How Social Entrepreneurs Make Change Happen

Author: Roger Martin & Sally R. Osberg

Who drives transformation in our society and how do they do it? Roger Martin and Sally Osberg argue in their new book, Getting Beyond Better, that the answer is social entrepreneurs, who target unjust and unsustainable systems — or “equilibria” — and transform them into entirely new, superior, and sustainable equilibria. In this excerpt, they tell a story illustrating how vision is the key to successful transformation.

To serious motorcycle racers like Andrea and Barry Coleman, flat-track racing is the most primal, authentic, and thrilling form of competition, harkening back to the origins of the sport at the turn of the twentieth century. The track itself is dirt and configured in the classic oval shape. Motorcycles make 20 or so counterclockwise laps during the course of a race, at speeds of over 100 miles an hour. As the bikes roar around the track, they gradually wear a groove where you’d expect to find it—near the center, just hugging the inside. Along the outside, the kicked-up dirt and dust forms what’s known as the cushion. Throughout the race, riders tend to stay in the groove, avoiding the cushion, where the ride is riskier because the dirt is soft and traction is uncertain.

But sometimes a rider will venture out into the cushion to overtake the competition. Taking to the cushion doesn’t require the rider to be a daredevil. It doesn’t take unnatural bravado. Rather, it requires the rider to have confidence in his experience and skill, and most of all, in the condition of his motorcycle. The bike must be impeccably maintained — oil, gas, gears, engine — and the rider must know it intimately, down to the depth of the tire treads to the millimeter. Taking to the cushion signals a rider’s determination to break out from the pack, to risk failure, and to win.

Social entrepreneurs, Barry Coleman explains, consistently ride in that cushion, where there is plenty of potential to get ahead and just as much to slide out of control. It is a place where guts and determination are required, and where skill and expertise can pay off. Barry should know. He and his wife aren’t just race enthusiasts, they are social entrepreneurs: founders of Riders for Health, an organization that manages transportation systems for the delivery of health care in seven countries across sub-Saharan Africa.

For the Colemans and Riders for Health, winning means nothing less than a new health-care delivery equilibrium on a continent that desperately needs one. Today, on virtually every relevant health indicator, Africa lags. Life expectancy is 10 years shorter than the rest of the world. Child mortality is double the global average. Whereas the United States has 2.4 doctors for every thousand citizens, sub-Saharan Africa has just 0.2. Across the region, some thirty thousand children under the age of five die every day from diseases that are easily treated or prevented with available vaccines and medicines, including diarrhea, measles, and malaria. Immunization programs, even with the massive scale-up in supply made possible by the multilateral Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (“Global Fund”) and a host of NGOs, still fail to reach an estimated 22 million children. Progress remains difficult, despite stated commitments to millennium development goals, decades of foreign aid, and billions of dollars in philanthropy.

The miserable health-care equilibrium in Africa, the Colemans would argue, is kept in place partly by its failing infrastructure. Too often, available medicine and equipment can’t get where they are most urgently needed. Health workers waste hours each day walking and waiting, rather than delivering care. Communities go weeks and months without meaningful access to health care, even in times of desperate need. All of these problems result from gaps in infrastructure, but it was one gap in particular that tweaked the notice of this pair of motorcycle enthusiasts: African health systems were failing because they lacked the underlying transportation systems needed for reliable health-care delivery.

It isn’t the stuff of banner headlines. But in Africa (or, for that matter, anywhere else), if reliable transportation is not part of the health-care delivery system, people die. To Andrea and Barry Coleman, the reality that they encountered — a health-care delivery system hobbled by inadequate transportation management infrastructure — was utterly unacceptable. They envision a very different equilibrium, a future transformed, in which African health ministries are equipped with reliable, affordable, and effective transportation systems that deliver the health-care services their people need, when, where, and how they need them. And it turns out motorbikes have an important role to play.

Vision and the Social Entrepreneur

Much has rightfully been made of the need for a clear and compelling vision in any endeavor. A vision can set direction, mobilize followers, align activities, and galvanize the will required by an individual or team to accomplish something significant. Without a compelling image of the future, and — as importantly — clear steps to achieving it, organizations will drift and quite likely fail. Any winning strategy begins with an aspiration that articulates what winning means for an individual, organization, or endeavor.

Social entrepreneurs, too, must articulate their winning aspirations, and do so in the context of transformative change. They must go beyond simply articulating an improvement to the system. Social entrepreneurs are driven to get beyond better. The social entrepreneur’s vision of winning must be aimed at equilibrium change rather than at the amelioration of current conditions; it must be specific yet systemic in its approach, targeted at a constituency that cannot effect the change alone while also considering the system holistically; and it must be adaptable and resilient in the face of changing conditions.

Andrea and Barry Coleman saw in the existing system an opportunity that was little noticed by others. Most of the attention in global health is on the eradication or effective treatment of disease. By contrast, the humdrum issue of transportation infrastructure barely registers. Andrea notes, “People assume the infrastructure is in place. It isn’t.” The Colemans could see that it wasn’t, and they could also see just how vital transportation was to the operation of the whole system. They were able to do so because they had deep and extensive personal expertise that could be brought to bear on this new context – and this expertise just happened to be about motorbikes.

Andrea had grown up in a family of motorcyclists, and from an early age wanted nothing more than to become a racer herself. “The day I was sixteen, I put my L-plates on, took three months and then passed my test. I just wanted to be out riding motorcycles,” she recalls. And so she did, sharing a love of racing with her husband, Grand Prix racer Tom Herron. In 1979, Herron died in a racing accident, spurring Andrea to develop a passion for safety every bit as intense as her love of riding. Her second husband, Barry Coleman, traces his own interest in motorcycles to his racing beat for the Guardian. It was through this shared interest that the two first met and their relationship began.

Racing also brought them to Africa. Together with their friend, the legendary Grand Prix racer Randy Mamola, the Colemans had spent years persuading their British racing peers to raise money for Save the Children’s African programs. In 1988, Save the Children sent Mamola and Barry to Somalia, to show them how these hard-won funds were being used. The money was clearly being put to good use. Yet what the two men saw in Africa, and what Andrea too saw on a subsequent trip, shocked them: hemorrhaging women being carted in wheelbarrows to the nearest clinic; health workers covering distances of twenty or more miles of tough terrain a day by foot; countless vehicles left to rust by the side of the road or stacked up against buildings, vehicles that would still be operating had they been serviced properly. What good, they asked themselves, was a health-care system without reliable transport? And what good were expensive vehicles that were as mobile as millstones? That, in a nutshell, was the status quo. It became the starting point for the Colemans’ vision for what should change.

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