In our encounters with dozens of individuals, groups, coalitions and movements during our social innovation exploration, Vickie and I discovered six patterns that stood out. These patterns challenged our thinking forcing us to let go of many of our certainties about social change. They were our doorways into pattern recognition. And once we understood the underlying significance of these approaches, our own work changed profoundly.

They do not exist independently of each other. Rather, they are mutually reinforcing, blending, merging and overlapping in various ways.


Pattern One: Think and Act like a Movement

This pattern is not about starting a movement, although your actions may be the spark that ignites one. Instead, it’s about supporting the movement(s) you are already part of. That means paying attention to the key players and initiatives in your immediate field and beyond, and becoming more deliberate about aligning your efforts. When you think and act like a movement, you strengthen the specific work you are doing and expand general receptivity for the bold vision behind it.

Pattern Two: Create a Container for Your Content

This pattern invites you to do more than come up with the right analysis or solution. You also have to make it easy for people to do the right thing. Otherwise, there’s too much for them to digest. You must create a literal or figurative container for your vision, data and values in a way that makes your message easy to grasp. Content is essential, but framing and packaging will enliven your ideas and inspire people to action.

Pattern Three: Set the Table for Allies, Adversaries and Strangers

You and others won’t achieve lasting impact as long as you work on parallel tracks or at loggerheads. Changing that situation requires more than the usual suspects to be at the table. Dialogue and convening are more than a means to an end. They give structure to our need to belong, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. They broaden understanding, puncture assumptions, change authority flows and allow us to cultivate new relationships. Solutions spread when we move beyond blame, competition, misunderstanding and mistrust.

Pattern Four: Mobilize Your Economic Power

Your membership or constituency is an untapped economic market that, when properly mobilized, will both finance and further your social innovation. More and more, social change activists are flexing their economic muscle to disrupt business models, acquire flexible funds, reduce their dependence on grant funding and develop business partnerships that help spread their big ideas.

Pattern Five: Advocate with Empathy

This pattern proposes that we stop poisoning the political ecosystem, put aside tactics of blame and criticism and become solution-based advocates. These advocates have two mutually supportive objectives: they propose solutions and at the same time improve governments’ capacity to innovate. Regardless of their political stripe, today’s governments have shorter attention spans and are more risk-averse. It’s no wonder new policy ideas fight for a foothold. If we want government to have empathy for our issues, we must develop empathy for its issues as well.

Pattern Six: Who Is as Important as How

An undue focus on how we do social innovation creates the impression that it’s a specialty we must be trained for. Instead, social innovation is enlightened by who we are – by character, not technique. The conviction of today’s social innovators arises from their emotional and spiritual maturity. They pay attention to what nourishes and replenishes their spirits. And they have the humility to admit their limitations and fears.