How To Create A Movement Within Your Organization
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.
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.
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.