On Labor Day, I posted about movements and the foundations for successful movements. Many of the executives that I work with me gave me quizzical looks. They asked, “Why are you writing about movements? You’re a business consultant. What does this have to do with business?”
Good questions. Let me see if I can offer some answers.
Movements and companies – what’s the intersection between these two? Sure, there are movements against companies – we all can name dozens of boycotts against specific companies for a variety of reasons, ranging from unfair labor practices to the politics of the countries they’re from. Even the labor movement that gave rise to Labor Day was at one level a movement against companies. But, what about companies that are catalysts and drivers of movements of their own? How many of those can you name?
There’s something unnatural about the question. Companies aren’t movements and movements aren’t companies. We all know that.
I want to suggest something a bit heretical. Maybe it’s time to call for a new set of movements – this time initiated by companies, but engaging large segments of the population in a collaborative quest to discover new ways to create value in an increasingly challenging economy.
Before I develop the reasoning for this, let me step back and quickly re-cap the definition of movement that I offered in my earlier blog posting. I suggested that a movement is “an organized effort mobilizing a large number of independent participants in a grassroots effort to pursue a broad agenda for change.”
The Big Shift
So, again, what does this have to do with companies? As I’ve written elsewhere, we’re in the early stages of a Big Shift that profoundly changes how we do business. We’re only beginning to understand the new practices and institutional arrangements that will lead to success in this Big Shift. But one thing we know for sure: the new practices and institutional arrangements will require significant movement from where companies are today. (If you doubt this, see the significant long-term erosion in ROA for all U.S. public companies since 1965).
Now, companies can undertake this journey in isolation or they can invite others to join them in a movement of mutual discovery. If we try to make this journey in isolation, it will be a lot more challenging. No matter how smart we are in any single firm, we’ll likely be a lot more successful if we enlist the help of others outside our firms and motivate them to make the journey with us.
This is especially true if, as we’ve suggested in the past, one key dimension of the journey is the shift from an institutional rationale of scalable efficiency to one of scalable learning. It’s not surprising that companies and movements were viewed as so different in the past. Scalable efficiency fostered a quest to bring activities inside the four walls of an enterprise and to organize them as efficiently as possible. If outsiders were needed for anything (and inevitably they were, since no firm is completely self-sufficient) the focus was on reducing the number of participants from the outside and carefully dictating their activities to enhance efficiency.
Scalable learning changes all that. If we’re seriously committed to learning at scale, we’re inexorably pulled beyond the four walls of our enterprise and drawn to connect with an expanding array of other participants who can help us to learn faster. In other words, we’re drawn to join, or organize, movements.
It may not be an exaggeration to say that movement of this magnitude requires a movement to significantly increase the odds of success. But, here’s the problem. Most companies don’t yet see the need for help (except, of course, for the ever generous subsidies from our government) and the few who see the need for help would be loath to admit it publicly.
But that’s just the point. The few companies who see the need for help and are willing to be vulnerable and express that need just might differentiate themselves in a powerful way from their struggling colleagues. And they might find that they pull together a growing number of people and institutions who can be extremely helpful in exploring new pathways towards much more powerful value creation.
Movements shaped by companies
So, what would such a movement look like? Well, we’re not talking about the conventional “corporate social responsibility” movement that’s driven by some noble purpose above and beyond the company. We’re talking about the future of the company – re-inventing its core rationale so that it can turn the mounting pressure of the Big Shift into growing success.
But, it can’t just be about the company itself. One way of thinking about the Big Shift is that it’s a movement from an era when individuals had to find ways to fit into the pre-determined slots established by our institutions to one where our institutions will need to find ways to organize around individuals. In this respect, movements are just a natural extension of this new reality – and companies will need to find ways to spawn and participate in movements.
It’s about identifying an opportunity for the company and others to come together to create something of much greater value than the company ever could on its own. And, it’s about finding a common purpose that can motivate and mobilize many others beyond the company to participate in a shared quest. It’s ultimately about creating an environment for scalable learning where all participants can learn faster and achieve more of what is valuable to them.
What would we need to do that? Well, as I suggested in my earlier post, successful movements of any type are built on two key foundations: (1) a powerful and engaging narrative and (2) a creation space that focuses on accelerating the learning of a growing number of small groups committed to making a growing difference in their arenas of action.
The role of narrative
Just to re-cap, I drew a sharp distinction between stories and narratives. I 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.
Now, here’s the problem. As I discussed here, here and here, very few companies have anything resembling a narrative. At best, they have an open-ended story about how they had humble beginnings, faced enormous obstacles and achieved extraordinary things, with much more to come. It’s still a story about them – the only thing that people outside the company are supposed to do is stand back in awe and await the accomplishments ahead. It’s certainly not a call to action, except perhaps to buy more of the company’s products.
An effective corporate narrative would identify an opportunity that’s beyond the reach of a company today, an opportunity not just for the company, but for many, many others. An opportunity so great that it can’t be achieved in isolation but requires collective action. It would move others to join forces and take action in powerful new ways. What would such an opportunity look like?
Well, in the context of the Big Shift, such a narrative might focus on harnessing the exponential opportunities made possible by the forces driving the Big Shift. Depending on the market or industry, it could be the opportunity to generate unprecedented economic value and wealth, the opportunity to achieve levels of wellness and longevity that were previously unimaginable, the opportunity to discover and express one’s unique individuality and expand impact by connecting with others, or the opportunity to nurture our children so that they can achieve previously unimaginable levels of impact. These are just some of the possible opportunities that a narrative might focus.
The role of creation spaces
But articulating an opportunity is only a first step. A movement requires action and creation spaces are powerful ways to amplify action. As I discussed in more detail in my earlier post on movements, 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. These people 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're sharing their vulnerabilities in a quest to learn from each other. 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.
Companies can play a powerful role in catalyzing, nurturing and scaling these creation spaces. The key here is to move beyond organizing communities of interest (something that I wrote about extensively in Net Gain) and focus on organizing communities of action. Note also that these creation spaces are quite different from conventional crowdsourcing efforts that are usually focused on narrowly defined tasks or problems. In creation spaces, the opportunity is open-ended and invites the sustained collaboration of large numbers of individuals coming together in small groups that form deep, trust-based relationships as they experiment and improvise approaches to expand their impact.
The benefits of movements
But, what’s in all this for companies? As I mentioned earlier, the Big Shift is requiring all companies to pursue models of scalable learning that extend far beyond their own four walls. Movements shaped by narratives and creation spaces can become powerful engines of scalable learning. By mobilizing a large number of third parties, movements create rich environments to accomplish the following:
- Distributed innovation – Lots of groups proceeding in parallel, each pursuing different approaches towards a shared opportunity, can become a much more powerful engine for innovation than a single company proceeding in isolation
- Accelerated learning and performance improvement – As the smaller groups share their results and see which approaches are yielding higher impact and which approaches a falling short, they can learn much faster than if they just focus on their own efforts and move to higher and higher levels of performance
- Leveraged growth – Properly framed, these movements can mobilize the resources and capabilities of a very diverse set of participants to generate far more economic value at far lower cost than the traditional “make versus buy” approaches to growth
- Shaping strategies – These movements can profoundly restructure entire markets or industries, pulling companies out of a short-term reactive posture and positioning them to build positions of competitive advantage that will be very difficult to attack.
- Deeper and more sustained relationships – By building trust and focusing participants on a long-term opportunity, these movements can quickly move companies out of their largely short-term transactional relationships with customers and other third parties. These deeper relationships in turn amplify the conditions for even more rapid innovation, learning, performance improvement and growth, setting into motion an increasing returns dynamic that will be hard to resist.
- Greater passion among participants – As I’ve discussed elsewhere, a specific form of passion – the passion of the explorer - is becoming more and more central to scaling learning and accelerating performance improvement in increasingly uncertain environments. Movements built upon compelling narratives and high impact creation spaces are powerful catalysts for this kind of passion.
The Big Shift can't be addressed in isolation. To make the transition from mounting performance pressure to exponential opportunity, institutions will need to catalyze broader movements, pulling in more and more participants over time to pursue a shared opportunity. If done right, small moves smartly made can set very big things in motion.
To get started, companies should focus on five questions:
- What is a narrative with the power to engage and mobilize the participants that will be most helpful in embarking on a quest to achieve a shared opportunity?
- Where are these participants gathering today in communities of interest and how can we pull them into communities of action where the goal is not just to learn about something but to actually achieve greater and greater impact within a specific domain?
- How can we reduce barriers to entry for participation in this movement?
- What tools or resources can we provide to these creation spaces to accelerate and expand impact?
- What metrics can we develop to determine whether this movement is achieving more and more impact and to provide a compass for the participants we’re mobilizing?