How Cascades Create Transformational Change
The world used to be ruled by institutions that were set up as hierarchies. Those at the top planned and directed action, which was carried out according to formal lines of authority that ran vertically through an organization. Today, however, the world is increasingly organized into networks, which are informal lines that often run horizontally and it is a leader’s job to shape them.
It is along these horizontal lines that cascades often take place, so it shouldn’t be surprising that hierarchically oriented leaders often miss them. John Antioco at Blockbuster saw the threat that Netflix posed as merely one of a competing business model. It’s not that he didn’t recognize the importance of the concerns of investors and franchisees; he did and made efforts to quell these concerns. Still, these were secondary to the execution of his strategy through vertical lines. Contrast that with General McChrystal, whose primary focus was to transform his organization into “a network that could defeat a network.”
Make no mistake. Cascades are forces of nature. Small groups, loosely connected, but united by a common purpose is a valid principle whether the network is citizens in a revolution, employees in an organization, consumers in a marketplace, or snowy tree crickets in a forest. We cannot control cascades or conjure them into existence through sheer force of will. They happen either when new connections form that we are scarcely aware of or some external event that is outside of our control lowers thresholds and makes the system more susceptible to a trigger.
That’s why cascades, as important as they are, are only the first aspect of transformational change. As we have seen, cascades can be immensely powerful, but once they manifest themselves into concrete action, they can also inspire opposition. As Moisés Naím has put it, “power is now easier to get and harder to use or keep.” Every revolution has the potential to inspire a counterrevolution.
That’s why, as crucial as it is to understand how cascades function, the second aspect of transformational change—organization, planning, and discipline—is just as important, because it’s what allows us to put cascades to productive use.
Identifying a Keystone Change
For any cascade to form, linkages need to be built to higher threshold groups, and that can only be done by reaching out and learning about the needs, desires, and fears of others. That was as true with Gandhi as it was with Gerstner, McChrystal, O’Neill, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, and Experian. In each case, it was the forging of shared purpose and shared consciousness through identifying keystone issues that made change possible.
Just as building a clear sense of purpose is essential for a movement to succeed, the lack of a clear purpose can hobble one almost before it starts. While Occupy’s slogan of “We are the 99 percent” caught the imagination of millions, the activists were never really clear about what they actually wanted to be done. As columnist Joe Nocera noted in the New York Times, “they had plenty of grievances, aimed mainly at the ‘oppressive power of corporations,’ but never got beyond their own slogans.
Before long, everyone lost interest. Creating a clear sense of purpose and identifying a keystone issue that can achieve that purpose is absolutely essential to create transformative change. However, it is merely a first step. Once you figure out what the end game should look like, you need to develop a plan to get there. That is what we turn to next.
Making a Plan
Now, Gandhi was unique, and it wouldn’t be realistic to expect the most ardent defenders of the status quo to all of a sudden see the light and join your ranks. However, you should act in such a way that they have the option to do so, because while victory does not require you to win over all of those who resist change, you do need to erode the support of your opposition. Smuts, it must be said, was a vigorous and sometimes brutal antagonist, but in the end he had to choose between giving in to Gandhi’s demands, which in the final analysis not only cost him little but actually raised his stature, or lonely intransigence.
That’s why plans that are focused solely on rallying the faithful are doomed to fail. The only thing you will accomplish is to harden the support of those who oppose your vision of change. So when you see change as a zero-sum game, you are mobilizing your opponent’s forces as much as you are your own. Nobody wants to lose, but everybody wants a better tomorrow.
Make no mistake, you will not win everybody over, but it is also a grave misapprehension to see your opponents as monolithic or to dehumanize them.
Networking the Movement
General Stanley McChrystal likens the role of leader to that of a gardener. During his time in Iraq, he learned that the role of leader can no longer be “that of a controlling puppet master, but that of an empathetic crafter of culture.” He goes on to say that he needed to shift his focus “from moving pieces on the board to shaping the ecosystem.”
Srdja Popović and his comrades in Otpor came to a similar conclusion, realizing that if they were ever going to make a difference, they needed to reach into all aspects of society, not just fellow students at elite universities that were early adopters of their philosophy.
Strategy, in other words, is no longer a game of chess, but a matter of widening and deepening connections. Especially today, when the world is connected as never before, power no longer lies at the top of hierarchies, but at the center of networks. In a movement for change, the role of leaders is not merely to plan and direct action, but to inspire and empower belief. So to create positive change, movements need more than shared purpose; they also need shared values. As General McChrystal wrote, “An organization should empower its people, but only after it has done the heavy lifting of creating shared consciousness.”
Indoctrinating a Genome of Values
when movements for change are unable to articulate a clear sense of shared values, they fail to make much headway. Occupy, by its very name, implied you needed to be willing take over public spaces to be a full-fledged member of its movement. The filth of many of its camps and the conduct of many of its members did not remind people of friendly neighbors that you’d want to barbecue with, but of a loud-mouthed nephew who wouldn’t shut up at Thanksgiving dinner. John Antioco’s strategy to take on Netflix was formulated and executed among a relatively small cadre of executives. While their strategy was effective, other stakeholders weren’t committed to it, which is part of the reason that his successor, Jim Keyes, was able to reverse course so easily. The LGBT movement floundered for decades trying to make the American public understand what it was like to be gay, but became ascendant when it made clear that most gays want the same things that everybody else wants, to be in a committed, loving relationship and, often, to raise a happy family.
It is the assertion of shared values that leads to shared purpose and shared consciousness across the Spectrum of Allies and allows a movement to influence the institutions in the Pillars of Support that have the power to drive changes through. The way you communicate those values is through platforms and tactics, which is what we turn to next.
Building Platforms for Participation, Mobilization, and Connection
Every successful movement for change has three phases. The first is an emergent phase, in which a keystone change is identified, constituencies on the Spectrum of Allies are mapped out, and institutions within the Pillars of Power are determined. The second phase, or the engagement phase, is when tactics are designed to target particular constituencies and institutions for mobilization. The last phase, or the victory phase, is typically triggered by an outside event, which lowers resistance thresholds and sets a cascade in motion.
Election is falsified, a regime’s brutality is exposed, a new technology is introduced into the market, a chief executive fires a well-liked employee (or an FBI director) without cause, or maybe crucial intelligence is acquired on a key terrorist.
If mobilization builds numbers and pulls in the needed constituencies and institutions, linkages are built between disparate groups, and a genome of values keeps the network focused on the vision of tomorrow, a cascade will ensue. The existing regime defending the status quo usually doesn’t even see it coming. They, embedded in their own networks and ecosystems, usually fail to notice that the Spectrum of Allies and the Pillars of Support have shifted away from them until it’s too late.
All too often, we have our minds so set on what we need to win that we neglect to think about what comes the day after the victory we seek. We are so focused on beating our opponents into submission that we fail to realize that they will eventually rise up again, learn the lessons of their failure, and return to the fight with renewed vigor. That’s why we so often succeed in making our point, but fail to make a difference.
The problem is not that the world is too corrupt or that the status quo is too ingrained, as we have seen positive change often can and does prevail, even against seemingly insurmountable odds. Rather, you must take responsibility for the change you want to see if you want to truly make a difference and not just score debate points. As Gandhi is often quoted as saying, “If you want to change the world, start with yourself.”