At the Goddard College MFA program in Creative Writing, where I’m in my last semester, I was given something so useful for entrepreneurs that I had to take a break from my final manuscript to write this.

To act is to be fully human—only when we are fully human are we capable of growth. Tweet This Quote

The late Jerry Sternin, who with his wife Monique developed the Positive Deviance method (a unique approach to social change leveraging the techniques of societal outliers), was the person I first heard say we must “act our way to change.”

He meant more than the fact that the incessant meetings and overthinking and talking in circles we are wont to do aren’t enough to realize our visions. He meant that acting is actually the only way we learn: that to act is to be fully human, and only when we are fully human are we capable of growth. That is neither a small nor unimportant concept.

Action is tricky though. Too much too fast, and we’re likely to fail or bungle. Worst case, without fully understanding the context or system in which our actions will intervene, there’s an excellent chance we will do more damage than good. Conversely, if action is too little, too late, then opportunities are lost, hope is dissipated, energy wasted and inertia rooted in community psyche.

In social enterprise, we have plenty of principles for how to think, but we don’t have principles for how to act effectively. Tweet This Quote

I find that in social enterprise, we have plenty of principles for how to think, but we don’t have principles for how to act effectively.

What’s interesting is that the six-step process below was written for professional actors. If you trust, as Shakespeare said, that “All of life’s a stage,” then it will take you no time at all to see how its adaptation to social impact makes perfect and valuable sense.

1. An action must be physically capable of being done.

Seemingly self-evident, this is profound. In many cases, entrepreneurs I meet (and my own grad students at DSI) have gloriously big ambitions that aren’t specific enough to act on. One cannot end poverty or injustice or stop war or make economies equitable. We can’t act on anything until we find something concrete enough to actually do. Then, if that action meets the criteria below, however small it begins, big things can happen.

2. An action must be specific.

Deborah Brevoort, the Goddard faculty member who taught us this process, told us to, “Think in terms of hot (not wimpy) verbs.” For a playwright, stage directions would bore audiences to sleep if actors “said” instead of “insisting” or “protesting,” or if they walked across the stage instead of “strutting” or “striding.” For an entrepreneur intent on having social impact, these words are also important because they define the character of the organization. They define the nature of the action. What action feels like to those it touches often determines whether it gathers or repels energy and support.

For an entrepreneur, your words are important because they define the nature of your actions. Tweet This Quote

3. The test of an action must be in other people.

You can’t act on something or someone you can’t touch. To be an effective action, something needs to change. Things won’t change if they are not directly affected. As simple as this sounds, considering this when thinking about a user journey or planning a fundraising or communication strategy is crucial. The test of an action is in what it accomplishes; change doesn’t happen without contact.

Change won’t happen unless you reach the people who need it. Tweet This Quote

A concrete way to think about this in entrepreneurship is a delivery mechanism. Will what you’re doing reach the people who need it? Have you designed for that in the most practical, action-oriented way?

4. The action is something where failure is possible.

When action is meaningful, something is at stake. If this filter were applied to every significant action your organization takes, how much would pass the test? How often do you consider it in this way before you determine priorities or resource allocation?

How many meetings or trips would you not take if you evaluated each in advance to see if not doing it came with a price? How much time would you save if you didn’t try to follow up on every opportunity to network and created a filter to evaluate their value in advance?

For action to be meaningful, something is at stake and failure is possible. Tweet This Quote

5. The action must have a “cap.”

When should an action end? When is an effort completed? When an enterprise is strategic, the answers are known before initiatives are begun. On the stage, this is important to build a narrative arc, to move from one scene to the next and to not leave the audience hanging. In business, this is about establishing criteria for success in advance of beginning any project.

6. The action must be in line with your circumstances.

For playwrights, this means that the act moves your plot along and makes sense within it. For entrepreneurs, I interpret this as alignment with mission. This is the notion that everything you act on should have the potential to get you closer to your north star.

Every act should be evaluated on its potential to get you closer to your north star. Tweet This Quote

If you take a little more time to think about them, these six steps will apply more deeply and more specifically to your own process of acting toward social impact. I’m keeping them on my wall.

This process was part of a workshop for playwriting taught by Goddard faculty member Deborah Brevoort. It is taken from “A Practical Handbook for the Actor,” written by the group of actors now known as the Atlantic Theatre Company, and based on a workshop led by David Mamet and William Macy.

About the author

Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA, founder of design lab CommonWise, and a pioneer in social impact design. Cheryl received the AIGA medal for her contribution to the field of design in 2014. She is the former Board Chair and founding faculty for the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows, a Senior Fellow at Babson Social Innovation Lab, and the Innovation Advisory Board for the Lumina Foundation. She created the Ideas that Matter program for Sappi, which has given over $12 million to designers working for the public good.

  • Jessica

    These six steps are incredibly helpful, and who’d have thought that acting and entrepreneurship could go hand in hand! (But of course they can!) I am working on a project now that really requires me to use every single step listed above, so the description is really helpful. I spoke to one person about my project and he forced me to ponder something that really encompasses all of the steps, he asked, “well what’s the scope of your project?” I had no idea how to answer this question. I wanted to do it all, but he helped me realize that I cannot do it all, I will not end homelessness on my own, and if I don’t give myself a limit, or, as you said, “put a cap on it,” I will become a bit obsessed trying to make it happen. He told me I need to know what I’m doing, who I’m targeting (families, single individuals, veterans, etc.), how I’m going to get in contact with people and making sure they’re the right people, how long I’m going to work on it and how many stories I want to hear– creating a limit, making sure I understand what my purpose is, and also accepting that it could, worst case scenario, just not work out. I love this post because it reinforces something I’ve already been told, but it’s in writing, and I can look at it anytime I forget, not to mention, I can hopefully write myself a plan! Thank you!

  • Teddy Grebenc

    The six steps are awesome! Not only can I see them relating to entrepreneurship, but also many other aspects of business as well, such as management and marketing! I think the best step is step 2 which states that “an action must be specific.” So many times in the workplace have I encountered managers that don’t give specific direction, so at the end of the project, although it may be up to your standards, it may not meet management’s.

  • Charlee Riggio

    The idea that there is a time and a place for everything is very important. There are things that can only be as successful as the external factors and I think that is exactly what you are touching on.

  • Nicholas Carter

    These six steps are great and are crucial when it comes to successfully operating a business. These six steps can also directly coordinate to the management teams giving appropriate direction to their staff. Like Teddy, I have also had several managers who don’t give specific direction and make it difficult to accurately complete the task.

  • James Robertson

    After reading the article and all the steps, I really took to the very first step in the success of a social impact. I also really liked shakespeare’s quote that “all of life is a stage”. Going back to that first step, I think it is crucial when making goals for oneself or even merely planning to accomplish anything that you must, like the step says, make sure the action can be physically done. In other words, it reminds me of goal setting by making sure you are setting specific and reasonable goals that you can attain and then make new ones.

  • Victor Ribakare

    I agree and can relate with Teddy. The moment i started reading this, the steps of goal setting came to mind in relation to management. Another aspect about these steps is that even though we are comparing them between business and playrights, they are simple enough to just apply to everyday life. We associate a lot things with different parts of work, school etc while forgetting the simpler everyday parts of life that it can be applicable to.

  • Cheryl Heller

    Hi Jessica, thanks for your note. You have hit on one of the most critical and difficult issues. It’s the one my graduate students struggle with most, and that is focusing all their great ambitions and being specific enough with goals so that their vision is actionable. Maybe in fact, we can do it all, but we can only do it one action at a time. Once you narrow your focus, all the other issues that your advisor gave you can be determined. Good luck with your project.

  • Robert Neville

    These 6 steps are very helpful for anyone who wants to start a business. The hot words are what really caught my attention because when talking to your employees they can become very important. You want to say the right things to get them excited to work for you, and also correct word choice is very important for customer service as well. This word choice can also play a role in giving specific directions to those who work under you and you need to be as clear as possible with instructions in order for it to be done correctly.

  • Kevin Marshall

    Teddy, I as well really enjoyed step two. It is hard when a professor or manager tells you to do something with minimal guidelines and expects that you will understand everything they were looking for in a project or paper. That is why I agree it surely helps when someone gives specific directions to take action with.

  • Matt Goodman

    An entrepreneur is distinguished by the way they take action on thoughts, rather than not doing so. You can come up with incredible ideas but they will always be ideas until you take action. These 6 steps are great for making your ideas materialize into impactful successes. Like Cheryl said, “One cannot end poverty or injustice or stop war or make economies equitable.” However setting goals that meet these criteria can turn ideas into action.

  • Hjordis Robinson

    I am a very creatively driven worker, and I love how this article compares business to the arts. For me personally, these six steps provide crucial tips and ideas in a way that I can easily comprehend. It allows me to relate complex concepts to everyday aspects of my life. Additionally, the steps themselves provide extremely important information for aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to turn their ideas into a reality. As someone who wants to own their own business in the future, these steps have aided me in understanding important ideals through an aspect that I relate to.

  • Gregory Clemmons

    I agree with you Hjordis. I think that the comparison of arts and business makes these more easily understood and applied. I also believe that by having a full grasp of these rules, entrepreneurs are more efficient and effective in their area of business.

  • Claire Salvucci

    I personally liked the action step stating that the action must be specific. I have found that it is much more dynamic if one has a specific goal in mind while completing a task. It allows for the utmost efficiency, while wasting minimal time.

  • Michael Potter

    I agree with this idea, Claire. Planning and strategic analysis is very critical to having a plan and entrepreneurs will have a very tough tough succeeding without this step. You can have a plan and overall goal, but if you do not have a specific strategy in mind with a step-by-step plan it is tough to move forward. I really enjoyed this post and look forward to more on this topic!