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Don’t Confuse A Moment With A Movement

2022 February 6
by Greg Satell

On September 17th, 2011, protesters began to flood into Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. Declaring “We are the 99%” they planned to #Occupy Wall Street for as long as it took to make their voice heard. Similar protests soon spread like wildfire across 951 cities in 82 countries. It seemed to be a massive global movement of historic proportions.

But it wasn’t a movement. It was merely a moment. Within a few months, the streets and parks were cleared. The protesters went home and nothing much changed. #Occupy was, to paraphrase Shakespeare, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Certainly, no tangible aim was accomplished.

Failure has costs. Thousands of people for hours a day across several months adds up to billions of dollars worth of man-hours that could have been put to some useful purpose. Make no mistake. Creating positive change in the world takes far more than mobilization. You need a vision and a strategy, guided by values, designed to accomplish clear objectives.

Getting Beyond Grievance

Every change effort starts with a grievance. There’s something that people don’t like and they want it to be different. In a social or political movement that may be a corrupt leader or a glaring injustice. In an organizational context, the problem is usually something like falling sales, unhappy customers, low employee morale or technological disruption.

Whatever the case may be, the first step toward bringing change about is to understand that getting mired in grievance won’t get you anywhere. You can’t just complain about things you don’t like. You need to come up with an affirmative vision for how you would want things to be different and better.

The best place to start is by asking yourself, “if I had the power to change anything, what would it look like?” Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for the civil rights movement was for a Beloved Community. Bill Gates’s vision for Microsoft was for a “computer on every desk and in every home.” A good vision should be aspirational. It should inspire.

One of the things I found in my research is that successful change leaders don’t try to move from grievance to vision in one step, but rather identify a Keystone Change, which focuses on a clear and tangible goal, includes multiple stakeholders and paves the way for future change, to bridge the gap.

For King, the Keystone Change was voting rights. For Gates it was an easy-to-use operating system. For your vision, it will undoubtedly be something different. The salient point here is that every successful transformation I have come across started out with a Keystone Change, so that’s where you will want to start as well.

Building In Constraints Through A Genome Of Values

Creating a clear vision for change is absolutely essential, but it’s only a first step. You also need to be clear and explicit about your values. While a vision for the future represents possibility, values represent constraints. Values make clear that we not only want things, but we’re also willing to incur certain costs to attain them.

For example, throughout his life, Nelson Mandela was accused of being a Communist, an anarchist, an extremist and worse. Yet when confronted with these accusations, he would always say that no one had to guess what he believed or what he was fighting for, because it was all written down in 1955 in a document called the Freedom Charter.

Importantly, the Freedom Charter imposed constraints on Mandela and his movement. When he rose to power, he couldn’t oppress white Afrikaners, because that would betray all that he’d been fighting for. That gave the movement credibility and power. Occupy, of course, was never clear or explicit about its values and never sought to constrain itself in any way.  It’s activists were often seen as undisciplined and vulgar

In a similar vein, when Lou Gerstner set out to transform IBM in the 90s, he vowed that he would shift the company’s values from the “stack of its own proprietary technologies” to its “customers’ stack of business processes.” Yet it was his willingness to forego revenue on every sale to make good on this value is what made people believe in it. If not for that, it’s doubtful IBM would still be in business today.

Make no mistake. Values always cost something. If you are unwilling to bear costs and constraints, it isn’t a value. It’s a platitude. Change is always built on a foundation of shared values and common purpose. If you aren’t able to communicate clearly about what you believe and what you value, you can’t expect others to join you.

Mobilizing People To Influence Institutions

In October 2011, at the height of the #Occupy protests, the civil rights legend and Congressman John Lewis showed up at an #Occupy rally in Atlanta and asked to speak. He was refused. Some attributed the snub to racism among the privileged white protestors. Others faulted Lewis himself, who didn’t understand the complex rules of the rally.

The protester who led the charge to block Lewis, however, described a different motivation. For him, Lewis’s great crime was that he was part of the “two-party system” and therefore unworthy of trust. “Any organization that upholds the legitimacy of the two-party system simply buttresses interests opposed to those of everyday people,” the man said.

This is, of course, total nonsense. Every regime or status quo depends on institutions to support them. That’s why a key part of any transformation strategy is to mobilize people to influence the institutions that can bring change about. One major reason that #Occupy failed was that it mobilized people to do no more than sleep in parks and snarl out epithets.

Now consider Martin Luther King Jr., who was able to bring considerable influence to bear on the US political system, just as Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston did with the US legal system and Nelson Mandela did with international institutions. These men had at least as much reason to be skeptical as any #Occupy protester, but understood that it is institutions that have the power to make change real.

In our corporate work, we find the same principle applies. Would-be changemakers tend to construe institutions too narrowly. If it is an internal initiative, they overlook customers, industry associations, community leaders and other external stakeholders. If it is an externally facing initiative, they often overlook important internal stakeholders that can help.

Preparing For Your Moment

It’s easy to confuse a moment with a movement. A movement involves linking together small, but often disparate groups in the context of shared purpose and shared values. A moment occurs when an event triggers a temporary decrease in resistance to an action or idea that opens up a window of opportunity. Movements require preparation. Moments require little more than luck.

That’s why we see protesters suddenly fill the streets and then, almost as suddenly, dissipate with little or no impact. It’s why some startups catch investors’ imagination and race to billion-dollar unicorn status, only to crash and burn just as fast. Politicians’ fortunes rise and fall, social media stars have their moment in the sun before disappearing into obscurity.

Building a movement requires work. You need to get beyond mere grievances and articulate an affirmative vision. You need to identify and speak to shared values and build on common ground. You need to invite people to join your cause for their own reasons, which may be different from your own. And then you need to focus your efforts on influencing the institutions that can actually make a difference.

So we should never mistake a moment for a movement. However, we can build a movement in anticipation for a moment that we expect will come. Gandhi trained his disciples for ten years before the opportunity for the Salt March came along. King’s efforts failed in Albany, but triumphed in Birmingham under better circumstances. Polish protesters were ill-prepared in 1970, but learned from the mistakes and later brought down an empire.

The crucial point to remember is that moments of opportunity are rare. We need to prepare for them. So that when they happen and fortune smiles on us we are ready. We have everything in place. That’s how radical, transformational change comes about.

– Greg


Image: Unsplash


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