“Revolution” is a term that gets thrown around a lot. There was an Industrial Revolution powered by steam and then another one powered by oil and electricity. The Green Revolution transformed the way we fed ourselves. Many political revolutions have overthrown powerful regimes and the digital revolution changed the way we work with information.
My friend Srdja Popović, who helped lead the Bulldozer Revolution that overthrew Slobodan Milošević in Serbia, told me that the goal of a revolution should be to become mainstream, to be mundane and ordinary. If you are successful it should be difficult to explain what was won because the previous order seems so unbelievable.
The problem with most would-be revolutionaries is that they seek exactly the opposite. All too often, they seek attention, excitement and crowds of admiring fans. Yet all that noise is likely to create enemies just as fast as it makes friends. True revolutions aren’t won in the streets or on the airwaves, but through smart strategies that transform basic beliefs.
A Shift In Paradigms
The idea of a paradigm shift was first established by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which explained how scientific breakthroughs come to the fore. It starts with an established model, the kind we learn in school or during initial training for a career. Eventually, those models are shown to be untenable and a period of instability ensues until a new paradigm can be created and adopted.
While Kuhn developed his theory to describe advancements in science, it has long been clear that it applies more broadly. For example, in my experiences in post-communist countries, the comfort of the broken, but relatively stable, system seemed to many to be preferable to the instability of change.
In the corporate world, models are not only mindsets, but are embedded in systems, processes and practices, which makes them especially pervasive. To bring change about, you need to disrupt basic operations and that comes with costs. Customers, partners and suppliers depend on the stability of how an organization does business.
So the first step to driving change about is to create a new vision that can credibly replace the existing model without causing so much chaos that the perceived costs outweigh the benefits. As I explain in my book, Cascades, successful revolutionaries are more than just warriors, they are also educators that are able to mobilize others through the power of their vision.
Mobilizing Small Groups, Loosely Connected
We tend to think of revolutions as mass actions, such as protestors storming the streets or excited customers lining up outside an Apple store, yet they don’t start out that way. Revolutions begin with small groups, loosely connected, but united by a shared purpose.
For example, groups like the Cambridge Apostles and the Bloomsbury Group helped launch intellectual revolutions in early 20th century Cambridge. The Homebrew Computer Club helped bring about the digital revolution. Groups like Otpor, Kmara and Pora formed the grassroots of the Color Revolutions in the early 2000s.
What made these groups effective was their ability to connect and bring others in. For example the Homebrew Computer Club would hold convene informal gatherings at a bar after the more formal meetings of the club. In the Serbian revolution that overthrew Slobodan Milošević, Otpor used humor and street pranks to attract people to their cause.
Revolutions are driven by networks and power in networks emanates from the center. You move to the center by connecting out. That’s how you mobilize and gain influence. What you do with that power and influence, however, will determine if your revolution will succeed.
Influencing Institutional Change
Mobilization can be a powerful force, but does not in itself create a revolution. To bring change about, you need to be able to influence institutions that have the power to drive change. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t write a single piece of legislation or decide a single court case, but was able to influence the legislative and legal systems through his activism.
In his efforts to reform the Pentagon, Colonel John Boyd went outside the chain of command to brief congressional staffers and a small circle of journalists. As he gained support from Congress and the media, he was able to put pressure on the Generals and create a reform movement within the US military.
Now compare that to the Occupy Movement, which mobilized activists in 951 cities across 82 countries. However, they wanted to have nothing to do with institutions and actually refused opportunities to influence them. In fact, when Congressman John Lewis, himself a civil rights leader, showed up at a rally, they turned him away. Is it any wonder they never achieved any tangible change?
Make no mistake. If you truly want to bring change about, you have to mobilize somebody to influence something. Merely sending people out in the streets with signs won’t amount to much.
Preparing For The Counterrevolution
In his 2004 State of the Union Address, President Bush delivered a full throated condemnation of same-sex marriage. Incensed, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to unilaterally begin performing weddings for gay and lesbian couples at City Hall, in what was termed the Winter of Love. 4,027 couples were married before their nuptials were annulled by the California Supreme Court a month later.
The backlash was fierce and led Proposition 8, an amendment to the California Constitution that prohibited gay marriage, on the ballot. It was passed with a narrow majority of 52% of the electorate and was so harsh that it not only galvanized LGBT activists, but also began to sway public opinion.
The tide began to change when LBGT activists, began to appeal to values they shared with the general public, such as the right to live in committed relationships and raise happy, healthy families. In a Newsweek op-ed, Ted Olson, a conservative Republican lawyer who had previous served as President Bush’s Solicitor General, argued that legalizing same-sex marriage wasn’t strictly a gay issue, but would be “a recognition of basic American principles.”
Today, same sex marriage has become, to paraphrase my friend Srdja, mundane. It has become a part of everyday life that is widely accepted as the normal course of things. That’s when you know a revolution is complete. Not when the fervor of zealots drive people out into the streets, but when those in the mainstream begin to accept it as the normal course of business.
Greg Satell is an international keynote speaker, adviser and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto