The Grass Ceiling: Limits to grassroots initiatives and what to do about them

Social media platforms are great for enabling grassroots efforts. But within the enterprise, grassroots efforts tend to be all sound and fury with limited results.

Here are 3 ways to remedy that, and transform opinionated crowds into effective enterprise movements.

The grass is greener

People within large firms are eager for change. They’re eager to do things differently and eliminate the waste and bureaucracy they see around them. And they see social business as an alternative to the dystopian present.

But, too often, social business is cast as a revolution of sorts. And the term “grassroots” is invoked as it often is in political change campaigns.

“The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it are natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures.”

Such movements are indeed excellent ways to find out what people really think. And for like-minded people to connect.

The problem comes when they try to effect change.

Remedy #1: Create links to institutional decision-making

Grassroots efforts inside the enterprise tend to fizzle when it comes to doing something the traditional hierarchy tends to do. Sign a contract. Disburse funds. Make decisions that others will follow.

Think of all the innovation programs that wind up as glorified suggestion boxes. Lots of great ideas but not much ability to implement them.

The key is to identify links to the org chart – and to decision-making responsibility – up front. Then, you can channel the power of a grassroots effort towards change you know you can implement.

A good example is a community of practice. At inception, senior management typically appoints the original community leader and defines enterprise goals. That gives the community the authority to act and a clear path for ultimate decision-making. But inspiring any meaningful contribution requires that community members see benefit for themselves.

The community construct focuses on the benefit of individuals and connects them behind a purpose. The explicit mandate allows them to act on behalf of the enterprise and get things done.

Remedy #2: Define a structure for executing

As efforts grow, more structure is required. In a previous post, I described how grassroots change movements as diverse as charities, open-source software, and crowd-sourced content actually all had well-defined structures.

While the movements appear “natural and spontaneous,” all the successful efforts create specific roles and rules that concentrate responsibility and help with decision-making.

Even in wikipedia, in which anyone can make an edit, there are key roles of administrators, bureaucrats, and stewards, each with clear guidelines on what to do and how to do it.

Sometimes, somebody has to act on behalf of the enterprise. Somebody has to resolve disputes that get escalated. Somebody has to pay for all the computers, hire lawyers, or engage other services.

The seemingly free-for-all encyclopedia has a structure so it can get things done. And your grassroots efforts will need clear roles and responsibilities as well.

Remedy #3: Implement reward mechanisms

Another barrier remains for grassroots efforts within companies: middle management.

“I’d love to work on it but my boss said no.”

People may want to be part of a grassroots effort to drive change. And they may want to get recognized for it. But social recognition isn’t enough if your immediate manager doesn’t approve of what you’re doing.

Now, this is where some traditional management techniques can actually come in handy.

The first technique is management reporting. This time, though, you’ll use the reputation system that comes with most social platforms. They measure the contributions of individuals and how they’re valued by others. This same information can, in aggregate, be used to highlight problem management areas. In an ironic twist, management reporting can actually be used to help individuals contribute – by pointing out entire areas where the environment (i.e., a particular manager) may not be conducive to collaboration.

The second technique is to use traditional communications channels to promote the desired behavior – both of individuals and their managers. The social platforms are great communications vehicles themselves. But augmenting them by using the official channels of senior management – the town hall, the portal, the video, the newsletter, the email blast – provides the gravitas that many employees and middle managers need to let them know both “it’s okay” and “it’s expected.”

These traditional sticks and carrots, which can also be linked to existing performance systems, help institutionalize the behaviors you’re trying to bring to your organization.

Doing something

Is all this enough? Perhaps the final – and biggest – problem facing enterprise grassroots efforts is getting started at all. So many have tried before with precious little results. Why bother?

But things can be different. Indeed, that is the promise of social business.

So find a real problem at your firm that you care to fix. Connect like-minded people. And start your own grassroots effort.

But this time, couple it with the authority, structure, and incentive mechanisms that allow you to go beyond enthusiasm and a good idea. And drive real change.

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About John Stepper

Driving adoption of collaboration and social media platforms at Deutsche Bank. (Opinions here are my own.)
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11 Responses to The Grass Ceiling: Limits to grassroots initiatives and what to do about them

  1. Great post John. Every time I read the title I chuckle a little.

    The days are waning of collaborative/social tools in enterprises being implemented via bottom-up movements.

    Many of the companies I speak with tell me that executives have set new targets on innovation or employee engagement, which social intranets support. (Example of social intranet supporting company strategy: http://bit.ly/rpnTGP)

    You’ve clearly explained here how collaboration requires structure, but I think the myth of collaboration being “organic” will live on for another year or two before the mainstream in this industry internalizes the need for structure.

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  6. Ed Terpening says:

    You speak the truth here John! Great post. Fits my professional experience to a “T”.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks, Ed. The post is a year old but I was reminded of it after another wave of “we want to hear your ideas!” with seemingly zero insight of how to drive change in a large firm. Firms are usually long ideas and short on execution, but it’s easier and appears more open to ask for more ideas.

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  8. Great post – I absolutely love the term grass ceiling! I think I’m going to use it in my talk next week (the talk is titled “driving enterprise social from the bottom up”). I will obviously mention your wonderful blog!

    I have a question for you that me and a management consultant friend have been pondering for a while: do enterprise social networks drive organisational change? (For example changes in business processes, strategy – anything that could be considered a major shift in how the company operates). If so, do you have any examples of organisations where an enterprise social network would have pushed the wheels of change in motion (either accidentally or on purpose)?

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Virpi. That’s a great question: “do enterprise social networks drive organisational change?”

      I’d say: “no”. Or, leaving myself room for optimism, “not usually.”

      At my own firm and in my work with other firms, I haven’t seen any meaningful examples of truly changing the organizational machine (org, processes). Protests, yes. Discussions of sensitive topics, also yes.

      But I, along with many others, may have underestimated the resilience if the machine, its ability to preserve itself.

      And, even if it did happy – the corporate version, say, of the Arab Spring – the results would be equally messy. The aftermath of change would be anything but orderly.

      Instead of wishing that wasn’t so, I choose to embrace that fact and work with management to affect changes that are both good for the firm and good for the individuals in it.

  9. “Never underestimate the fondness of people and organisations for the status quo” as Andrew McAfee says. I recently did a course in organisational analysis where I realised that I’d been pretty naive in thinking that organisations exist to do something. There are other, very powerful forces at play as well. And as you say, self preservation is an instinct that steers organisations as well as people. And often (most of the time?) organisations are not able to change – they just die because they can’t adapt.

    That said, I wonder if a bottom-up enterprise social initiative that aligns with the organisational goals can pave the path to change. If management later choose to change a process etc you could marry the change effort with this new social infrastructure. It’s not exactly driving change, but facilitating it. I would think that in small or medium sized businesses this might happen.

    Anyway, if you ever come across of an organisation where you suspect enterprise social has driven change I would be very grateful if you tweet about it, or flag it some other way. I’m collecting cases for later analysis.

    Oh, and if you ever need illustrations/visual stories – drop me a line 🙂

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