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What social movements and workplaces can learn from each other

Whether you wish to bring about social change or launch a start-up, you must be ready to play the long game by following these cardinal rules

A Hong Kong protester holds a slogan
A Hong Kong protester holds a slogan "Liberate Hong Kong" during a march demand the release of the 12 Hong Kong protesters detained at sea by Chinese authorities, (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying) (AP)

Bang in the middle of city-wide protests of the year 2019, I found myself in Hong Kong. Even at the airport, there were unmissable signs of peaceful unrest. Surprisingly, there was no disruption of public services and I reached Kennedy Town in thirty minutes flat. Hong Kong managed to be efficient even while protesting!

Over the course of a long, meandering dinner with local Network Capital community members, I learned subtle nuances of what was going on in Hong Kong and realized how much start-ups and social movements have in common. In fact, they can learn a lot from each other.

Social movements are loosely connected small groups that are united by a shared purpose. This shared purpose is what start-up founders call mission statements, founding pillars of their company. Belief in the mission statement inspires collective action and unites different teams to work towards a common cause. For start-ups, that common cause is market leadership and for social movements it is structural change.

Like start-ups, most social movements and protests fail. Srđa Popović, Serbian political activist and author of Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Non-Violent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World, offers a five-pronged strategy to create successful social movements. His strategy also has important lessons for start-up founders chasing ambitious moonshots.

First, define the change you want to see. You can oppose as many things as you like but unless you make an affirmative case and define exactly what you want, nothing will get done. Mahatma Gandhi wanted freedom from the British, women’s suffrage movement wanted equal voting rights, India’s pride movement wanted Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, 1861 to be repealed and Serbia’s Bulldozer Revolution wanted the dictator Slobodan Milošević to be removed. The start-up analogy is that founders are bound to fail if they don’t define where they want their company to be in a stipulated time period. This is especially true if your company is in trouble and facing competitive threats. There is no substitute for clarity of purpose.

The Seductive Illusion of Hard Work, published by Sage Response, 312 pages, Rs.  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>495.00
The Seductive Illusion of Hard Work, published by Sage Response, 312 pages, Rs. 495.00

Second, shift the spectrum of allies. Popović explains that successful movements don’t overpower their opponents; they gradually undermine their opposition’s support. Extrapolating this learning to start-ups, you are unlikely to bamboozle your competition with brute force. If the competition is worthy, you will need to win one customer and one partner at a time, slowly eroding your competitor’s arsenal. Once you win a critical mass of customers and partners, word will spread and the odds of victory will tilt in your favour.

Third, identify the pillars of power. Popular support is necessary but insufficient to succeed. Without institutional support, movements are bound to fail. In Serbia, Popovic’s revolutionary group Otpor saw arrests of their members as an opportunity to strengthen relations with the police. The protesters were trained to defend officers placed in volatile areas. That’s why when the police had to decide whether to shoot into crowds or join Otpor, they chose the latter. This is precious advice for start-ups, especially ones that get strong initial traction. Social media affirmation helps but does not automatically translate to increased revenue or market share. In order to reach their true potential, they need institutional support from government, press and media, partners or investors.

Fourth, seek to attract, not to overpower. This is particularly important for voters, customers and protestors who are undecided and fall in the middle of our spectrum of allies. You can only bring them to your side with relatable examples and stories that gently make a point. As Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler explains, a nudge is stronger than threat.

Fifth, construct a plan to survive victory. Remember what happened after Arab Spring? After a round of secular protests, the Muslim Brotherhood won the elections and came to power. Both start-ups and social movements need to build follow-up plans after achieving critical milestones. A fresh round of funding doesn’t mean that you have arrived. It only means that you need to recalibrate your goals and figure out a way to achieve them. That’s the time to strengthen relationships with your customers and partners. Many high growth start-ups forget the basics and get carried away with affirmations from media.

After Zoom’s initial public offering (IPO), its founder, Eric Yuan, said that an IPO is like graduating from high school where we celebrate for a day keeping in mind that we don’t want high school to be the peak of our performance. Keeping Yuan’s advice and Popović’s five principles in mind is essential for all start-up founders and leaders of social movements who believe in playing the long game.

Key Takeaways

• Social movements can teach important management lessons to start-ups.

• Be clear about the change you wish to see.

• Gradually shift the spectrum. Instant change doesn’t work.

• Identify key pillars of power.

• Attraction is stronger than brute force.

• Play the long game.

Excerpted with permission from The Seductive Illusion of Hard Work by Utkarsh Amitabh, published by SAGE Publications India.

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