The 4 Steps To Building A Successful Social Movement

Whether you want to build a school in Africa or start a consulting business, there are four key steps to making it happen (and all of them involve getting the rest of the world to care).

My puffy winter coat waits in the overhead bin, smashed between two suitcases. Miami’s warm beaches are receding behind us as my wife and I fly home to wintry New England.

But what I am bringing home from our weekend getaway is much more than a suntan and a belly full from the Miami Wine and Food Festival fare. I come home with this amazing idea that I think may completely change my future--and perhaps yours as well.

Its seed was sown two weeks ago when I had a chance to interview Turk Pipkin, an actor from the HBO smash series The Sopranos. He is also a prolific screenwriter and producer, with more than 100 hours of television scripts, and more than 10 works of fiction and nonfiction (including a New York Times bestselling book he co-authored with Willie Nelson). Pipkin and his wife launched the Nobelity Project, which has produced three documentaries, the most recent one Building Hope. Through his work he has gotten to know Nobel laureates including Desmond Tutu and one of my personal inspirations, Mohammad Yunus.

Listening to Pipkin share his projects, how he thinks, and how he creates new things and sends them into the world, allows you to see how he ignores all the business planning best practices. He doesn’t write a plan, detail out a budget, assemble the bios of the management team, or follow most of the steps experts suggest we should. Yet his approach works. To understand it, you need to understand social movements.

People who study social movements like the French Revolution, women’s rights, and the Arab Spring, show that successful movements follow a predictable pattern:
1.A community forms around a common goal
2.The community mobilizes resources
3.The community finds solutions (what I call “fourth options”)
4.The movement is accepted by (or actually replaces) the establishment

If you understand this pattern and build your project or career or business with this pattern in mind you have a greater chance of success.

Step 1: A community forms around a common goal

Business planning experts will tell you to create a mission that sounds something like “to create shareholder value by becoming the greatest ice cream scoop maker in the world.” The problem with most mission statements is that they matter only to three stakeholders: shareholders, employees, and customers. As for the rest of the world...who cares? By contrast, great social movements must have broader human appeal. For example, at one point in his life, Pipkin was helping plant trees in Kenya and was asked to plant trees at a school. When he got there he realized the 8th graders digging in the dirt with him were about to end their education because there was no high school in the area. These kids would be thrown out into the world half-educated. Solution? He and a few others brainstormed “to build a model [high] school that has all the things a school needs: safe buildings, durability, and a healthy environment with good air and light,” he explained. For your business/career/project to really take off, ask this question: What mission could you pursue that society would care about? For me, I see the opportunity to build a consulting firm that helps solve big problems by helping people see “fourth options.”

Step 2: The community mobilizes resources
After Pipkin took on his mission to build a high school in Kenya (and produce a documentary about the effort) he saw they needed to mobilize resources to do four things: 1) design the school 2) fund it 3) build it and 4) film it. Then he then went about enrolling the people he needed to get these four jobs done. “I wanted to be an architect when I was young but I am not one,” he shared with me, so he found an organization of architects who design buildings to support socially-minded projects. The currency social movements use to trade with is the opportunity to do good, and that has value to more people than the currency that purely profit-seeking businesses have on hand. Social movements draw people in. As Pipkin said, “There are all kinds of power but the power of ‘good’ is the greatest and most growing source in the universe.” Since you are pursuing a mission that really matters (see Step 1) you can more creatively draw the right people into your cause. Asking “What are the 3 to 5 key resources or capabilities I will need to succeed?” will help define this step. If I do end up launching a consulting firm, I need the ability to find clients, manage projects, and build a consulting organization.

Step 3: The community finds solutions (“fourth options”)
Pipkin had a problem: the school would need water but there was no plumbing to tap into. They considered piping in water from a nearby lake, but that water was not safe to drink. They considered building a well but that wouldn’t work either. So Pipkin’s team found a “fourth option”: their architects designed a basketball court that collected rainwater and then used solar power to purify the water...and got Nike to sponsor the court. Business planners tell us to figure out the answers ahead of time, but the more creative solutions are invented in real-time. How can you create the structure--a daily work-out session, a brainstorm team--to creatively tackle problems as they appear?

Step 4: The movement is accepted by (or replaces) the establishment
Ultimately one of four fates awaits your effort. You will be accepted by the establishment, be rejected for your efforts, be marginalized, or you will replace the establishment. Pipkin and his team are on a mission to gain acceptance for their message of hope, and it seems to be working. Building Hope was the Audience Award winner at the SXSW Film Festival and was chosen Best Documentary at the Maui Film Festival. The film launches in 40 countries through the iTunes store. A full-color companion book about the story is also available in print through Barnes & Noble, and as a full color e-book on the iBookstore. Who is the establishment you must convince or replace? How will you do it? In my case, I have already convinced leading companies from Microsoft to GE of the power of finding “fourth options.” What I need to work on next are the academics.

If the standard business planning approach isn’t working for you, try throwing away your budget and detained organization plan. Start again. Refresh. Craft a cause we all want to believe in.

[Image: Flickr user Kyle May]

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2 Comments

  • Marjorie Valin

    A great, thought-provoking article. This is the world that could be. 

  • Richard

    Kaihan is right on the mark. This social movement also relates to change management. 80% of the resources, energy, ideas, experience sit across the table from the CEO. Without the 4 community steps described by Kaihan change will not happen!