How to Make Your Big Idea Really Happen
Inspired by the loss of her thirteen year-old daughter, Candice Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 1980 to combat drunk driving through education and legislation. Just a few years later, Lightner and MADD played a pivotal role in passing a federal law which penalized any state that didn't raise the minimum drinking age to 21.
After Barbara Minto joined McKinsey as the firm's first ever female consultant, she found that many management consultants had trouble communicating information effectively. She developed the Minto Pyramid Principle to help colleagues structure their writing, and after gaining support within McKinsey, took the framework to other firms. It has since become ubiquitous across the consulting industry.
Lightner and Minto started out as individuals with a vision, and both women went on to significantly impact the realms they cared about. In our 2008 Harvard Business Review article "Shaping Strategy in a World of Constant Disruption," we discuss how certain firms are harnessing the power of business ecosystems to shape entire industries or markets. As it turns out, individuals can apply several lessons from shaping strategies when trying to turn a grand idea (be it for social good or professional gain) into a reality.
1) Create a Compelling Shaping View
In order to mobilize supporters, it helps to put forth a compelling view of what the future-state could look like. Perhaps the most famous example of a shaping view comes from Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. In just 17 minutes, the Baptist minister who had been gaining reputation as a Civil Rights leader painted a vivid portrait of a world without racial inequality that ignited his supporters and spurred many to action (even risking their lives) in order to help achieve such a world.
Though the delivery may be less dramatic, a compelling view is just as important when trying to launch a new business venture. When Marc Benioff launched Salesforce.com in 1999, he used speaking engagements not to pitch his new business, but rather, to evangelize his vision of where the future was headed and bring supporters on-board. By getting people to believe in a radically redefined industry, Benioff inspired listeners to invest in making it a reality.
2) Make Sure the Benefit is Mutual
In defining a shaping view, it is important to make clear how the conditions you are trying to achieve will benefit many people beyond yourself. The more tangible you can make these benefits and the more explicitly you can define the types of people who may benefit, the more those people are likely to be motivated to support your efforts and help to make the shaping view a reality. For example, if you are trying to get companies to adopt new technologies or practices, it helps to describe how the work of various types of employees might change if these were adopted. One executive was able to gain the support of grizzled old maintenance guys who were deeply skeptical of social software when he showed them how this new technology could eliminate a major headache in their day-to-day jobs. Rather than talking in generalities, he painted a compelling picture for a specific set of workers to show them how this would help them deal with a very troublesome pain point.
3) Are you serious? Prove it.
First of all, take some action that will demonstrate your conviction regarding the shaping view. Martin Luther King mobilized a lot of people not just because he gave a speech, but because he was willing to make significant personal sacrifices in order to advance his view. It's not just about sacrifice. You can also generate credibility by convincing some prominent or powerful people to join your quest.
Paradoxically, you can also mobilize support by showing weakness. We have written before about the personal and professional value of showing vulnerability. As a leader, this can be as simple as admitting that you don't have all the answers. A 2011 Google study found that, of the eight criteria which make a great manager, deep technical expertise was the least important. Rather than focusing on your own image, pose the thought-provoking questions that invite others to contribute. After all, if you have all the answers, what role is there for others to make a difference?
4) Create a Platform.
If your shaping vision is compelling enough, there are likely many people who want to help make it happen. Having a central shaping platform typically removes friction for these potential supporters, which can help grow a support base and encourage participation. The key is to find ways for people to connect with each other, work with each other and draw strength from each other. For Martin Luther King, the churches spread across the South became key organizing platforms. In the office, it may be as simple as a shared table in the cafeteria at lunch time.
Thanks to the ubiquity of online communities, the virtual ties we form today are often as strong as those we create in-person. World of Warcraft guilds, for example, are extremely committed online groups that work collectively to solve complex problems. Creating a virtual gathering spot can help people who want to contribute but may not be able to meet at a specific time and place. It also provides a way to keep people engaged and contributing in between the meetings held in physical space. As with platforms in shaping strategies for companies, the key is to be creative about helping to reduce barriers to interaction and significantly reduce the investment required to participate as well as accelerating and amplifying the rewards of participation.
5) Gain Critical Mass.
Margaret Meade once famously said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." While this is certainly true in the early stages of a shaping vision (MADD, for example, began with just a small group of mothers), a large support base can lend credibility to a cause. Social software has made it easier than ever to get your message to a broad audience. While those reached through social software may only be weakly affiliated with the movement, their support can help bring attention to your cause and potentially helps connect you to other passionate participants that share your shaping vision.
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We live in a world where individuals increasingly have the ability to shape the environment in which they live. Shaping is not just limited to large institutions. In fact, in many of the successful shaping strategies that we studied, the strategies were executed by people with limited resources on the edge of a market or industry. Whether we are seeking to shape our workplace or our society, small moves smartly made can set big things in motion.