The current political moment has attracted activists at unprecedented levels. For those who seek to convert initial engagement into meaningful social change, the question is how do we increase and sustain it?
Through our work in leading large-scale change efforts in health care and homelessness, our coaching for similar initiatives in other sectors, and our review of almost 50 examples of significant social change, we have noticed eight characteristics that are usually present when large numbers of people join together to make the world measurably better. Done together, these actions create a phenomenon we call “unleashing”—in this context, thousands, even millions, of people working with growing energy and creativity to carry forward a shared cause. Unleashing rests on the belief that we already have all we need to make great change, and that we can achieve it by intentionally and thoughtfully leveraging the untapped joy, imagination, skills, and wisdom that individuals, organizations, and communities hold.
To transform passion into broad social justice:
1. Get clear. The work of making large-scale social change is, by definition, audacious and demanding. As such, it does not tolerate ambivalence. As famed union organizer Marshall Ganz asserts, successful leaders are clear on the values that call them to the work and skilled at communicating their motivations. Their conviction sustains them in their darkest moments. It also attracts others, inviting them to tap into their own values and the great energy stored therein.
The most effective initiatives also clearly see the nature of the systems they seek to change, refusing to accept received wisdom about the status quo. While it may seem surprising that the people working on a problem don’t fully understand it, our experience suggests it happens all the time. Experts seeking to understand high incarceration rates for example, made progress only when they recognized that fear and racial bias, along with financial interests of for-profit prisons, were unacknowledged causes of imprisonment and recidivism. Real progress often requires laying bare the oppressive beliefs and entrenched institutional interests that buttress the current reality.
2. Do your Times Square. For four years, from 2003 to 2007, Becky (one of the co-authors of this piece) spent her days in Times Square coming to deeply understand the needs of the more than 50 chronically homeless people who lived on the streets there. By getting started and immersing herself in the lives of these individuals, she and her team did the painstaking work of getting all of them into permanent supportive housing. Although formative experiences of this kind need not take four years, they are indispensable—a first step successful leaders of large-scale change don’t skip. In addition to fostering confidence and credibility, deep, on-the-ground experience with the challenge in question gives leaders intimate knowledge of the solutions they seek to spread—what is essential to keep as the work expands, and what can be adapted for new audiences and different settings.
3. Name the hill. Clear, quantifiable aims shift movements from broad visions to concrete actions, avoiding dissipation of energy. In addition, the most successful efforts we’ve observed have set goals so bold that they demand collaboration from many in order to succeed. Then they divide up the labor between participants to define exactly what everyone needs to contribute to achieve the goal—or “take the hill”—in question. Playworks, an organization that leads a movement for safe and healthy play in elementary schools across America, takes exactly this approach: It asks each of its 22 regions to hit regular, frequent expansion objectives in order to meet shared goals for ambitious growth.
4. Find many ways there. Leaders of large initiatives commonly make the mistake of assuming that if they just do more—harder, faster, longer—they will enlarge their ranks and grow their impact. Or sometimes they lock onto one theory for expansion (an app, for example, or a payment incentive) and assume that will magically meet their needs. But successful initiatives realize that “what got them here, won’t get them there” and embrace a range of possible vehicles for expanding their impact (not necessarily their size). Encore.org, a nonprofit that seeks to mobilize millions of Americans over 50 in service of future generations, offers case in point: It transitioned management of its two most successful programs, Experience Corps and the Purpose Prize, to AARP, leveraging its massive distribution network to reach much larger audiences, much faster. Typically the tactics that successful initiatives employ will serve one of three larger purposes: raising awareness about the cause in question (example tactics: social media, earned media, canvassing), building will to join it (example tactics: recognition, regulation, policy change), or supporting actual behavior change among participants (example tactics: learning networks, gamification, extension agency).
5. Hug the bear. Worry about external criticism, fights over credit and control, painstaking consensus processes, and other poisonous manifestations of fear and mistrust can undermine and ultimately destroy movements. Insidious and invisible, these forces are subject to network effects, growing in power as more people join the effort, and limiting the creativity, learning, and commitment that fuel progress. To counteract this, effective leaders “hug the bear,” openly acknowledging fear and toxicity, and actively mitigating it at all times. When several Australian and international organizations came together in a successful effort to stop dumping of dredge waste in the waters surrounding the Great Barrier Reef, for example, their leaders created a series of residential retreats to proactively build one another’s confidence, repair misunderstandings, and fairly manage the distribution of recognition.
6. See whole. As a movement grows, it becomes difficult to maintain a direct line of sight on everyone taking part, which makes it hard to assess progress. Exceptional initiatives, by contrast, develop effective, efficient systems of data collection that are engineered first and foremost to inform movement members in executing their daily work, thereby increasing the odds of their use. These systems can leverage powerful technologies like open-source mapping platforms to generate continuously updated views of data over time across geographies. Leaders then use these data to springboard further investigation, deploying active field operations that go out to learn from trouble spots and high performers in the field. These initiatives revere learning at the periphery. As General Colin Powell put it, “The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise.”
7. Play jazz. It is impossible to predict what will unfold in large, complex networks with many moving parts. But rather than bemoaning this reality, the most successful initiatives seem to relish it, adjusting to the unexpected, even embracing the unforeseen as an opportunity for learning. If the strategy we’re pursuing is the sheet music, this flexibility is akin to playing jazz—adapting to circumstances and trying new things without ever entirely abandoning the original theme. In a large network or movement, such an attitude can bear even more fruit; if every individual and organization that takes part views itself as an experimenter—and if the knowledge generated by one is efficiently shared with many—the rate of improvement across the network can grow exponentially.
8. Lose control. Most leaders of successful large-scale change report a common epiphany; at some point, their deputies out in the field begin to elude their control, running ahead of their direction and creating new solutions appropriate to their local needs. While this can at first cause alarm, it is in fact the emblem of true success—a desirable delegation of authority to skilled intermediaries who are clear on the mission and clear on the needs of the constituencies they serve. This doesn’t mean leadership pursues its work with any less intensity; roles simply change. Rather than asking, “How can I get all these people to do what I want them to?” savvy leaders begin to ask, “How can I help all these people do what they want to do?” They become responsible for removing impediments to those in the field; they listen hard to their challenges and dreams, and do all they can to address them.
Though there is much more to say about these eight essential actions—indeed, each probably merits an article of its own—our hope is that this serves as a checklist to help change leaders assess their current strategies and operations, and proceed with more success. Though hardly magic, the ideas here can unleash groups of good people to exceed their own expectations and do very great things.