches based on systems thinking, planning strategies for change, and managing transition.

Two Countries. Same Situation. Different Path. Why?

Systems thinking is effective not just for businesses. Two developing countries provide a contrasting example of what can happen when one looks at the structure of systems from a long-term and broad perspective. Both are similar in land area, population, geography and climate. But from 1980 to 2000, one country enjoyed a remarkable growth of 150 percent in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, while the other remained stagnant. What caused this difference?

In the 1980s, mining was an important industry for both countries. But one country realized that its economy would not be sustainable in the long run if it remained over-dependent on mineral resources. It took measures to prevent economic decline by using revenues from mining for national development, construction of social infrastructure, development of manpower, and reinvestment of foreign assets. As a result, improved infrastructure allowed the country to promote economic growth.

The other country enjoyed an increase in national revenues from mining, but failed to consider other alternatives for economic development. The store of mineral resources declined as mining activities continued, which led to a decrease in mining revenues as well as national income. Its economy continued to worsen. This example shows that effective utilization of the entire system can lead to positive development by expanding the perspective and incorporating multiple subsystems with virtuous cycles.

Change Agent Inc., "Mass Producing" Agents of Change

Change Agent offers three kinds of activities to help people become change agents. First, writing and speaking about systems thinking in order to reach the greatest number of people, raise awareness and build the courage to produce positive change. About 5,000 people have heard the company's message in lectures during its first year in business. Change Agent also provides third-party opinions on corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports from the broad perspective of systems thinking.
(Japanese:at page 66)
(English:at page 66)

The second activity is organizing training courses and workshops on systems thinking in business. Participants get to practice discovering unseen linkages behind the problems as they perceive and identify repeated patterns and system structures. After returning to their own businesses, they can make new discoveries, come upon new ideas, and take a fresh look at the limiting assumptions in their organizations. In Change Agent's first year, about 500 clients completed the training courses and started to adopt systems thinking. Many of them have succeeded in improving their workplaces.

Change Agent also offers training courses for experts involved with development assistance in developing countries. The company provides a training program of systems thinking for experts soon to be sent abroad as one of the courses taken prior to being dispatched by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, a quasi-governmental organization that provides technical assistance and a portion of the government's grant aid operations. Trainees learn how to analyze problems in the countries where they will work, and approaches to find solutions. With "causal loop diagrams," they obtain tools that allow them to communicate without depending on language.

Training courses cover introduction and practices of major systems thinking tools such as learning games, reference behavioral pattern graphs, causal loop diagrams, and systems archetypes. Learning games help trainees to become aware of their thinking frameworks, patterns and stereotypes, and to learn how to identify missing linkages behind the problems, which leads them to discover ideas for solutions while avoiding stereotypical thinking. After learning those tools, trainees can obtain basic ideas and tools through exercises that apply the tools to real cases.

The third activity of the company is working together with "change agents" to make ideas for change actually take shape. The company helps people and organizations, including corporations, by facilitating the implementation of visioning, management strategy and action plans, and also by helping to coordinate dialogue with clients' stakeholders.

For instance, for the junior chamber in Kumagaya City, Saitama Prefecture, the company facilitates visioning and developing action plans for a sustainable community. Systems thinking tools help members of the chamber to expand their perspective and discover the interconnections between people, nature, society and culture.

Change Agent's Future Vision

Oda says, "It is a great pleasure for me to see participants' faces revealing that they were actually inspired, and did not just acquire information through our workshops." Change Agent's objectives are to support not only individuals but also organizations to become agents of change leading to more fundamental and bigger changes, to train more instructors to hold workshops throughout the country, and to introduce these methods into educational curricula as a basic skill with the same status as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Many people in the world today share the same concerns, but the challenge for the future is to change society so that it finds solutions to its problems. Believing that systems thinking is a powerful tool to change things for the better, Change Agent Inc. is giving all it's got to act as an agent of change itself, and to create more agents by spreading the word to the multitudes.

(Staff writer Eriko Saijo)