What do your organization's successful transformation, the current U.S. Presidential campaign and the Arab Spring all have in common? Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, the answer is: masses of people.
It is a widely-held belief that the fervor surrounding the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign is fueled by an electorate increasingly frustrated by the political polarization in Washington D.C., resulting in an inability of Democrats and Republicans to work together to get anything meaningful accomplished. True enough -- but the electorate is not static. Turnout for Republican primaries this year is up 77 percent compared to 2012. Bernie Sanders is speaking repeatedly to record-breaking rallies of 15,000 to 30,000 largely 18-25-year-old first-time voters. This is not just the same old voters expressing frustration, but swarms of new voices supporting new and re-emerging issues who are shaping the race in ways no one could have envisioned a year ago.
Conventional wisdom similarly holds that social media played a central role in the Arab Spring. To make this concept more digestible, consider the example of Egypt circa 2010-2011. There is compelling data surrounding the numbers of tweets, Facebook messages and video downloads to suggest that social media helped shape political debates and quickly mobilize enormous demonstrations and protests. Theorists argue social media was so important because it connected people and galvanized action in previously impossible ways. Again, true enough - but social media was merely the mechanism of organization for the real driving force: newly-engaged and passionate citizens. Upwards of 10 million protestors were reported active in Egypt in 2010, sending 676,000 tweets during the three weeks leading up to President Mubarak's resignation in February 2011.
So, while it is true (at least in part) that the current U.S. Presidential campaign is fueled by rising frustration in the electorate, and that the Arab Spring was enabled by social media, the more important common thread between these two is this: large masses of people, like never before, crying out to participate in the future of their government. History has shown time and time again that extraordinarily large groups of people can be a real force for change - take the 1770's protest of the East India Trading Company (know more famously as the "Boston Tea Party"), 1870's ostracism of Irish landowner, Charles Boycott (hence the verb "to boycott"), or the 1960's civil rights movement.
Now, imagine harnessing that kind of passion and energy within your organization and directing it with laser-like precision in support of your transformation goals and objectives. Large numbers of your people - more than you previously believed possible, let alone have ever seen (50%, 70% maybe even 80%) - become so fiercely excited about the opportunity envisioned by your transformation that they volunteer to take on incremental activities in support of that opportunity. This seems so obvious - why do so few organizations employ this approach?
Maybe it is because too many leaders still utilize conventional change management approaches such as "cascading," which do not engage large numbers of people but instead focus initially on a relatively small number of key players located at the top of the organization. Perhaps it is because too few leaders are comfortable with the perceived loss of control associated with openly inviting more than the usual suspects to participate in the generation of ideas to advance a transformation. Whatever the reasons or excuses, one thing is clear - involving masses of people who buy in to a clearly articulated transformation opportunity generates more innovation, speed of execution, and sustainability of outcomes.
Perhaps even more important - images of our current Presidential campaign or the Arab Spring are not altogether savory, which could be a critical point as it relates to your organization's transformation. Above we have cited examples of passionate citizens driving tremendous change. Yet, with all the good done by the 2011 "Occupy Wall Street" movement to shine light on growing social and economic inequality worldwide, most theorists agree that it failed to reach its true potential. In the end, the lack of a tightly aligned and clearly articulated vision of what the Occupy protestors were trying to accomplish, as well as their intentional absence of structure, caused the movement to lose momentum and fail to attract broad support.
You may be able to intentionally stimulate this kind of intense energy and passion, or it may be thrust upon you by external circumstances. Regardless, it is both critical and possible to harness this energy for good purpose - otherwise it may unleash itself in ways that prove disruptive and counterproductive. The keys are to clearly communicate a vision of the transformation opportunity to your volunteer army and to organize them in a network to channel their energy and focus.
The world around us is changing faster and faster. We all know this and feel it every day. Our research proves and our experience demonstrates that the power of very large numbers of people, skillfully networked together in ways that both meet their individual needs and serve the organization, can dramatically accelerate and sustain strategic transformational results. Are you ready to create and, just as importantly, harness the tsunami of such energy in your organization?