Businesses as movements
In a world of mounting performance pressure, businesses will need to evolve into movements, mobilizing large numbers of participants in a collaborative quest to discover new ways to create value.
The concept of a movement—an organized effort to mobilize many independent participants in a grassroots effort for change—offers a powerful model for companies wanting to rethink the core of a business. With ever-multiplying options competing for customers’ money and attention, companies that articulate a call to action that goes well beyond buying more products will be the ones that win support and loyalty. These businesses should identify opportunities to engage people around what is meaningful to them, creating value through faster learning and mutual discovery.
Successful customer movements are built on two foundations: (1) a powerful, engaging narrative and (2) a creation space that accelerates the learning of many small groups committed to making a difference in the domain. Companies that harness these elements to build movements can turn mounting pressure into growing success.
Bringing together participants through narrative
A powerful narrative can inspire, focus, and spur to action a large number of participants. Here I’m defining “narrative” as an open-ended construct, as opposed to self-contained stories with a beginning, middle, and end. Such a narrative features an opportunity that may or may not be realized. Rather than being about the storyteller or other characters, it explicitly calls on its audience to become participants whose choices and actions are crucial to the resolution. This powerful call to action emphasizes our ability to make a difference.
Outdoor-wear manufacturer Patagonia consistently calls on its customers to act to preserve the outdoor places they visit and, more broadly, to reduce their environmental impact through sustainable consumption. The company’s durable, repairable products catalyze customers to invest in quality goods and question the appeal of fast fashion. Its “reduce what you buy” messaging encourages buyers to make a difference—it even encourages its customers to search used product sites before buying new clothes or gear. What makes this narrative so powerful is that it doesn’t simply address some general corporate social responsibility cause but ties the opportunity directly to the passions and interests of people who are drawn to Patagonia products and gives them tangible actions they can take.
Airbnb, the service that connects homeowners with short-term renters, has recently rebranded itself, espousing a vision of “creating a world where all 7 billion human beings can Belong Anywhere.”The company’s narrative extends the experience of Airbnb beyond the transaction, inviting both hosts and guests to connect, understand, and belong.
Engaging participants with creation spaces
Once participants are brought together around a narrative, creation spaces help organize activities in ways that accelerate learning. They bring together small groups for collaboration and open-ended exploration, then connect them with a broader environment where they can learn from each other. The environment can scale to help groups to learn even faster, connecting with each other and improvising approaches that expand their impact.
Wikispeed, a volunteer-based green automotive-prototyping company, is dedicated to reducing pollution and the stress on global resources caused by traditional gas-powered automobiles. Using distributed teams of two or more skilled individuals, Wikispeed reduces volunteer training time and accelerates learning through small-scale agile prototyping. The teams then connect with each other to share developments and build collective knowledge. Using this model, the company has created a 100-mpg vehicle prototype in just three months.
Players of the online videogame World of Warcraft also participate in creation spaces. The game welcomes collaboration as an opportunity to learn faster, with players focusing on individual strengths while being exposed to the diverse perspectives and experiences of those with complementary skills. “Guilds”and raiding parties made up of a small group of players emerge spontaneously within this broader creation space. Through collaborative learning, players on such teams drive extremely rapid performance improvement.
When narratives and creation spaces come together, they set in motion a powerful virtuous cycle. The more impact the groups collectively make, the more credible and compelling the shared narrative. The more compelling the narrative, the more people are drawn to participate. And the more people join in, the more rapidly everyone learns and the more their impact accelerates.
What’s in it for a company that catalyzes and builds a powerful movement? The company gets leverage, mobilizing effort, and often investment, from a growing number of third parties. It catalyzes a powerful platform for distributed innovation, one where lots of small groups can experiment, improvise, and test new approaches. Scalable learning and accelerating performance improvement emerge from these collective efforts. The company nurtures deep engagement—and even passion—in a growing number of participants. Powerful network effects take hold as the movement reaches critical mass, becoming increasingly difficult to challenge or unseat.
While some companies have adopted either narratives or creation spaces, there is an open opportunity to bring the two elements together, cultivating movements. To make the transition from mounting performance pressure to exponential opportunity, a company must first craft a narrative that can motivate and mobilize participants outside the company to participate in a shared quest. Such narratives can’t just be written up; they must emerge, evolving from actions aligned around the opportunity framed by the nascent narrative. Next, the company must create an environment for scalable learning, where all participants can learn faster and achieve greater collective value. This is how broader movements are catalyzed: pulling in more and more people over time to pursue a shared opportunity—and, in the process, creating expanding value and impact for all.