The Checklist for Changing the World

Most people think that ideas change the world. That’s not true.

Ideas in our head do not create change. Ideas, co-created with others, fueled by the conviction of our hearts to do better, and then manifested in the real world – that is what creates change.

We all have innumerable ideas. Some, of course are better than others, but the challenge to creating real change is not figuring out the very best ideas, but in actually in getting an idea to move from conceptual notions to shared ownership in the collective commons to ultimately executed.. so that the new reality becomes manifest.

To do that, the checklist of steps…

1. Make the Idea Sharable. I recently saw a set of meme that suggests that packaging an idea can make that idea smaller. And while I understand the derision associated with making the complex, simple, it’s not enough for complex ideas to remain complex. Ideas spread when we can share them. That means they have to become miniature enough, even relatable to allow another to pick it up. Stories can make an idea sharable. An analogy can make an idea sharable. A key fact based on research can do this. Distinctions and myth-busting can also work. This does not make ideas smaller as in stupider, it makes them something consumable enough for another person to get. And until a change agent (or someone on their behalf) can make an idea transferable, it can never spread and infect others.

2. Create Dialogue. Until ideas are debated and discussed, they are only “owned” by the originator. That’s why I believe that ideas don’t become big, until we hold them in such a way that people can challenge, question, and ultimately come to their own understanding of them. That means that change agents and innovation lovers have to stop holding onto ideas as if in a closed fist, requiring someone to wrestle it out of their grasp. Instead, we need to hold any idea as if our palm is open, to allow the idea to be picked up, and ultimately shaped by others. (I talk about this at length, in my TEDx talk on Innovation.)

It is in the very dialogue that ideas are adopted. Many speakers today, and even conferences aimed at “spreading ideas that matter” seem fundamentally afraid of the dialogue, yet it is through a dialogue that people can think together. Until we can see two seemingly opposable ideas next to one another, we may not see the common thread that needs to be resolved. This is also true of all change work within an organization. Change is inherently social and dialogue is the way to do that. Like pollination is to making flowers, dialogue is to ideas. Dialogue creates the blossom.

Think of what would be lost if current Harvard students stayed home and instead took online courses from the University and did their homework in the privacy of their own kitchens and bedrooms. These peoples’ intelligence and background wouldn’t change. But do you think they’d lose something in the process? As Todd Gorman and I recently emailed with each other: The real value of a Harvard education goes beyond the prestige of the degree post-graduation: it’s about the people you meet, and the dialogues you have uniquely because you’re with each other and not somewhere else.

3. Acted on. It is always a “doer” who makes an idea real, and thus creates value in the system. The theorists might all think the big thoughts, even hang out together, reference each other, write towards one another, and be seen on the talk shows together—but it is the doer who has her head down making something real in the world. The doer is the one who will tune the idea in its final execution, and make it become real, and have it appear to be easily done. But leave no doubt that this person and team are to be honored.  Any ideas any of us have are effectively useless until they are made real. Which is why it still confounds me that we honor “strategic thinking” so much and diminish the role of doers. And the doers have to remind themselves: you will need to be brave because in building something new, few people will be cheering you on, until the work is long over. If you are waiting for the parade before you start, it’ll never happen.


So, to all you change agents, protagonists, and innovators…. Creating real change is this simple…

Elocution and simplicity make for transferability. Do you have the nugget? Good people to learn from in this area are Dan / Chip Heath through their work, Made To Stick. Also good to know of is Sally Hogshead of Fascinate.

Dialogue in community allows for the idea to become co-owned. Who is the community who ought to know of this idea? Where do they hang out? How can you engage with them? How will you encourage true dialogue? (The book, Dialogue, is worth reading for more on this.)

Conviction. There’s a reason you are passionate about the reason things need to change. The more clear any of us are on our own why, the more we will feel that conviction, and the more fuel we will have. And it is this fuel that will carry us over the finish line. Remember to have people in your life who can support you because creating change is hard work. You can do anything you want, and I trust you will do good / noble / honorable work.


For an AMAZING example of a complex idea, made simple, watch Bryan Stevenson’s talk from this year’s TED on injustice.

To me, it’s a perfect contra-argument as to why a TEDTalk did not make the idea small, instead, it made an idea transferable. This was the most popular talk at TED 2012, and I had a unique visual perspective, sitting behind him, but that didn’t lessen the power of the talk. The dialogue that happened after the talk electrified just about everyone, and the collective of TED ended up raising some serious funds (over $1.2M) towards the Equal Justice Initiative. And, most importantly, we got a chance to see and honor someone with conviction at work.

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9 Replies

  1. Pingback: The Checklist for Changing the World | Voices in the Feminine |
  2. This statement in particular really resonated with me “ building something new, few people will be cheering you on, until the work is long over”. It’s something I’ll hold on to in the many meetings I’m in where I’m facing fierce opposition to the change I’m proposing. Thank you for continually inspiring me Nilofer.

  3. Changing the World? Is that the title you want? I’ll apologize now if I misunderstand.-T

  4. In response to a tweet by R Ray Wang: “@rwang0: another year of #davos. another year of big talks. another year of little action. so much talent, money, and opp squandered #WEF” … I thought of your classic post and had to re-share it on Twitter.

    Stay tuned into The Light!

    Voncelle Volté

      1. Happy 8th Post Anniversary, Nilofer.

        Amid the #COVID19 Pandemic, #SDGs, and #VUCA, your “Checklist” is timeless.

        Stay tuned into The Light. 🥳🎊🎉🍾🥂


  5. Pingback: The Checklist for Changing the World - Nilofer ...
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