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How To Create A Movement Within Your Organization

2014 November 2

We live in an age of movements:  Political movements like the Arab Spring and Euromaidan, technology movements like open source and social movements like marriage equality.  They seem to self-organize and spread virally, as if they were LOLCats or some other digital meme.

So why can’t we get our organizations to act the same way? You would think that with command and incentive structures in place, it would be easier for leaders to set a direction and get things moving, but anyone who’s run an enterprise knows that’s patently untrue.

And that’s a big problem.  Managers need to be able to get their organization behind ideas in order to adapt to changing markets.  As we have seen with Blockbuster and Kodak, even dominant firms now go bankrupt in record time and traditional change management techniques are often too slow.  To lead today, managers need to create movements.

1. Define The Mission

Every movement starts with a mission.  That’s fairly obvious with social and political movements, but much less so with enterprises.  While it’s true that most companies have mission statements, employees often have no idea what they are.  The truth is that a mission has nothing to do with flowery statements.  It’s how you define winning.

As Hamel and Prahalad argued in their classic paper, it is absolutely essential for managers to articulate a clear strategic intent that spells out what winning looks like.  Google, for example, strives to “organize the world’s information.”  Southwest Airlines focuses on being “THE low cost airline.”

However, a clearly defined mission also implicitly spells out what an enterprise will not do, reducing options, which is why many leaders are reticent to articulate one clearly.  It is much easier to build a portfolio of strategies than to commit to a single purpose.

A mission is not a strategy, but it is what drives strategy.  It guides decision making by defining a purpose for employees, customers and partners.  A movement without a mission cannot move forward because nobody knows which direction that is.

2. Create A Shared Context

Still, while a sense of mission is essential to every movement, it is not nearly sufficient for creating or maintaining one.   Apple, for example, has a clearly defined mission of creating products that are “insanely great.”  Anybody who wants to be like Apple can do the same (and many do).

Simply stating that ambition achieves little.  It is Apple’s commitment to its values, such as integrated architecture and clean design (even on the inside of the device where no one will see it), that defines its products in the marketplace.  That’s what makes Apple the most valuable company in the world.

Effective values are more than mere dictates, they are rules for adaptation, much like a human genome. McDonald’s competes in India, where it must cater to vegetarian diets. Cosmopolitan magazine is able to win readers in Islamic cultures, despite different attitudes toward sex.

Both companies have invested heavily in creating their genome of shared values.  McDonald’s has trained over 80,000 executives at it’s famed Hamburger University.  Every Cosmopolitan editor in the world is required to work from a brand bible that runs to almost a hundred pages.

3. Manage Organizational Networks

Another important aspect of movements is their informal architecture.  Unlike organized enterprises, there is no detailed hierarchy, but structure matters nonetheless.  And even within formal organizations, it is often informal structures that determine performance.

For example, in a study of Broadway plays, researchers found that the structure of social networks had a greater effect on financial performance and critical acclaim than more conventional factors, such as marketing and production budgets or the track record of the director.  Other studies in Silicon Valley and the automobile industry confirm the findings.

What these studies and others make clear is that high performance organizations are able to combine cohesion and diversity.  If networks are too dense, creativity and innovation falter. If they are too loose, it becomes hard to get anything done.  We work better with those close to us, but it is more distant connections that often have the information that we need.

Studies of star engineers at Bell Labs and of informal company networks have found that these principles also carry over into more conventional enterprises.

4. Build Local Majorities

The final aspect of movements is that they are driven by the actions of small groups rather than by global directives.  While hierarchies assume that orders get passed down through the organization, that is rarely the case.  In reality, it is local majorities within global organizations that determine how an enterprise acts.

To see why, consider a series of famous experiments conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950’s.  The premise was simple.  Asch asked the subjects to match a line on a card to one of the same length on a second card with three lines of varying size.

Asch_experiment 600px

What should have been a simple task was complicated by the fact that all but one person in the room were confederates who were instructed to give the wrong answer.  Incredibly, 75% of the subjects agreed with the majority at least once, even when the answer was obviously wrong.

Here we see why change management efforts fail.  It is relatively easy to achieve alignment in a boardroom, but significantly harder to do so throughout an organization.  Once individual executives go back to their working groups, the local majority becomes a local minority and what had once seemed clear and certain becomes a hodgepodge of diverse opinions.

We tend to see organizations as monoliths.  They are not.  They are an integrated collection of small groups, each of which must be won over for the movement to go forward.

The New Role of Leaders

Clearly, leadership must adapt to the digital age.  It is not that hierarchies have suddenly become illegitimate, but that they are slow and the world has become fast.  Today, managers need to think not in terms of formal organizations, but informal ecosystems made up of small, loosely connected groups united by a shared context.

So leaders can no longer seek to compel actions across large organizations, but must painstakingly build local majorities.  First, among a core group of passionate enthusiasts, then expanding to others which are slightly more reticent and finally to those who will only adopt the new idea when they see that most already have.  That’s how change really happens.

With so much talk about digital technology and flat organizations, the role of the leader is often discounted or forgotten altogether.  In reality, true leadership has never been more important.  It is, after all, only a true leader that can inspire and empower movements of belief.

– Greg

8 Responses leave one →
  1. November 2, 2014

    Greg – I agree in large part with your comments but there are some areas where we diverge. The toughest part of driving change is ground in the most obvious element – it requires human beings to do something new. As you rightly point out, just knowing the corporate mission is insufficient – they need to understand WHY the change is needed and WHY they need to do something different. Too many companies stop short at the Awareness component and do little to build DESIRE in their teams to make those changes through structural refinements internally. They also insufficiently prepare, train and model how to get the new behaviours – you can teach old dogs new tricks but those dogs gotta understand why the new tricks are important, they’ve gotta WANT to learn those tricks and they need to be given mechanisms to teach those skills. Love the notion of how to accelerate adoption of change – creating a movement – but it needs rigorous and structured actions from the leadership. It can’t just be wished upon the company. I know you & I both subscribe to the “hope is not a strategy” school. Strong writing as always mate.

  2. November 2, 2014

    Thanks Hilton. As I like to say, it’s not enough to get people to do what you want, they have to want what you want.

    – Greg

  3. November 2, 2014

    I believe that it is not as much about getting people to want what I want as it is about getting people to want what we all need. Clarity about the difference between needs and wants can be helpful. We need change and a lot of people might not want that and even if I want it, they must be convinced of the need, not simply my desire as the CEO or leader.

  4. November 3, 2014

    Thanks for your input Gary.

    – Greg

  5. November 3, 2014


    Good writeup. The key difference here is the third point – Manage Organizational Networks. Not that this is more important, but as you point out, the others are core leadership fundamentals.

    The ability to manage organizational networks is not a competency that many have, but it is required for success (and in fact, I’d be tempted to remove ‘organizational’ as networks often transcend multiple organizations).

    A final point related to “local majorities” is that it is important to recognize that these local majorities and the constituents within them may change. Ebbs and flows within networks of people introduce a constantly changing landscape where constituents, issues, and missions are dynamic, with no clearly defined tempo or org structure.

    The ability to recognize opportunities and harness capabilities towards achieving common mission is a critical talent requirement moving forward.

    Leaders of tomorrow will first understand these dynamics, and then work to define new structures to maximize performance in a fluid world.

  6. November 3, 2014

    Thanks Brian. I think you’re right about managing organizational networks being a rare competency, but it has been getting more attention lately. Aaron Dignan wrote a good piece wrote a good pice about Holocracy and other ideas in Medium awhile back and I wrote a piece about networking your organization as well.

    I think local majorities are a bit more problematic, because there’s no real way around them except, as you noted, to be aware of them and to constantly manage them. All too often, leadership assumes that change can be simply engineered from the top and then filter down, but actually the rank and file has an enormous ability to actually co-opt management. More often than not, the lunatics run the asylum.

    – Greg

  7. Gregg Gullickson permalink
    December 5, 2014

    Many movements seem to emerge from the complex adaptive systems (CAS’s) that we are part of. How one shapes CAS and gets desired emergence is an interesting area of thought but finding the leverage in such change remains illusive.

    On the flip side, command and control is not dead and having a leader with vision and empathy for those he/she leads can still move mountains. Napoleon would still find work today.

    All that said, I like your ideas. If one were to deconstruct the civil rights movement I think your ideas could be identified.

    Last thought – many leaders don’t ask enough of those they lead or they don’t ask it in such a way that others want to follow (purpose rather than profit).

  8. December 6, 2014

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Gregg.

    – Greg

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