In organizational life we are used to the dichotomy ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom up’, for example, when we talk about change. Clearly, there is some truth in this. There is an assumption that if you want the opposite to top-down it has to be bottom up. But in organizational terms, and even more as soon as you consider the organization as a social network, the true alternative to an exclusively top-down approach, which is one-centric, is poly-centric. (Exclusively bottom-up would be as uni-centric or uni-directional as top-down).
It’s not just playing with words. It is significant. Successful political campaigns are poli-centric. The 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, for example, were ones with heavy emphasis on the grassroots ‘centres’. The ‘localized’ number of these ‘centres’ was significantly greater than in the Republican side. But there were other ‘centres’: fundraising, central political party leadership, Senate and House members etc. None of these ‘centres’ working in isolation would have led to victory.
Viral Change™ in organizations, as my team has pioneered, takes place by orchestrating a polycentric approach. With the organization as a pyramid – and it could be a big pyramid or a flat (er) pyramid – statistically, there are more highly connected and influent people in the bottom of that pyramid. That is why a great majority of ‘champions’ or ‘activists’ come from the lower layers. But Viral Change™ takes place at different layers (to continue using a wrong two-dimensional concept) and ‘designed’ peer-to-peer activity ( conversations, engagement, activists role…) is also taken place at different layers and from different ‘centres’. This is how a social movement works, whether spontaneously, or, very often, truly orchestrated. Although the term grassroots is used (and we do use it as well, indeed) it still gives, on its own, a false sense of uni-direction.
In Viral Change TM we say that ‘we orchestrate large scale behavioural change to create a social movement’. Business organizations may not be used to the term ‘social movement’, but this is what it is. I sometimes have a little bit of extra work to do explaining to clients what we mean by this. Still, ‘social movement’ is heard as something alien to the ‘inside’ of the organization, something more appropriate to what one sees in TV screens and sociology books. But once explained, the logic is powerful.
I understand that, mobilizing people and creating ‘a movement’ – something that political and marketing campaigners do for a living – has not figured very high in the organization life or management thinking. We need to change this. But we need a trans-disciplinary approach, as we have in Viral Change™ . No single discipline can explain and master large organizational change today.
In our consulting work, when it comes to large scale behavioural and cultural change, we have learnt more form the history of social movements, and from the study of political campaigns, than from traditional ‘management thinking’. Then add network theory, behavioural sciences and other key ingredients…
Certainly, ‘social movement’ was not a term to be found in any of my MBA materials, moons ago. Another change needed in the list.