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This is how to turn your idea for change into a movement

To create real change in your company, take a lesson from social organizers.

This is how to turn your idea for change into a movement
[Photo: Flickr user Martin Fisch]

Sometimes, an idea or cause inspires such fervent feelings and action from a large group that it becomes a movement that creates significant change in how people think, feel, and act. Over the years, movements like animal rights, corporate social responsibility, and #MeToo began as concepts and, ultimately, changed attitudes and behaviors.

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Jennifer Dulski, head of groups and community at Facebook and author of Purposeful: Are You a Manager or a Movement Starter? has been witness to her fair share of movements. As the former president and chief operating officer of Change.org, a social enterprise platform that provides a venue for people to gather support for their causes, Dulski watched familiar patterns emerge in campaigns that successfully brought about significant change. And those efforts have important lessons for business leaders who want to create change.

“This is the place where often I find business leaders or individuals and companies falling down. Social organizers are really good at bringing vision to life through storytelling, and I think that’s something that business people can learn from,” she says. That boils down to a series of steps, she says. To create change in your organization, consider these priorities of successful movement-starters.

Create a clear and compelling vision

Your vision helps people understand the issue and what the benefit of change will be. The best visions have three parts, Dulski says.

  • Desired future. How do you want the world to look if your vision has succeeded?
  • Purpose. Share why this issue matters to you and others.
  • Story. Put a face on it through stories of challenges or triumph.

For example, organizations that have adopted parental leave, pregnancy parking spaces, mother’s rooms, or other rights or accommodations for new parents have often done so once they understood, through meaningful stories and persuasive messaging, how things could be made better. “When you hear stories of new moms sitting on toilet stalls in bathrooms to try to pump milk for their newborns, it becomes a lot easier for people to understand the vision of what you want,” she says.

Know the influencers—and what they care about

It’s not enough to know who the decision makers are—you have to know their priorities, too, Dulski adds. Too many business leaders try to “sell” an idea or change proposal without really thinking through the impact on the decision maker and what matters to them.

Dulski tells a story from early in her career when she tried to convince an executive in her company to make a big marketing expenditure. Because she was relatively inexperienced, she didn’t realize the pressure such a buy might impart on the decision maker. Now, she says, a big part of persuading people to think about taking action is understanding how to make them successful.

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Build a team of allies

Having a “beta team” of supporters can help you build momentum for greater change. It’s one thing to rally support by yourself, but when you have other supporters, you begin to gain more influence and credibility, she says.

At Change.org, her team sometimes used the platform to garner support for changes they wanted to see. For example, her team used to have a group team call on Friday mornings, Pacific time. A group of European team members galvanized around the change they wanted and used the platform to advocate for changing the call time, which fell on Friday evenings for them. By activating as a small group, and crafting their messaging to show how change could be better for everyone—not to mention using a photo of the daughter of one of the members, sad-faced because her father wasn’t home for dinner on Fridays—they successfully advocated for the call to be changed.

Be informative and transparent

Giving people good information about what the change is and how it will affect them meets their need to understand the environment around them and what the possible outcomes will be, says motivation expert Susan Fowler, author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing and Engaging. Shape your messages and stories to reflect what matters to them, showing them choices they have, the connection to their values and purpose, and the skills that will help them navigate the proposed change.

Take the temperature

Fowler says that good movements may have to shift if the change isn’t working or if they’re not connecting with their audience. Get feedback about how the change is working and how people are responding. Charging forward without testing out whether your efforts are creating the desired effect risks alienating your audiences.

“It’s really important to have people reflect on the change,” she says. Have them think about their options and opportunities. When they come to their own conclusions about the change and how it can be of value to them, mind-sets shift, she says. “These are motivation conversations to take people deep, to help them understand what’s happening to them psychologically around this change,” she says.

Get ready for the long game

Movements don’t happen overnight, Dulski says. They require persistence and patience. But when you craft your messages to resonate with the audiences you need to reach, keep your finger on the pulse of progress and adapt when you need to, you can move the needle and make progress on projects and programs that matter.

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About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books

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