Among the greatest challenges we face as a human species is how to come together, united by a common purpose, and then work together to achieve that purpose. It is the singular challenge that I struggle with on a daily basis as CEO of Unreasonable Institute.
While it’s a nut I’m far from cracking, I’ve written this post as a reflection on five practices I’ve observed that have had repeated success in galvanizing people to action.
1. Clearly define what the world looks like if you succeed.
One of the reasons Martin Luther King was able to embolden so many people to willingly confront deeply entrenched racism is how clearly he defined the world that could be. He famously declared:
He painted such concrete images that people knew exactly what they were working toward, even when he was no longer around to offer direction to the movement.
Dr. King emboldened so many people to confront deeply entrenched racism by clearly defining the world that could be. Tweet This Quote
2. Talk to one person, then talk to another.
Defining success, however, is not enough. People aren’t going to summon the courage to take action without trust in the people behind the movement.
How to achieve that trust is best explained through a story about famed civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. Three young organizers drove across California out to the farms in which Cesar was working at the time to learn from him. They asked him a simple question: “How do you organize?” He answered, “First you talk to one person, then you talk to another, then you talk to another.” “Yes,” the students responded, “but how do you organize?” He repeated his answer. “First you talk to one person, then you talk to another, then you talk to another.”
People aren’t going to summon the courage to take action without trust in the people behind the movement. Tweet This Quote
In other words, when you’re just starting a movement, all you’ve got is yourself. For your first followers to trust in your movement, they’ll need to trust you. You can’t build that trust without sitting down with people one at a time.
We took this message to heart at the Unreasonable Institute. People often ask us how we built over 180 partnerships or found the mentors we did. The answer is simple: for our first 15 months in operation, we focused on only one thing: hundreds of one-on-one conversations each month with anyone who would talk with us (using principles my teammate and friend Daniel Epstein outlines in this blog post). Furthermore, we asked each of the people we sat down with to introduce us to five more people. Bottom line: Be prepared for one-on-one conversations becoming your full-time job for a while.
3. Welcome your first followers as equals.
After articulating where you’re going and sharing that message in one-on-one conversations, you’ll begin to see a few souls brave enough to join you. How you engage these first followers is imperative to your movement growing. The talk below by Derek Sivers called “How to start a movement” explains exactly how.
Derek explains that “a leader has to have the guts to stand out and look ridiculous” to start something. Indeed, the leader does look ridiculous until someone else shows up. “The first follower turns a lone nut into a leader.”
For a movement to take off, it has to be clear that the leader embraces followers as equals. Tweet This Quote
Derek’s take home message is that “leadership is over-glorified.” For a movement to take off, it has to be clear that the leader embraces followers as equals. That means the movement’s visibility must include the followers and not just feature the leader. What this communicates is that the movement does not simply belong to the leader—it belongs to all who join the movement.
4. Target the hubs, giving them tools to spread your message.
In preparation for the Unreasonable Institute pilot that Daniel ran in the summer of the 2008, he cold-emailed over 3,000 potential applicants. Only one got back to him.
We didn’t have a track record back then, and hence, no trust from people who were hearing our message. That’s why it’s imperative to start your mobilization by thinking about who the people you are trying to reach already trust. They may be people or organizations, but your target population trusts them. If you can get them to help you spread your message, you’ll get a much warmer reception than we got.
Start your mobilization by thinking about who the people you are trying to reach already trust. Tweet This Quote
For Unreasonable Institute, these hubs are our pipeline partners, who represent networks of hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs across the world. They’re organizations like Echoing Green, TED Fellows, Ashoka Changemakers, university business plan competitions and business schools. We ask them to let the entrepreneurs in their networks know about the chance to apply to the Unreasonable Institute and in exchange do the same for their programs.
In an effort to make it as easy on them as possible, we send them a set of Marketing Materials they can copy and paste into emails, tweets, Facebook posts, and blog posts. It’s all thanks to these partners sharing these marketing materials that we’ve received over 1,000 applicants from entrepreneurs in over 80 countries around the world in the past 3 years.
5. Elevate people by doing something unbelievable.
In his first effort to mobilize India to challenge the British in 1930, Mahatma Gandhi led the legendary Salt March. At the time, a British law made it a criminal offense for anyone but the British to manufacture salt in India, allowing them to impose egregious taxes on it. In protest of the law, Gandhi walked for 23 days from his ashram in Ahmedabad to the coast 240 miles away. There, he picked up a lump of muddy water and declared, “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” He boiled the water to produce illegal salt, causing the British to arrest him and the 80,000 marchers who had joined him for a short time.
The conviction required for impossible acts inspires people to believe in themselves. Tweet This Quote
The act sparked mass acts of civil disobedience by millions across India, was documented in press world-wide—including two front-page stories in the New York Times—and earned Gandhi the distinction of Time’s Person of the Year.
The main goal of such, dare I say, unreasonable actions, is not to be written up in the media. That visibility is necessary, but even more important is that the conviction required for such an “impossible” act inspires people to believe in themselves. It makes people think they are capable of more than they believed before. That conviction provides them the courage to become a part of something larger than themselves, even when it’s difficult.
A version of this post originally published on UNREASONABLE.is in 2013. It has been updated and reposted to inspire further conversation.