Lessons from Movement Makers: What Social Upheaval Teaches Us About Engagement
Today’s most successful companies have strong networks of highly-engaged people on their side — a strategy that social movements have been perfecting for decades.
Successful companies have strong networks of engaged people on their side — a strategy that social movements have been perfecting for decades.
Xiaomi, the world’s fourthAFTER JUST SEVEN YEARS IN EXISTENCE, largest smartphone maker, has carved out a successful, innovative space in a category dominated by mega-sized tech firms; Gopro makes rugged cameras for outdoor use that have earned it a fervent following, even though it essentially replicates a feature your phone already has; and Crossfit has enjoyed explosive growth for more than a decade, despite a steady stream of critical press since its inception. How did these companies pull it off? The prevailing explanation for such successes has leaned toward intangible qualities like purpose and culture. I am inclined to agree. Companies are composed of people, after all, who spend most of their time communicating with other people. The purpose that unites them, and the culture that shapes their actions, are crucial influences rarely discussed in business plans and quarterly reports.
Let’s assume you’ve read the same articles I have, and you jumped on the purpose-driven bandwagon years ago. Where exactly did that lead? Did you gather upper management to brainstorm a bold, authentic statement of purpose? Have you given motivational talks explaining your company’s beliefs and why they matter? Did it make any difference?
This is the problem with purpose: It’s not enough to have one; you have to put it into practice — which means turning an abstract concept into concrete actions. Not surprisingly, the efficiency- and metrics-driven world of modern business isn’t well equipped to do this. Social movements, on the other hand, excel at it.
Think about the upheavals that have transformed the cultural landscape over the past 50 years: Environmentalism, civil rights and gender equality at the global level; or focused, regional movements like the embrace of market capitalism in Eastern Europe and sub-saharan Africa in the 90s. These movements don’t have big marketing budgets and often struggle to attract endorsements from celebrities or established political groups. What they do have is a clear, coherent purpose. More important, they have mechanisms for turning purpose into actions that transform their network — and ultimately, the world.
It’s not common practice in the business world to look for pointers from Black Lives Matter or the Idle No More First Nations movement — but it really should be. Without formal channels for publicizing, motivating and directing the efforts of their networks, these movements have learned to optimize purpose in much the same way that corporations optimize capital.
Through projects with dozens of client partners involving literally millions of relationships, we have found three recurring principles in almost every effective social movement we’ve examined — and they are echoed by those few commercial organizations that have truly turned their communities into a competitive asset.
PRINCIPLE 1: Shared Purpose
Ashoka is a non-profit that has been enabling and funding social entrepreneurship since its founding by Bill Drayton in 1980. You are probably familiar with the concept of social entrepreneurship, which has transformed the way we view development efforts — away from the exclusive domain of government-funded mega projects and towards smaller, smarter projects that leverage existing technology and local resources.
It’s hard to overstate how fundamental Ashoka was in sparking this fire. Rather than pursue only its own social innovation projects, it created a network of interested, talented entrepreneurs and organizations, giving them the credibility of association with an established brand, and linking them to one another to share ideas and information. The network includes well-known leaders like Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Kailash Satyarthi. Ashoka also became an access point for funding, helping to launch and eventually spin off dozens of entities that have influenced policy and business practices around the world.
None of this could have occurred without a shared purpose. In the case of Ashoka, that purpose is ‘Everyone a changemaker’ — the belief that entrepreneurs are not the heroes, but the beneficiaries of a supportive community, and that every person has the capability to enact positive change, if they are sufficiently informed and enabled.
A shared purpose is altogether different from a mission statement drafted by a senior committee in a corporate meeting room. It’s something you discover within a community, not something you impose upon one. And because everyone within the extended Ashoka network buys into it — from loosely-linked solo entrepreneurs to long-time collaborators-turned-employees, there is a level of automatic trust within the network, and a clear understanding that everyone is aiming for the same goal.
While it might not be immediately obvious, consumer electronics powerhouse Xiaomi has benefitted from some of these same insights — specifically, the power of a strong shared purpose and the value of a well-linked network. Xiaomi was built around a belief that customers should be vital partners in newproduct development. The company employs development processes that translate user feedback into new product features in a matter of weeks. This extraordinarily-tight linkage stems from a shared purpose that sets Xiaomi apart from competitors: A belief that user communities are wiser than designers in the long run, and that innovation comes from real-world experience.
Xiaomi calls its purpose ‘Innovation everyone can enjoy.’ The purpose is somewhat top-down — having been established at the company’s inception — and it essentially filters the kinds of employees who choose to work there.
While Xiaomi is a massively successful seven-year-old, forprofit Chinese company, and Ashoka is an American non-profit pushing 40, their unique statements of purpose have three qualities in common.
• Both statements are concise: ‘Everyone a changemaker’ and ‘Innovation everyone can enjoy’ are simple enough to fit on a T-shirt;
• They’re both relational, expressing a vision that is larger than just the success of the organization. You can believe in social entrepreneurship as a group endeavour, for example, even in the absence of a non-profit like Ashoka to encourage it; and
• Both purposes are timeless, as relevant now as they were a decade ago, or (very likely) a decade down the road.
For Xiaomi, shared purpose has led to some unprecedented practices around product development and marketing strategy. The company’s intensely-communal approach is formalized in a hierarchy of customer engagement: The more active a customer is in attending meet-ups and critiquing new offerings, the more access they get to early releases and limited-run products. At the highest levels of engagement, customers can even become employees, further cementing the tight bonds between users, designers and developers that has made Xiaomi such a breakout success.
‘Innovation everyone can enjoy’ also generates extraordinary buzz among the tens of millions of Chinese customers who count themselves among Xiaomi’s active supporters — so much buzz, in fact, that Xiaomi no longer uses traditional advertising to promote its products, relying instead on social media exposure and word of mouth. This effectively replaces the transactional relationship between consumer and brand with a more egalitarian bargain: Customers follow Xiaomi’s frequent releases, spread the word and offer high-quality feedback, and Xiaomi acts on that feedback quickly and faithfully, presenting new iterations back to the network as something they can ‘own’.
Beyond just having a shared purpose with their respective communities, both Ashoka and Xiaomi have embraced, codified and broadcast that purpose. This means that every policy
In the business world, it’s not common practice to look for pointers from Black Lives Matter or the Idle No More movement; but it really should be.
decision at Ashoka has to first pass muster as something that supports the idea of joint entrepreneurship; and at Xiaomi, employees are told on Day One to treat customers as their friends and family.
PRINCIPLE 2: Clear Roles
Not everyone within an organization will act on a purpose in the same way; nor would you want them to. To optimize the actions taken by network members, you have to know what they are good at, and how they define success within the group. This entails understanding a bit more about individual roles — another area where social movements are way ahead of the rest of us.
In 2012, we were invited by the Knight Foundation to help better understand the roles that black men play in civic leadership, especially in U.S. cities with large African-american populations, such as Philadelphia and Detroit. In situations like these, it is tempting to identify leaders and innovators by looking for titles and formal achievements — conference speakers, political leaders, corporate executives and so on. But within social movements, the most connected and respected members may have no title at all.
To find them, we had to talk to people — in this case, hundreds of local citizens, over the course of a few months. And we discovered that, while sometimes formal recognition mirrored community standing, they were just as often completely unlinked. After processing these interviews and mapping each city’s informal civic leadership network, we discovered that most members were working in one of six specific roles.
• The Sharer, who quickly processes information, spots emergent themes and disseminates them to the network.
• The Connector, who actively seeks out the capabilities and needs in others, then matches the wants with the haves.
• The Curator, who sorts through new resources and opportunities to find the ones most useful and appropriate for the network.
• The Innovator, who shakes things up and experiments, with an eye toward untried solutions to long-standing problems.
• The Builder, who analyzes different options, spots opportunities and risks, and is generally the first one to emerge with a coherent, actionable plan.
• The Storyteller, who motivates other members of the network by listening to current concerns and feelings, and orchestrating them into durable narratives. In the Detroit and Philadelphia communities where we spent time, Storytellers were especially influential, able to articulate the issues of a particular group or neighbourhood and tell them in a way that resonated and motivated others. These are the people who are eager to get on stage or in front of a camera when it’s time to spread the word. We also came to recognize the importance of Connectors: The people who know everyone else and keep a mental file of who’s available and interested in doing what — indispensable when you’re trying to pull together an event or start a project.
These types of role definitions are vastly more useful than typical demographics like age, education level, income or even (in many cases) position within a formal social structure. They’re more accurate because they’re aspirational — they describe what the person is capable of doing within the community and what they want to be recognized for.
This role-driven process led to the creation of Black Male Engagement ( BME), a social-change initiative that has grown in the past five years to nearly a million members across several U.S. cities. Establishing and growing BME took several phases over the course of more than a year, but each phase succeeded by leveraging the specific roles we had identified early in our research.
Every organization has aspirational roles, whether or not they are explicitly defined. One company that has defied tremendous odds largely on the strength of its community is Gopro. Despite having dramatically different aims, the way they’ve identified and empowered different roles within their network has surprising similarities to BME.
The Gopro team recognized early on that the people using its cameras to record themselves snowboarding, surfing and mountain biking were also going online to trade videos of their exploits, leave comments and offer tips and suggestions: All of the hallmarks of an emergent community. So, shortly after launching its first device in 2004, it took the unorthodox step of investing in the user community itself: They made it easy to set up a profile on their online video-sharing platform, and easier still to upload content, providing video hosting at a time when this was not a trivial undertaking.
So far, this is pretty obvious community-support stuff: Make it easy for users to share their experiences, and they’ll bend over backwards to make you look good. But examine what happens next, through the lens (no pun intended) of community roles, and Gopro looks smarter than the average device-maker.
For one thing, Gopro started addressing the needs of the users we call Innovators, who want nothing more than to use technologies and platforms in a novel way. So within the first couple of years, Gopro introduced a wider range of camera mounts, helping users strap a camera to their chest, mount it to their dashboard, affix it to an airplane wing or even strap it to their dog. Gopro Innovators are early adopters, and were among the first enthusiastic users of the selfie stick. For a company founded on extreme sports, it might seem odd to celebrate a video of a little kid’s pool party, but that’s what Innovators were doing, and by enabling and publicizing their videos, Gopro has continued to grow its user base, year after year.
For both Gopro and BME, recognizing the diversity of interests and capabilities within their communities has created a real competitive advantage. By listening closely to what people were already interested in doing — and putting money and effort into enabling those desires — both groups managed to build communities that continue to grow, largely through the efforts of members rather than organizers.
PRINCIPLE 3: The Right Rewards
The last principle concerns the ways in which members are rewarded for doing things that help grow the community and/or business. While their participation goals are quite different — helping a classroom buy computers or lab supplies, versus losing weight or doing a pull-up— both Donors Choose and Crossfit have mastered the art of meaningful rewards.
Donors Choose is entirely web-based. Like many non-profits, it persuades visitors to part with hard-earned cash by showing a very real need among target recipients — individual classrooms, in this case — and demonstrating how effectively their donated dollars will be used. It differs from other non-profits, though, in the way that it distributes those donations and rewards donors for their generosity.
The company doesn’t distribute T-shirts or tote bags as thank yous. Instead, it offers recognition and experiences unique to donors’ interests. Because each donation is tied to a specific classroom’s needs (‘My students need six ipads to participate in a distance learning program’), teachers are able to follow up with photos and videos showing the results in action — and often back them up with letters of thanks from the students themselves.
Donors also receive recognition from peers within the network. Any project that receives funding posts the names and profiles of those who made it possible (pending donor permis- sion), and encourages interaction among them. The result is an instant online community of like-minded philanthropists, who congratulate and support each other and who may end up forming relationships of their own, deepening their connection to the organization and driving loyalty and engagement.
Crossfit, by contrast, is defiantly analog: A typical gym contains no TVS or digitally-connected exercise equipment, or even mirrors on the walls. The most high-tech device is generally a timer. And while most Crossfit-affiliated gyms have websites, they tend to be limited to a blog listing the week’s workouts, and perhaps photos of coaches and members.
Like Donors Choose, Crossfit favours intrinsic rewards that arise from participation in the community over extrinsic ones bestowed by higher-ups. Both organizations have created a dense hierarchy of rewards that acknowledge constructive action at every level. This approach reflects a new understanding that material rewards aren’t the most effective way to build long-lasting relationships with your community. In fact, there are three distinct categories of reward:
1. Material rewards are the type most people think of first: A
cash prize, a plaque, a T-shirt, an engraved watch. 2. Experiential rewards are those that give the recipients access to an experience they might otherwise never have, whether that’s meeting a personal hero, attending a class or seminar, or even the opportunity to tackle a challenge only available to the uniquely qualified. 3. Reputational rewards consist purely of recognition by
peers, leaders or other community members.
Crossfit offers material rewards, but just barely: Some gyms hand out special T-shirts to long-standing members, but its experiential rewards are far more significant, and begin accruing the day you first walk into the gym. Every workout is an hourlong group effort led by a coach, and mutual encouragement is the default. The more-experienced members often finish earlier and spend the last few minutes shouting encouragement to those who are struggling.
There is also a clear progression for practically every exercise, whether it’s a lift, measured in pounds, or a pull-up, which comes with a tiered progression of increasing difficulty, starting with simply hanging from the bar. Because of this, and because of Crossfit’s reliance on data and documentation, every improvement becomes cause for celebration: Anyone setting a
For these companies, recognizing the diversity of interests and capabilities within their communities has created a competitive advantage.
personal record for a particular lift writes it prominently on a whiteboard, and a first strict pull-up or push-up is cause for cheers throughout the room (and often a social media post). Such reputational rewards, especially when bestowed by respected peers, are motivating in a way that no branded freebie can match.
What these two organizations both offer is rewards that come from within the community, not from an authority figure. Measurement and transparency are central to both, and their participants ability to track their progress — whether as donors or as athletes — creates ample opportunities for greater community engagement.
Increasing Engagement in Your Network
If there is a common theme to the above three principles, it is listening. The organizations described herein have all succeeded because they are sensitive to their members’ needs and aspirations. They are active responders more than they are bold instigators. If your organization is hoping to replicate their success, it has to start with listening.
Start by exploring the network you already have: customers, employees, vendors and other stakeholders. What would they say their shared purpose is, beyond simply making sales or increasing shareholder value? The answer may present itself as soon as the question is framed, but it’s more likely you’ll need to do some digging. This can entail a series of casual conversations over lunch, if you’re a small, tight-knit entity, or it may take a more formal process of interviews, surveys and secondary research.
You should also make a clear-eyed comparison between the shared purposes you discover and your own business objectives. It’s unlikely that your network’s underlying desire is simply to help you achieve your business goals. More likely, they’d rather you help them with their goals first. So it may be that you focus in on the purpose (or purposes) that best overlap with your business aims. This need not be a dramatic sacrifice. Often, those who are drawn to your organization perceive a purpose that is already quite appropriate.
Once you’ve identified that purpose, how would you go about codifying it? directive? And what immediate implications does your organization’s purpose have for day-to-day policy?
Discovering the roles within your network that can actually help you toward your business goals requires equal sensitivity. Are experimentation and innovation crucial to your success? Pay attention to who is generally leading these efforts: They are your Innovators, and they need support. If your success hangs upon social media exposure, figure out who within your network (employees, customers or others) are already sharing stories — your Storytellers and Sharers — and find out why they do this, and what they need more of. Better yet, encourage them to talk to each other, and set aside some resources for them to do more of what they’re already doing.
As for rewards, there are a lot more options out there than an end-of-year bonus or a Starbucks card. Consider what structures you might create that inherently bring recognition to active community members, whether they work for you or not.
If you can successfully address these steps, you’ll have an actual strategy to evolve the relationships you have with your entire network, elevating them from purely transactional to genuinely engaged. Remember, your organization’s relationships aren’t just a competitive advantage: They are your greatest and most renewable asset.