Rosa Parks didn’t see herself as a revolutionary. “People have said that I was a great democrat, people say things like that, but I was not conscious of being... I felt just resigned to give what I could to protest against the way I was being treated.” And so, without having “any idea just what my actions would bring about,” Parks became the catalyst that would give rise to the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. A year later this led to the Supreme Court decision of Browder v. Gayle (1956) which ruled that Montgomery’s bus segregation laws were unconstitutional. This boycott, in turn, became foundational to the entire American Civil Rights Movement.

Rosa Parks’ story — along with the story of so many transformational change initiatives throughout history — show us how transformative social, political, or organizational change can be. However, it is not inevitable; it takes leadership and sustained effort to drive transformative change.

Today, leaders of large organizations — businesses, non-profits, political entities — are increasingly being called upon to drive transformational change, but are finding themselves constrained by uncertainty and distraction. While business organizations have become adept in the language, tools and methodologies associated with the field of “change management”, they are seeing that change isn’t just about using a new tool or following a new process.

The importance of driving organizational change as a movement

Driving change is increasingly about breaking through old and deeply ingrained ways of working into unprecedented new territory. So, the big question leaders face is: how can we create innate inspiration for people to change? How can we inspire new beliefs and desire for people to rethink what is achievable? How can we unlock our people’s potential to collectively reach unprecedented heights of innovation, disruption and differentiation?

Scholars have studied how successful changes across social, political and organizational domains have taken shape over history and have written extensively about why some changes succeed and others fail. One key insight is that driving systematic change requires sustained effort and leaders who are focused on inspiring a movement. Korn Ferry defines movements as “sustained campaigns led by groups of people with shared purpose who create change together” Moreover, we can apply what we have learned from societal movements to help create movements inside organizations so they can achieve transformation goals faster.

Korn Ferry’s experience with clients shows that there are several actions necessary to take when creating successful movements. These actions help organizations reach a tipping point faster and ultimately sustain systematic change over the long term.

1 Bring dissatisfaction into focus, so it aches

Movements don’t start with a call to action, they start with a deep-seated conviction that something needs to change, and that the future can be better than the present. Traditional behavior change paradigms have long held that people think, feel, and then do. Neurobiology shows a different order of action: people actually feel first. Then they “do,” and the last part of the process is to think. In this view, emotions are drivers of behavior. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this well as he tapped into people’s dissatisfaction by making them feel it achingly:

“Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice…”

Martin Luther King, Jr., "Let Us Be Dissatisfied"

2 Create believers by envisioning a meaningful future

The most successful movement makers are masters of framing the future they seek in a way that stirs emotion, provides a clear view to a better future, creates an aligned climate and sparks action. Take DTE Energy, a Detroit-based diversified energy company that committed to achieving net zero carbon and greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The organization is on the vanguard of the rapidly emerging sustainability movement that aims to hold companies accountable for their impact on climate, people and communities. As the company declared its new purpose, an executive in the organization painted a picture as to why the desired future gives so many employees immense meaning and incites action.

As they stated in Korn Ferry's recent ESG and sustainability report:

“Our aspiration is to be best in the world and best for the world, so our purpose represents the idea of what we can contribute and do to enable progress and enable society. To achieve this ambition, we need to build a diverse and inclusive culture where everyone contributes to ensure prosperous and thriving communities.” DTE Energy

DTE Energy has also pledged to make this transition without laying off any employees, which serves the organization well as it seeks to create an aligned climate to ignite this movement.

3 Call extra attention to the small wins

Effective movements need to amplify a steady cadence of small, visible wins that make the future goal feel a little closer and a little more possible. When L’Oréal declared that they wanted to "become as diverse and inclusive as the world itself," they drew attention to their early wins through multiple examples of how they were enhancing diversity within their own leadership and management ranks.

L’Oréal’s Global Integration Program became known for its success in not only bringing diverse leaders from outside the organization but setting those leaders up for success through tailored mentorship, coaching and development initiatives. Over time, these small wins added up to significantly impacting the organization’s gender equity and DEI efforts. At the end of 2020, women represented 69% of Loreal’s total workforce, 58% of the members of the Board of Directors, 59% of international brand directors, and 26% of the members of the executive committee (vs. 7% in 2007)

Any organization can learn from this by spotlighting early wins, no matter how small, and make the aspirational future feel a little more achievable.

4 Build unstoppable momentum

Movements are built one convert at a time. As a movement community innovates a novel and consistent brand, it amasses an influence network to propel its cause.

When Tesla set out to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy,” it went to great pains to emphasize that realizing this vision was more important than focusing exclusively on its own profit. While building out its products in the form of the electric vehicle and battery and charging technologies, Tesla went as far as to share some of its intellectual property and technology with the broader industry, encouraging competition along the way. It took time, but competition followed, as major players in the industry began to “convert” by shifting their strategic priorities in pursuit of electrification.

Not only did Tesla help conventional carmakers to reach toward a tipping point, but it also created a vast influence network that helped it become the most valuable car manufacturer in the US by 2017, exceeding Ford and General Motors.

So what is the “silver bullet” for achieving unstoppable momentum? Work to attract, not overpower. Utilize both formal and informal networks. Broaden your entire ecosystem by identifying and empowering others to drive the transformation themselves.

5 Make it a mainstream movement

With unstoppable momentum, movements reach a critical tipping point, when a small but passionate group of believers ensure that the movement is self-sustaining. After that, and for change to “stick” within hearts and minds over a longer term, it is critical to build the structures and systems that will uphold the values of the movement. In social or political movements, these often take the form of new bills or laws. In a corporate organization, codifying change relies on rethinking the way leaders communicate, or the way workforces are incentivized or improving the way different functions interact and make decisions.

Two years since the killing of George Floyd ignited a national reckoning with racial injustice, many of the largest US employers committed to codifying actions that would address racial equity in their organizations.

Out of the 100 largest US employers, 98% have introduced new anti-discrimination policies, 91% introduced new DEI related education/training programs, 93% committed to enhancing board racial diversity, and 87% started disclosing workforce data to indicate racial diversity in their workforces. Identifying accelerators and acting upon them is critical to capture existing momentum and embed change for the long term.

Plan your organizational change movement today

Winning organizations drive change top to bottom, bottom up, and peer to peer. Think about what movements you’ve been a part of and what made them work.

What convinced you to join Facebook or to buy your first smartphone? What social or political issues captured your heart and made you think or believe in new ways? How might those campaigns or movements have been designed to affect your emotions, and in turn, your actions? By unpacking the elements of successful movements all around us, you can apply them to your situation and begin on the journey to driving long-lasting, transformative change.

It's time to take the next steps towards igniting your change movement. Contact us today.