Greg Satell, Author and Advisor
Greg Satell is a popular speaker, adviser and author of the book, Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change, whose work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Barron’s, Forbes, Inc and Fast Company. His earlier book, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business titles of 2017.
An accomplished entrepreneur, executive, and one of the foremost experts on innovation today, Greg speaks to audiences around the world and works with leading organizations to better compete in today’s disruptive marketplace. He was recently named by Innovation Excellence as #2 on its global list of “Top 40 Innovation Bloggers” and by IDG as one of “10 Digital Transformation Influencers to Follow Today.” Greg helps successful organizations overcome disruption and blaze a path to a better future. A global citizen, Greg spent 15 years living and working in Eastern Europe where, among other things, he managed a leading news organization during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.
Social Principles Transforming Businesses: Season 6, Episode 2
What do social movements and corporate transformations have in common?
Greg Satell managed a news organization during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and saw the power of social movements. The same principles underlying successful social and political movements are present in corporate transformations, such as networking, creating a vision of shared values and consciousness, and keystone change. Through cascades, small groups that are loosely connected but united by a common purpose, a company can be transformed, an industry disrupted, or an entire society reshaped.
Listen to more: Activate World
Social Principles Transforming Businesses
Greg Satell, Author and Advisor
Jon Mertz: 00:00 Welcome to the Activate World Podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought. In our current podcast season, we’re continuing to explore social movements and business change.
We are joined today by Greg Satell, who is the author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. It’s a very interesting and rich book, so I’m excited to have this conversation. Greg, welcome to Activate World.
Greg Satell: 00:37 Thanks for having me, Jon.
Jon Mertz: 00:39 Before we get started, give us a glimpse into your background and what led you to write Cascades?
Greg Satell: 00:44 It’s kind of a funny story. I found myself in 2004 in Kyiv, Ukraine of all places. And I was running a media company with a major news organization during what came to be known as the Orange Revolution, which was part of a series of color revolutions in eastern Europe, which were these massive, massive uprisings. And it was really an incredible thing to be a part of, to see an entire society mobilize itself. And I noticed a couple of things. The first was, nobody seemed to know what was going on, not the reporters I would talk to in the newsroom every day, not the other business leaders I would see quite often, and not even the political leaders that I would run across from time to time. Nobody who would have any conventional form of powers seemed to be able to shape events in any way.
Greg Satell: 01:50 And there just seemed to be this mysterious force that nobody could describe but nobody could deny that was driving events along. Just thousands upon thousands of people who normally would be doing very different things would all of a sudden stop whatever it was they were doing and start doing the same thing altogether, all at once in almost perfect unison with no visible form of leadership. And it was just the most amazing thing. And I was running a pretty significant operation at the time and I thought, “Gee, I’d like to know how to do that. There’s all these thousands of different customers doing all these thousands of different things. I’d like them to unify on the product I want to sell them. And I have these hundreds of employees with all different ideas.
Greg Satell: 02:45 How do I get them all going in the right direction? And the same thing with advertisers and investors.” But I had absolutely no idea how to do this. I was completely confused. And then a couple of years later, I was in Silicon Valley, it was 2006 and everybody was talking about social networks and I thought, “Gee, we have a very big digital division. I should learn something about social networks.” So I started studying network theory and what I found was a complete mathematical and scientific framework that described everything that happened in the Orange Revolution and that thing where everybody starts doing the same thing all at once, there’s a name for it, it’s called a network cascade or a viral cascade in a network. And that strange force, it’s called nonlinear dynamics.
Greg Satell: 03:42 And so that’s what hooked me. And so I started studying movements. I sought out other people who’d been involved in other revolutions. But then the most amazing part is when I started looking at corporate and organizational transformations. I found that the same principles that made social and political movements successful were also the same principles that made corporate and organizational transformations successful as well. And it just boggled my mind that there are these three buckets of social activism, political activism, and corporate or organizational transformation and we treat them as completely separate, but they’re actually very, very similar and have a lot to teach each other. So I think a big part of what I wanted to achieve with Cascades was to create a common language for change, whether that change is something in your organization, your industry, your community, or throughout society as a whole.
Jon Mertz: 04:55 If you look at the example of the Parkland shooting, the youth drove gun conversations much differently than we’re used to. In some cases, that sort of coherence of ideas seemed to come naturally.
Greg Satell: 05:05 In my experience, it is not natural. I don’t know what it is with the March for Our Lives, whether they had somebody coaching them, or they were studying, but they were doing everything right. If you look at, I think I tell the story in the book where my friend [Saja 00:05:28] went to train the Occupy activists, and he said, “What do you want to change?” And they said, “Oh, the banks are evil and the student loans are horrible.” And on and on and on. He said, “That’s not a change. Those are grievances.” And they never got beyond their grievances. Where the March for Our Lives kids, they were very, very careful to, A, to put forward an affirmative action.
Greg Satell: 06:00 They made change safe for everybody. They said, “We respect the rights gun owners, we understand why people want guns. Some of our families have guns.” Another really, really important thing that they did is they reached out to institutions, a very, very common mistake among social activists is they seek to mobilize, and sometimes they can mobilize effectively, but to what purpose? Right? You always need to be mobilizing somebody to influence something. If you think back to the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, he didn’t write a single piece of legislation, right? He didn’t decide a single court case, but he was able to mobilize people to influence the institutions that could. And I, even in my conversations in the corporate world, one of the most common mistakes is that they construe stakeholders too narrowly. If you want to create change in an industry, it’s not just the companies in that industry, right?
Greg Satell: 07:14 There are social organizations, there’re regulatory organizations. There are professional societies. There are education, what’s being taught at business schools. There’s all sorts of stakeholders around. And that’s another thing that March for Our Lives were really good at. So they weren’t just mobilizing, they were mobilizing with a purpose, and they made sure to make everybody feel like they could be included. Right? You didn’t have to be the purest of the pure.
Jon Mertz: 07:50 Yeah. It seems like too often we get stuck on the ingredients and don’t spend enough time conversing about what the new vision is.
Greg Satell: 07:56 It has to be an attractive vision, and it has to be a vision based on shared values. And I think the LGBT movement is a great example of this, where it floundered for decades with rhetoric underlying difference, we’re here, we’re queer, we’re different. When that began to switch to, we want the same things you do, we want to live in committed relationships. We want to raise happy families. The sentiment changed in record time.
Jon Mertz: 08:34 In your book, you talk about having a shared consciousness when trying to lead change. Can you talk more about that?
Greg Satell: 08:40 The first thing that you need to do is identify that vision of tomorrow. Right? Which is usually very aspirational, right? Not something concrete, civil rights, equality, we still haven’t achieved. Right? You have to be able to paint what that vision is, and a vision based on shared values. But then you also have to go back and formulate a keystone change. And I talked about a number of these in the book. In the case of Indian independence, it was [inaudible 00:09:16], which people laughed at it first, but ended up being the thing that broke the logjam. In other cases, I wrote about the cloud transformation at Experian. It was something as simple as an internal lab, but whatever it is, it’s a clear and tangible goal that involves multiple stakeholders and that’s really important and paves the way for future change.
Greg Satell: 09:41 Once you’ve identified that, you need to start coming up with a plan. And there’s two tools I talk about in the book. One is called the spectrum of allies, where you identify your most active supporters, your passive supporters, who’s neutral, who’s passively opposed, and who’s actively opposed. And you’re probably never going to convince those most actively opposed, but those that are in the neutral or passive camp, that’s where values really becomes very, very important, right? Because if you can identify shared values and build a sense of shared consciousness among maybe those people who are a bit more lukewarm, that’s how you can begin to really start building a true mobilization rather than just preaching to the choir.
Greg Satell: 10:41 That’s when you stop preaching to the choir and start going out and mixing with the heathens a little bit. Almost as if you can imagine a minister going out of the church and sharing a beer with the guys who don’t go to church or something. So that’s why shared values is so important. Shared values and shared consciousness, that’s how you’re able to connect with people who don’t immediately agree with you and might actually be a bit suspicious of you. And then once you do that, you can start mobilizing those people to start influencing institutions. And that’s how change can actually make change happen.
Jon Mertz: 11:28 Is there any secret to having those connections happen more fruitfully? How do you get that network effect in place and make it the most viable?
Greg Satell: 11:35 The power in a network always resides in the center. And the really counter intuitive thing, and there’s science behind this, but the really counter intuitive thing is that you move to the center by connecting out. And that’s really important. So when you look at movements that failed, often, they weren’t very welcoming. I mean, when you look at Occupy, John Lewis, the civil rights hero was asked to speak at an Occupy rally in Atlanta and he was refused. I mean, that’s no way to build a movement, right? So many movements fail by immediately administering purity tests. There’s great research done by Chenoweth and Stephan about participation. They looked at nonviolent uprisings versus armed uprisings, and they found that nonviolent uprisings were way, way more successful. And the reason is, you get much higher participation, right?
Greg Satell: 12:49 I mean, think how you limit participation with an armed uprising. I mean, you’re limited mostly to men of fighting age. They have to be willing to leave their jobs. You’re very limited in tactics where a nonviolent uprising, anybody, in the Orange Revolution, you saw every everything from teenagers to pensioners. So that’s a core principle that of course you need commitment, but before you can have commitment, you first need participation. So make it easy for people to participate. That does seem like a no brainer, but first of all, you’d be amazed how often movements don’t do that. I mean, if you look at, Occupy is like a poster boy for that. But also Black Lives Matter made some important mistakes in the beginning, seem to be much more effective now. But even in some of the corporate and, well, more corporate movements I wrote about in the book, if you think about the 100000 Lives Campaign, which was this movement to promote quality practices in healthcare.
Greg Satell: 14:15 And this started back in the 1980s, you can imagine telling doctors that you should be looking at procedures as if it was a manufacturing process, right?It definitely ran into some opposition, but when they ran this 100000 Lives Campaign, they made it as easy as possible to sign up. You just needed to send a fax. There were six quality procedures in the campaign. You could do all six or only one. They made it as easy to participate as you possibly could. They set up people to help you. They set up a network of hospitals where the ones that were further along could help the ones that maybe were just starting out. So that very, very simple principle of, make it easy for people to get involved. One of the things that Sir Joppa Povich of Outpour and then Canvas told me, he said when they were mobilizing in Serbia to overthrow Milosevic, he said that they had a principle of recruit, train, act. So they’d recruit people and as soon as they recruited them, they trained them. And as soon as they trained them, they were expected to act.
Greg Satell: 15:34 And the action could be anything. It didn’t have to be anything big. It could be something small. It could be going and putting up signs somewhere or something. But the reason why action no matter how small it is is so important, it’s because it is through action that people take ownership of the movement. That’s when they make it theirs. And I think making it easy for people to act, the sort of ergonomics of action, streamlining that process, that is super, super important.
Jon Mertz: 16:17 Another idea you talk about in the book is identifying a keystone change as the first major challenge of any movement, and until that challenge is met, the efforts could be in vain. How would you describe the importance of that keystone change idea?
Greg Satell: 16:31 The most important thing about the keystone change is that you’re drawing from multiple stakeholder groups, right? So one of the things, we’ve had this thing called change management, which has been around for 40 years and hasn’t produced the best results. And one of the problems with change management is it doesn’t deal explicitly with opposition, which I think that’s one of the reasons I think this Cascades framework works on which is a big advantage because it’s based on social and political movements, the frameworks, it’s based on always assume opposition. But the second thing is they say that you need to create a sense of urgency around change, which usually means some massive campaign to get everybody involved. And that can be good for recruitment, but it also alerts your opposition that they better get started undermining what you’re trying to do, where it might actually happen.
Greg Satell: 17:44 So at the keystone change level, you don’t want to have massive participation. You’re still pretty early, you’re still building links. What you do want to do, because in change management, they have something called a quick and easy win. A quick and easy win doesn’t really mean anything unless you have multiple stakeholders involved. You can think about, if it’s a quick and easy win and the only people involved are in the IT department, well, that’s meaningless to everybody else. So those three things that it’s clear and tangible, it involves multiple stakeholders, and that it paves the way for future change. So you’re going to need some participation, but certainly not mass participation at that stage.
Jon Mertz: 18:40 So what advice might you give to a CEO looking to be a force for good as they get started?
Greg Satell: 18:45 So I think that you shouldn’t get lost in thinking about what you should do or what actions you should take. You should go out and you should look at who you can empower, right? And how you can use your unique assets. I think it’s nice that Dick’s Sporting Goods made those changes, but you think about all the other things that they can do through sponsoring gun safety. Not to jump back to IBM, but they do something called Call for Code, right? So they have this wonderful decades long experience in the open source community. So they created this thing called Call for Code where they pick a course and they give prizes and give technical and managerial support to people in the open source community who can hack together solutions.
Greg Satell: 19:53 So they are not trying to solve all those problems themselves, but they’re saying, “Hey, we’re a company, we have resources, we can empower others.” And I think when you think about how you can empower others, I think that’s A, you’re going to be way, way more effective. B, you’re going to be building the kinds of connections that help create movements.
Jon Mertz: 20:20 And that goes back to the importance of networks and building those relationships and consciousness too. Right?
Greg Satell: 20:26 Absolutely. You’re certainly signaling your values, right? And I just think that IBM example is just so good because they’re signaling their values in a way that’s very, very credible, right? In the technology way. So I think so often corporate social responsibility, even though it is, I don’t think it’s dishonest. I think that they’re truly trying to help, but it’s out of context. It’s not a technology company that gives money to cancer or something like that. A soda company that gives money to homelessness, I’m just making this stuff up, that doesn’t really have a whole lot of relevance and there’s not a whole lot of credibility there.
Greg Satell: 21:24 But then you see things like what Coca Cola is doing with sustainability, right? I mean, that’s an important thing to their business, right? And they have to do that, but they’re also going out and sharing what they’ve learned, how to make their business more sustainable. Unilever is doing some great things in that direction where they’re not only trying to make their own company more sustainable, they’re helping to empower others to do the same. So I think if there’s one sort of key word is empowerment, no matter what your organization is, you have a limited amount of resources. But the the multiplier effect of using your resources to empower others can be an enormous thing, and not just a major corporation.
Greg Satell: 22:29 If you’re just a local business and you have delivery trucks, there are organizations in your community you can help simply by allowing them to use your delivery trucks for a weekend event or something. It’s not a huge thing, but it’ll help somebody and it’ll mean something to somebody.
Jon Mertz: 22:56 So to wrap up, you’ve indicated that your book Cascades was in the works for a while. And not only is it a social movement story, but it’s a personal one as well. How so?
Greg Satell: 23:05 I spent 15 years running businesses in eastern Europe, and the first six of them were in Poland, which until very recently was an enormous success story, I was there from ’97 to 2002-ish. And it was just going from success to success, from NATO ascension to EU ascension. Five, 6% growth every year. So when I went to Ukraine, which had a lot more difficulty and the Orange Revolution came, I was so inspired by it. And then to see it all go wrong, it was just heartbreaking. And then of course when [inaudible 00:23:57] happened, which was, I was already back in the states to be watching CNN and see my old neighborhood. And there’s where I used to meet friends for beer and that’s where I used to grab a coffee. That’s where I used to buy milk for my baby. It was just heartbreaking. And then when you see the climate in the United States where there’re so many people who want to make a positive contribution and they just don’t know how.
Greg Satell: 24:38 So my hope is that Cascades can help people learn from some of the mistakes of me, my friends, some others, and maybe do a little better than we did and make the world a little better place.
Jon Mertz: 25:01 I appreciate you sharing that. Your energy and passion around the subject gets just contagious. Again, the book by Greg Satell is Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. It’s a wonderful book packed with great stories and also a sound and aspirational framework to bring change within your business and your community.
Greg Satell: 25:19 Well, thanks for having me. It’s been a great conversation, John. I really appreciate it.
Jon Mertz: 25:30 Activators, let’s continue the conversation in our Activate World LinkedIn group. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and perspectives.
Be sure to tell your friends and colleagues about the Activate World podcast. Encourage them to subscribe, listen, and share from their favorite podcast platform, Apple, Google, Spotify, iHeartRadio, RadioPublic, and others. Let us know how we’re doing by leaving a review. Your reviews mean a lot to us.
Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.