Can You Create Change From The Bottom Up?
Do you lack the authority to create the kind of positive changes you’d love to see in your workplace? Have you tried to get leaders on board and had no luck? What if there was a formula that helped you fly under-the-radar and create the kind of changes that would really help people flourish?
Be it helping our organizations to become more responsive to customers’ experiences, supportive of the needs of employees, environmentally sustainable, or community minded, it is clear that businesses can truly benefit from the social and environmental passions of their employees. But let’s be honest, convincing business leaders that this is the case is easier in some workplaces than others.
So how do you get leaders on board with these approaches?
“Trying to create positive changes in an organization when you don’t have authority, is like trying to create change in society so there is a lot we can learn from social movement activists and apply it workplaces,”explained Chris White the Managing Director of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and the co-author of Changing Your Company from the Inside Out, when I interviewed him recently. “For example, successful social activists look for the right opportunities at the right time to harness and mobilize support to get the traction they need to push from the bottom up and turn their radical ideas into action.”
Chris suggests that social intrepreneurs – those who create positive change in organizations even when they don’t have formal authority – are most successful when they follow the social activists formula of when, why, who and how in workplaces. It is how employees at IBM created the corporate Peace Corps, how a team at eBay developed a fair trade marketplace, and how people convinced Ford to embrace an ambitious global human rights code.
“Like a martial arts master, intrepreneurs are able to achieve their objectives by aligning their movements with the momentum of their organization, and acting without causing serious harm to the system,” Chris explained.
But do organizations really want social intrepreneurs?
Chris suggests that by tapping into the ideas, passions and energy of social intrepreneurs, organizations not only foster more innovation, but in the process they also can increase the engagement and retention of talented employees, improve their bottom line, and help advance social and environmental solutions.
For example, the UK-based Barclays Bank regards social innovation as about ‘doing good’, and at the same time representing real business opportunities. As a result of some persistent intrepreneurial work they have established an innovation fund to address social challenges, and are fostering more initiatives by encouraging their intrepreneurs to apply for financial support, coaching or mentoring.
So what does it take to be a social intrepreneur?
Chris has found there are four levers from the social action moment that are vital to selling ideas within an organization:
- When? – A great idea pushed at the wrong time is unlikely to get traction. Conversely, a counterintuitive idea can be successful if the timing is right. Look for shifts in leadership priorities, which create an urgent need for new solutions. Your goal, like a skilled dancer, is to position your idea to be carried along by the momentum of the system — not swim against the tide.
- Why? Make the case for your idea using the language and strategic priorities of your company. In many corporate cultures, making the ideas sound like a natural evolution rather than a radical departure, can reduce resistance to adoption. Your goal is to create a mental image that activates the support of important allies, but does not trigger alarm bells for potential resistors.
- Who? Take time to map the decision makers for your idea, and the influence system around them. What are their priorities? How will you need to adapt your case to each of them in order to be effective? Your goal is to build support along the way, making the eventual decision a straightforward sign off.
- How? Look for sensible solutions” to organize your initiative. Maybe it is a smaller pilot program to manage risk smartly. Maybe there is a previously successful program that can be largely replicated. How can you use technology to connect and scale your idea? Your goal is to make this an easy idea to grasp as rollout begins.
Chris suggests that many of us to hold back from originating radical change due to fears our leaders will not be supportive of bottom-up change created without authority. However, in reality he has found senior leaders are often very supportive and welcome their social intrepreneur’s initiatives.
What positive changes could you initiate in your workplace?
This interview was produced in partnership with the Positive Business Conference held each year at the University of Michigan. For more on the conference please visit http://www.positivebusinessconference.com.