Building Blocks For Your Future: The Changemaker’s Cube

At the end of a fact-filled briefing, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson turned to face his advisers, asking only: “Therefore, what?”

We’ve covered a lot of ground learning about how to change the world.

We’ve delved into poverty, health care, the environment, education …

We’ve examined treadle pumps, attic treasures, inner-city entrepreneurs …

We’ve met Gina, Cynthia, Patrick, Sachin, Steve …

We’ve touched down in India, Kenya, the Amazon, Bangladesh, the United States …

We’ve been guided by open source, the BoP Protocol, markets connecting all points of the globe, transactions covering everything under the sun …

We’ve been instructed about Big Picture Design, Making It Appropriate, Making It Stick, and Making It Bigger.

We’ve discovered that organizations have “DNA,” and that because of thisthey can breed and evolve.

We know how society as a whole advances if we deftly apply evolution’s levers: identifying features, testing, copying, and introducing variation.

It’s time to ask, “Therefore, what?”

I didn’t write this book to tell stories, though I hope you like what you’ve read.
You see, I take the ideas in this book seriously. What I’ve written comes from what I’ve learned from teachers, friends, students, and others in situations I’ve been fortunate to be in around the world (I’ve “stolen shamelessly”). I’ve selected the examples that seem most relevant for me, for my ends, making tweaks here and there for emphasis or clearer illustration (“making them appropriate”). Much of what I have written has passed the test of time, but other ideas are emerging still, and you—the jury—will judge their power and breadth (yes, your judgments will ideally “make them stick”).

My hope is that this book will provoke multiple experiments in copying and variation—ultimately, my way of “Making It Bigger.”

I wrote this book in the hopes that you will take action.


What—kind of future can you create for yourself?

What—should you do to get there?

What—can you do to keep moving when the world’s problems seem so big and outcomes seem so uncertain?

The Changemaker’s Cube

Take Rubik’s Cube, the puzzle that makes you feel curious, engaged, addicted, frustrated, angry, smart, or stupid … depending on who you are, how much effort you’ve put into solving it, and the success you may have had—or not. It’s nothing but a set of cubes—or let’s call them building blocks—that you can arrange in various configurations. Let’s play with them to create your future.

The real Rubik’s Cube is a 3 × 3 × 3 multicolored plastic form, which, as you probably know, can be twisted in three different planes. The number of configurations you can produce is 3 × 3, carry the 1, subtract 15, to the power of . . . er, enormous.

At the very least, the complexity of the cube makes it a nice metaphor to examine the complexities of our lives. But what does our cube look like? (It’s not really a cube at all, since its height, width, and depth are all different.)

To make a point, I’ve somewhat arbitrarily created a cube that’s 3 × 4 × 5—for the three levels at which you can have impact, the four generic types of activities you can engage in, and the five aptitudes you can draw from. As with the real Rubik’s Cube, we can manipulate these dimensions independently, resulting in different combinations of impact + activity + aptitude that we can apply to different societal problems. Let’s call this our Changemaker’s Cube.


Let’s look at these three “dimensions” in a bit more detail. The impact dimension represents the effects that you can achieve through your efforts. You can help individuals (one by one, in groups, or in communities). You can strive to change organizations, whether businesses, governments, nonprofits, or other institutions. You can work for change from within or without. You can focus your efforts on society-level problems, too. You may be devoted to a cause such as healing the planet or ending hunger. Naturally, if you work at this level, you are bound to work on changing various organizations, and your actions will affect individuals. Likewise if your focus is on individuals or organizations: we must realize that these three levels of impact have blurred boundaries between them.

The activity dimension indicates, approximately, when you join an effort to produce change—regardless of whether we’re talking about individuals, organizations, or society. You may like to jump in early, when plans are being drawn up and help devise. Not all plans work, of course, so another important activity in producing effective change is to validate. You can adjust, based on the outcomes being produced. And you can amplify what is working so that it helps others (more individuals, additional organizations, a larger portion of society). For illustration, let’s consider what these various activities might look like in the context of devising a program to improve the health of a community:

  1. Devise: design a program of eating and exercise.
  2. Validate: check weights, blood pressure, and so on at appropriate intervals.
  3. Adjust: make modifications as necessary (maybe pound cake isn’t a diet food).
  4. Amplify: apply what you find to be working to help more people.

The aptitude dimension, which covers your skills, talents, and interests, is a bit like your distribution requirements in college. Each aptitude represents a work style that might appeal to you. Social means acting with a focus on interpersonal relationships. You might fulfill this “distribution requirement” through psychology, empathy-based training, or something similar. Technical represents the application knowledge. Engineering or law fit the bill. Creative places an emphasis on, well—creativity. If you like to write, make music, take pictures, or make films, you are doing creative things. Knowledge-based means generating new ideas even if they aren’t immediately applied. Biology, mathematics, chemistry, or even conceptual design belong to the knowledge-based aptitude. Finally, an administrative aptitude relies on combining smaller parts into bigger, effective wholes. Business naturally comes to mind as an administrative aptitude, but being a music conductor or a movie director qualifies just as well.

Now let’s play with the cube!

Example: organization +design + creative

Let’s start with the cube associated with organization + design + creative. How might you use that particular combination—that building block—to help alleviate poverty? In other words, how might you impact an organization through creative design?

Here’s one way: many organizations that serve the poor have an overwhelming amount of work on their plate and not enough time to get it all done. Despite intake interviews and other forms of data collection, they often fail to get a deeper understanding of their clients’ circumstances and challenges—information that could lead to better support.

Could you develop a program to give these clients cameras (something creative) and let them take photographs of their lives, focusing on what they deem most important? This may lead to new processes or services within your institution (design/organization); it could even lead to the organization developing a new product that it can sell (design/creative).

In fact, not only is this possible but it’s been done. A form of participatory journalism called Photovoice gives cameras to those who are usually the object of a study. Rather than having schoolchildren (or others such as peasant farmers or welfare recipients) submit to the questions of bureaucrats, survey takers, or others with an ask-then-check-a-box mentality, Photovoice gives them easy-to-use still cameras requiring little or no instruction and asks them to photo-document their life with accompanying text (the “voice” part of Photovoice). In addition to bringing increased dignity and respect to the photographer, such a project provides the kind of information that an organization can use to reengineer its products or services. On top of this, a collection of Photovoice “stories” can be packaged as coffee table books, note cards, or other typically hauntingly beautiful items that can be sold to support the service organization or its constituents.

Now, how might you employ your creativity to help design change in an organization focusing on the health of local rivers?

Example: organization + validate + creative

What if we twist the cube just a bit, turning up the following combination: organization + validate + creative? How might you use this combination to address health care issues?

Easy! You could use Photovoice again to document patients’ compliance at home in taking pills, following a prescribed exercise program, or managing their diabetes. As you are seeing, a “good” answer, such as Photovoice, might apply to several questions. And, of course, there are no “right” answers.

How might you combine validate and creativity to transform an organization that addresses poverty (or, if you like, education)?

Want another? Good … Let’s twist again.

Example: Society + amplify + social

What if you were interested in amplifying a societal solution using social means to help protect the environment? If you were thinking big—societal-level solutions require that, of course—you might have invented a game involving the whole world. What’s more social than a friendly competition? Winner gets to save the planet. An Eco World Cup.

The automotive X PRIZE has done just that. It pits international car firms against each other to design extremely efficient, nonpolluting cars. Just to compete, cars must get at least a hundred miles per gallon (or equivalent efficiency if they use fuel sources other than gasoline) plus significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions per mile. They also must be “real” cars in these ways that appeal to consumers: Cars meet prevailing safety standards. They can be produced, sold, and serviced on a relatively large scale—thus holding down costs. The kind of fuel or alternative powering infrastructure they use is available. And they offer consumer-friendly features.

If your team’s car passes these tests, you get to enter a series of “elimination races” on real roads. In the end, the fastest car wins, and winning team gets a $10 million prize.

But the real winner should be the planet and all of us who live on it. By mobilizing teams internationally to think of dramatically new ways to build cars and demanding the coordinated efforts of engineers, designers, investors, and others who play key roles, the X PRIZE should soon lead to super-efficient, extremely “clean” cars on our roads.

Now your turn: amplify a societal solution using your social aptitude.

Example: Society + amplify + social

How about something a little less than planet-sized, but again amplifying efforts to produce society-level changes using social means?

You may feel—make that know—that both the health of the planet and the future of decaying U.S. cities depend on the same thing: sustainable solutions that focus on the three Ps—people, profit, and the planet. But what can one person do?

Holly Harlan of Entrepreneurs for Sustainability ( is a “master connector” who links people and ideas within the greater metropolitan area of Cleveland (two to three million people) and beyond to help create a vibrant city built on the principles of sustainability. The region has pockets of sustainable activity with businesses and other organizations addressing topics such as renewable industries, energy efficiency, green building, and sustainable food systems. Entrepreneurs for Sustainability builds connections to strengthen the relationships within these different pockets and then brings these separate networks together. Holly is creating a network of networks.

Lao-tzu told us more than two thousand years ago that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Holly might say, “Creating sustainable Cleveland begins with a new relationship.” Entrepreneurs for Sustainability gathers together leaders, future leaders, and curious bystanders so that people start talking; so that they undertake new sustainability projects; so that, by their joint efforts, an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable Cleveland becomes a reality.

One day people may be shocked to learn that the Cuyahoga River that flows through Cleveland to Lake Erie once was so polluted that it caught fire. If Holly and her network of thousands have their way, people will instead think of Cleveland as the “green city on the blue lake.”

Exercise: It’s Your Cube Now

The Changemaker’s Cube is in your hands now. Do you consider yourself technical? administrative? social? … How so? Place yourself along the dimension of aptitude. (Or place the you who you’d like to be.) Now make choices along the other two dimensions, the dimensions corresponding to impact and activity.

Make terms that seem too vague to you—design, adjust, validate, amplify, for example—more concrete; replace them with activities that resonate with you, such as design blueprints, design computer fonts, design health information systems. Make these ideas your own.

Choose a problem area—poverty, education, the environment (or something more specific such as cleaning up a local lake)—and let the choices you made along the dimensions of your cube guide you toward a better understanding of where your life might take you.

There are sixty (3 levels of impact × 4 activities × 5 aptitudes) building blocks to which you can turn your attention. Given the multiple interpretations you can provide for each and the nearly countless number of problems for which you can use this approach, you could have a lifetime’s work ahead of you.

But isn’t that the point?

Make the Changemaker’s Cube work for you. Good luck.


PLUS stay updated with news and tips from my latest book, Becoming a Social Entrepreneur: Starting Out, Scaling Up, Staying True, which explores lessons learned from more than 100 social entrepreneurs. 
Learn how to create social impact in these trying times.