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A Revolutionary Idea Needs A Loyal Group Of Followers

Technology pioneer Alan Kay famously said that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”  It’s the kind of inspiring quote that can completely change your outlook on things.

That is, until you remember the sorry plight of failed geniuses, from Gregor Mendel to Vincent Van Gogh to thousands of others who are long forgotten and whose ideas only took hold long after their death. Inventing the future, it seems, is no panacea.

The truth is that ideas don’t change the world, people do. From the American Revolution to Civil Rights Movement to the Arab Spring, most of their names are lost to history, but their accomplishments stand testament to the power of what can happen when people act as one.  It’s not the nodes, but the network that makes great things possible. 

Seek Out Receptivity, Not Influence

In Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller, The Tipping Point

, he outlined a vision in which great change can be created with just a few people who are especially influential. Why go to the trouble to convince entire populations when, if you can identify those magic few, you can create a movement of many.

Unfortunately, influentials are a myth.  It’s not that some people don’t have more influence than others (they do), it’s just that the difference is much less than you’d think and the costs of identifying them and winning them over to your side nullifies, if not exceeds, their benefits.

Sure, having a celebrity like Oprah Winfrey touting you is invaluable, but it certainly isn’t easy or cheap.

So rather than try to find a big shot to support your cause, actively recruit those who will be passionate about your idea. Chances are they know some others who’ll like it as well. Study after study has shown that influence is not a function of individuals as much as it is the effect of chains of people – not the nodes, but the network.

So take Seth Godin’s advice:  If you want to change the world, start with a tribe

. Look to find people who are passionate rather than influential.

Form Local Majorities

Spend some time in another culture, whether it is a foreign country or even a different corporate environment and you’ll notice that people have much different ideas that you do. Even your most seemingly self-evident assumptions will seem strange to them. Pretty soon, you’ll realise that you have begin to have doubts as well.

That’s because majorities don’t just rule, they influence, to a much greater extent than most people would think.  Back in the 50′s, Solomon Asch documented just how much with his famous conformity experiments, in which he showed research subjects who were told that they were in a “perceptual experiment” this pair of cards.
 

 
He then asked subjects which line on the right was equal to the one on the left. In reality, it wasn’t their perception that was being tested, but their malleability. The others in the room were confederates who would give an obviously wrong answer (such as line A). 75% of the subjects would agree with the majority, even if it was clearly wrong.

There’s a reason why revolutionary movements so often originate in closed systems like college campuses.  You don’t need to convince everybody, just a local majority.  Once you’ve attained that, the idea can spread to other clusters through the strength of weak ties and before you know it, the movement is gathering steam.

The Importance of Internal Links

Since the advent of social media, community building is all too often confused with growing the number of followers. Not surprisingly, services have sprung up that can do it for you.  Want 10,000 followers? No problem, have them for you in the morning. Want a million? We’ll take care of it.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way.  The strength of your community isn’t a function of the number of your followers, but in their relationship to each other.  Once again, it’s not the nodes, but the network that’s really important.

The effect of network structure has proven to be substantial and might even be determinant.  In a study of Broadway musicals, researchers found that internal linkages were the most important factor of success; more than the production budget, the marketing budget, the track record of the director or any other variable.

So while attracting a lot of followers might be impressive, what’s vastly more important is the value that they derive from the community.  There’s a significant difference between a tribe and a hoard.  Density matters.  If you aren’t encouraging internal connectivity, your movement will go nowhere.

A strong community is more than the extension of the will of its leaders.  It’s more like a living organism than a machine or a tool.  It needs to be nurtured.

Creating Viable Vectors

Building and nurturing a tribe are viable aims, but the vectors you choose to carry your message are just as important.  In the Arab Spring, Facebook and Twitter played a large role because they were familiar to the protestors, but still somewhat foreign to the authorities.

In much the same way, Internet chat boards and SMS messages played a powerful role in the colour Revolutions and fax machines helped take down the Soviet Bloc in the ’80′s. Even today, subversive groups like Anonymous use Internet communities like 4chan and private chat rooms to recruit and plan activities.

However, proximity trumps technology.  Successful movements need more than just online tools, they need face-to-face human interaction (which is one reason why Anonymous has difficulty producing sustained, long-term actions).

During the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, students formed an organisation called Pora!(It’s time) and set up communication lines with earlier groups such as Otpor!(Resistance!) in Serbia and Kmara (Enough!) in Georgia, from which they learned to set up the tent city which proved pivotal in the outcome. The Occupy movement applied similar techniques in the US.

In the corporate world, grassroots techniques are just as important to network the organisation.  Training, best practice programs and hackathons are more than just educational; they are also viable vectors for collaboration.  Externally, firms like eBay, Apple and Harley Davidson have used physical gatherings to build cult-like followings.

The Problem With Change Management

A generation ago, corporate leaders began to understand the need for change management and various models were devised to help communicate the need for corporate transformations and create the vision, systems and skills required to make change succeed.

However, today change management is becoming increasingly difficult to execute in the real world.  Technology cycles are becoming shorter than corporate decision cycles, so even if you are able to communicate and execute a clear vision, it might not still be relavent by the time you’re finished.  Strategy is becoming both more emergent and Bayesian.

These days, more than ever, the lunatics run the asylum.  Control is an illusion.  Power resides less in the C-Suite and more in the invisible bonds that tie individual actors together.  The role of enterprises is becoming less to organise work than to focus passion and purpose.

So forget about change management.  Create a revolution instead!

- Greg

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