What better day than Labor Day in the US to explore movements and narratives? Labor Day emerged directly from the powerful labor movement in the US. Throughout history, we’ve had a lot of movements that have shaped our economic, social and political arenas.
I believe we’re on the cusp of a new wave of movements. These new movements will be built on two solid pillars – compelling narratives and nurturing creation spaces. In this post, I’ll explore the role that both of these pillars play in generating movements that can make a difference. Narratives help to provide motivation and focus while creation spaces help to harness scalable learning.
What is a movement?
Here we run into the inevitable challenge of semantics – movement, like many words in our language, is used very loosely and can mean many things. One dictionary defines a movement as “an organized effort to promote or attain an end.” This suggests two key elements: intentionality and organization. There must be an intent or goal that provides the rationale for a movement to exist and there must be some degree of organization to help focus collaborative effort to achieve that intent or goal.
But, like many definitions, this one has limitations. For example, by this definition, all corporations would have to be considered movements – they’re all working to promote an end, whether it be shareholder value increase or enhancing the delight of the customers they’re seeking to address.
So, let’s modify the definition a bit to capture the kind of movement I have in mind: “an organized effort mobilizing a large number of independent participants in a grassroots effort to pursue a broad agenda for change.” That certainly encompasses the labor movement that gave rise to Labor Day, as well as such well-known movements as the evangelical movement, the Civil Rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women’s movement and the Tea Party movement.
The rise and fall of movements in the US
It’s interesting that movements were once central to American history, but they seem to have been marginalized in recent years. At least, that’s the implication of Google’s NGram analysis which shows that the usage of the term in books increased by almost 15 fold in a steady rise between 1800 and 1973, when it peaked, and then began a long and sustained decline of 25% over the past four decades.
What happened? Perhaps it’s a reflection of the passivity that our mass market society has instilled in us. When there’s mounting pressure to make a living and so much to see and experience outside of work, who has time to focus on a sustained program of change? And besides, it’s all futile any way. Hipster cynicism suggests it’s all a waste of time - far better to savor the kale salad and that interesting new Chardonnay. If it’s something short and sweet, like dumping an ice bucket on our head or posting a pledge on Facebook, sure, we might be lured into doing that, but just don’t expect any sustained effort.
Here’s the paradox – movements become more and more feasible given rapidly improving technology infrastructures that can help us to connect with each other and collaborate in rich ways across great distances. Yet, it’s exactly at this time that movements seem to be either receding or floundering.
Time for a change
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to revive the term and explore opportunities to bring a growing number of us together to drive meaningful change. We just might tap into that growing dissatisfaction on the edge of society with the passive consumerism and celebrity voyeurism that has defined our culture in recent decades.
Pockets of people are beginning to say “Basta!” and wanting to become more active “makers” of the products and experiences that shape their lives. Others are challenging the “wisdom” that one should go to work to earn a paycheck and save whatever passion they might have for after-hours hobbies or friends.
What would we need to see a resurgence of movements? Two things will need to come together and, when they do, they’ll provide a powerful antidote to the passivity and cynicism that dominates much of our lives today. Those two things are: narratives and creation spaces. I’ve written a lot in the past about both of these, but I’ve never really tied these two together and certainly haven’t addressed them in the context of movements.
The power of narratives
I began my exploration of narratives in contrast to stories here. To briefly recap, I’ve suggested that stories are self-contained (they have a beginning, middle and resolution) and they're about the story teller or some other people, they're not about the listener. In contrast, narratives are open-ended, they are yet to be resolved and their resolution depends upon the choices and actions of the listener. As a result, they're a powerful call to action, emphasizing the ability that we all have to make a difference. If you want to move people to action, narratives are a powerful way to get people off their sofas and into the streets.
Stories are very emotionally powerful but narratives are far more powerful. Throughout history millions of people have given their lives – the ultimate act of sacrifice – on behalf of narratives.
Narratives are also a powerful way to address the cognitive biases that grip us in times of high uncertainty and rapid change. In these times, we tend to magnify perception of risk and discount perception of reward, shorten our time horizons, fall into zero sum views of the world (it’s a win/lose world) and lose trust in those around us.
Opportunity based narratives can change all that – they magnify our perception of reward, lengthen our time horizons, highlight the potential for a positive sum world (where the total value is increasing) and strengthen our ability to trust those who are on a shared quest – all key requirements for successful movements
As I’ve suggested before, narratives are also powerful vehicles to catalyze and amplify the passion of the explorer. Three attributes define the passion of the explorer – a long-term commitment to making an increasing contribution to a domain, a questing disposition that is excited by new challenges and a connecting disposition that seeks to find and collaborate with others in addressing these challenges. If you want to build a successful movement, wouldn’t you want to instil this kind of passion in its participants?
Look at every successful movement for change throughout history - its foundation was built on a compelling and energizing opportunity based narrative that moved people to come together and act. We could learn a lot by analyzing these narratives and understanding how they might help us to craft new narratives to accomplish even greater things today.
The power of creation spaces
Narratives can be powerful catalysts for movements but they’re not sufficient. Movements really take off when they’re combined with a distinctive form of organization – something that I’ve called creation spaces.
Creation spaces help to organize activities in ways that accelerate learning. The basic organizational unit of a creation space is a small group of people who come together and collaborate in ways that help them individually and collectively to achieve higher levels of impact. Through this collaboration, they form deep trust-based relationships within their group because they are sharing their vulnerabilities in a quest to learn from each other. These small groups multiply and take a lot of local initiative – they’re constantly experimenting and improvising in an effort to discover ways to achieve more impact.
These small groups are very effective in driving learning, but they have one critical limitation – they don’t scale. Once they grow beyond 10 to 20 participants, they tend to fragment and weaken the deep trust-based relationships that are so critical to driving the learning process.
The real power of a creation space is that it creates an environment that can scale in ways that help the small groups to learn even faster by connecting with each other. These small groups learn from each other through a variety of mechanisms, ranging from regular gatherings of participants across groups to online discussion forums where participants in one group can ask questions and get advice from participants in other groups about a particular challenge they’re facing.If you want to know more about creation spaces, I’ve written extensively about them in “The Power of Pull.”
I originally came across creation spaces in arenas where you see sustained extreme performance improvement – arenas as diverse as extreme sports like big wave surfing and online video games like World of Warcraft. As diverse as these arenas were, they spawned environments with a set of common characteristics designed to scale learning so that the more participants who join in, the faster everyone learns. We begin to see collaboration curves in action.
I had been exploring creation spaces for quite some time but never made the connection to movements until I read an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker on “The Cellular Church.” His article addressed a key misconception about the evangelical movement. The media tends to focus on the mega-churches of pastors like Rick Warren where the faithful gather every Sunday by the thousands to worship together. Gladwell urged readers to pay attention to where the real action is in the evangelical movement – small groups of faithful who come together in “cells” and often meet a couple of times each week. The goal of these groups is to work together to develop practices that can increase their impact in their local community – their focus is on action and learning from that action. The participants in these small groups then come together on Sunday and in other forums to share their experiences and learn from the experiences of others.
This article really resonated with me. It certainly was exciting as yet another example of the creation space model of organization. It also reminded me of my days in the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s where the focus of action was not in the massive street demonstrations which drew all the media attention, but in the local chapters of SDS and similar groups that were meeting and acting on a much more frequent basis to inform and mobilize people in a growing range of acts of resistance. And the more I researched other successful social movements, the more I saw this same pattern of organization in action.
The interplay between narratives and creation spaces
What’s really interesting to me is how narratives and creation spaces reinforce and amplify each other.
Narratives provide the context and shared purpose that pull others into the movement and keep them motivated and focused as they encounter and deal with the myriad of unexpected obstacles standing in the way of meaningful change. Creation spaces provide an environment that encourages and supports local initiative in collaboration with others while also providing a much richer set of resources that these local groups can draw on, and learn from, as they mount their local initiatives.
The more rapidly participants at the local level learn, the richer the overarching narrative becomes, both regarding the nature of the opportunity ahead and the journey that participants will need to make in order to achieve that opportunity. The more compelling the narrative becomes, the more it draws in others to participate and learn from each other.
So, let’s say we’re interested in reviving movements as engines of social change. What are some tangible first steps that we might take? This is worthy of a series of blog postings, but let me start with some brief suggestions, all driven by one of my mantras: “small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion.”
First, bring together a small group of like-minded individuals and take on the task of crafting a short but compelling narrative that highlights the nature of the opportunity ahead, the forces that are making this opportunity more viable and the obstacles that are likely to make it challenging to achieve this opportunity. If it’s going to be an opportunity based narrative (and it should), be sure to avoid falling into “oppositional” mindsets and languages – remember, it’s now what you’re against but what you’re for.
Second, circulate this draft narrative to a larger group of people and invite their suggestions for refinement and improvement.
Third, as people begin to indicate their support for this narrative and the opportunity it describes, encourage them to find others in their local community who might share an interest in collaborating on this adventure. Encourage them to meet and identify some actions that they might quickly take to begin the journey. As they take these actions, encourage them to reflect on what’s working and what’s not working and how they might refine these actions to achieve even greater impact.
Fourth, create some shared discussion forums/workspaces where these people can share their stories of success and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. Remember, we can learn as much, if not more, from our failures as our successes. Willingness to share failures also helps to build trust.
Then, stand back and watch what happens. Double down in areas where you seem to be gaining traction and be alert to emerging unmet needs within the movement to see what you can do to help others achieve even more impact and accelerate their learning.
Just remember – the key to the success of movements is movement. Talking and theorizing is fine but only if it leads to action. Action is helpful, but only if it is focused and directed towards a shared goal. The real power emerges when theory and action combine to change the world.