Neil Tambe

Husband, Father, Citizen, Professional.

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Business lessons from social movements

My friend Erin raised an interesting question a few weeks ago, during the height of the Ferguson protests. Here's a snippet of what she wrote: "I would love to hear a good lecture/discussion (of series of the same) on the business of social change. I think what people fail to realize about the Civil Rights Movement is how deliberate and strategic its leaders were. For example, they chose Selma for the march for specific reasons...

In the end, a comparison of Selma and Ferguson (and even Occupy Wall Street) would be more than warranted. It’s a different day and time, in some ways, but thought-provoking to consider the definition of tangible metrics for success, identifiable leadership, legal and political leverage, and management of public opinion."

On this point, I agree. It is interesting and important to understand what makes certain transformative efforts successful versus others. In a sentence, though more discussion is obviously warranted, what strikes me about Selma vs. Ferguson is how focused the activists in the Selma were, compared to today's protests.

And that's a lesson for leaders today, when leading other people it's crucially important to focus.


There are three questions which bring a goal into focus - why, what, and how. Most of the time, business leaders focus on the how. What I think makes organizations and movements (like Selma) effective is very clearly defining the "why?" and "what?".

I think of why, what, and how like a road-trip. What is the destination you want to go to. Why is the reason you want to take the trip. The how is the route you take, the stops you make, and how you pack the car.

The what and why function like the lenses on SLR cameras. An SLR lens has two calibration steps. First, you rotate one of the focus rings to get the framing of the shot in the right range. Then, you rotate the second focus ring to get a clear image through the viewfinder.

Similarly, defining the "why" casts a compelling big-picture frame. Then, defining the "what" helps everyone understand exactly what matters within that frame.


What's difficult is clearly and actually defining "why" and "what." If a leader is able to clearly define these things to his/her team, choosing the "how" is much easier in turn.

Different types of leaders start in different places to define these important questions of what and why. For discussion's sake. Let's assume we're a visionary leader who gets an image of what the future could be and clarifies that vision as he goes.

First, define a vision - this answers who and what.

Then, define why this vision is compelling, using each of these angles:

  • Convictions (Why do we care?) - Strong beliefs tied to intrinsic motivations give people the fortitude to achieve a goal. This is an exercise looking inward.
  • Context (Why now?) - This is an exercise looking outward. In the organizations market/operating environment, why is this vision worth pursuing now? Is there a regulatory change? Is there a new technology? Why is the external environment ideal now rather than later?
  • Capabilities (Why us?) - Each organization has a unique set of resources and skills which lend themselves to achieving different visions. What capabilities do you have which make your organization ideal to go after this vision?

Finally, define the target by addressing the remaining "whats":

  • Purpose (What outcomes do we want to see?) - A vision is broad and purposes are specific objectives. These are smaller, incremental pieces of the larger vision which can be measured and tracked. What are the small group of things that you must achieve for the vision to come true? Define them.
  • Priorities (What matters most, and, what doesn't matter?) - People in an organization need to know what's highest priority and what's not, so that effort and resources are used wisely. Defining what's not important is just as necessary as defining what is.

If a leader, a company, a movement, or any other organization can define the answers to these 6 questions, they have a chance at accomplishing tremendous transformations. And, if you clearly define the whats and whys, it much easier to craft a strategy (a how) to actually get it done.

That's why I think movements like Selma were successful - they were able to clearly define what and why, and then pick the right how to actually make their vision a reality.


Also, I'd encourage you to read John Hagel's recent post on terrain vs. trajectory-based strategy. It gave me a good boost in congealing my thoughts here.