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.

Why “we’re regulated” is no longer a good excuse

“We’re not sure we can, so we’d better not.”

That’s what you’re likely to hear if you try to pursue a social media project in a pharmaceutical or financial services firm.

It’s because some industries have very specific regulations when it comes to moderating, supervising, and retaining electronic communications. And, when the rules were new, a “wait and see” approach might have made sense.

Now, though, more businesses want to use social media. There are more tools and practices to help address the regulations. And more firms are already using social media in compliant ways.

So, waiting on the sidelines while other firms capitalize on one of the biggest trends in a decade is no longer good policy. It’s irresponsible.

If your firm is still saying “no”, here are things you can and should do to get to “yes.”

Know the rules

Part of the issue is that too many people simply don’t know the regulations. Whether you’re in a business line or in IT, it pays to educate yourself. The material isn’t long or terribly complicated. In just a few hours, you can learn enough to eliminate most of the ambiguity. The policies you’ll need. The kinds of content you’ll have to pre-approve. The data you’ll have to archive.

And being able to quote “FINRA 10-06” will let the governing functions know you’ve done your homework.

Know the tools and practices

Since those rules first came out in early 2010, services have sprung up to meet the new requirements of regulated firms. Examples include new companies like Socialware, who “enable leading Financial Services companies to profitably build valued relationships.” (They recently enabled Morgan Stanley’s brokers to use LinkedIn to generate leads.).

Or Actiance, “enablers of safe and compliant use of unified communications.” They’re a more mature company (they were formerly known as “Facetime” until they sold the name to Apple). And they’ve been helping firms for years to handle compliance rules for instant messaging and other media.

While software services like these don’t address all the issues, they make it easier than ever for regulated firms to use social media in compliant ways.

Know the benchmarks

Perhaps the most powerful way to ease the minds of compliance and legal is to tell them “other banks have already done it.”

The governing functions might hate the idea of using Twitter, for example, to deal with customer complaints. But they’ll be mollified when they see how Citibank, BofA, Wells Fargo and others are already doing it.

Being able to point to a precedent gives them confidence that a compliant solution is possible. And they can always speak to vendors or to their counterparts at other banks to understand the details.

Strength in numbers: Connect the businesses + Prepare the case

With all this knowledge, you’ll still need to answer the questions: “What problem are you trying to solve?” and “What’s it worth?”

Too often, social media efforts shy away from these questions. They bemoan the difficulty of measuring ROI. (“What’s the value of a phone call?” they’ll ask.)

That’s a mistake. Like most legal and compliance issues, it’s all about managing risk. You have to offset the downside of introducing new electronic communications with measurable benefits (or with the political capital of your sponsor).

You further increase your chances by connecting different business lines that want to pursue similar initiatives. Say your case to use LinkedIn for recruiting isn’t compelling enough. Then look within your firm to see who else could benefit and bring that aggregate case to the governing functions. They’ll be more disposed to say “yes” if they see private wealth management and retail brokerage are also sponsors. (A prior post introduced the idea of an internal social media council that allows your firm to easily make just these kinds of connections.)

Simply put, your best tactic in getting approval is a strong business case and one or more strong sponsors.

Take a step

At a recent regulatory conference, Morgan Stanley’s executive director of legal and compliance quoted 2 key reasons why he cares about social media:

  1. 50% of investors with $1 million or more in assets are active on social media;
  2. Social media accounts for 1/3 of the time users spend online in the United States

So even the legal and compliance people understand the need to act.

If they’ve said “no” to social media in the past, it’s because they’re typically presented with projects that include real risks and costs but few specifics about the upside.

Change that. Do  the necessary research, prepare the business case, and take a step.

Banking + social media: 4 business examples

Banks are conflicted.

Almost all of them block employee access to LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Yet the individual businesses within the banks all want to use those channels.

Beyond just advertising, those banking businesses recognize that they can engage people in new, more commercially effective ways.

Here are 4 examples.


This is the most obvious example. If you want to inform people, it makes sense to use the same channels they use. To go where they go. Online, for graduates, that tends to be Facebook. And for professionals, it’s LinkedIn.

Of the banks, Deutsche Bank has some of the best material on Facebook and LinkedIn. (I particularly liked their tongue-in-cheek video : “The unofficial guide to investment banking.”)

These channels complement their company portal which has additional material and links to application processes. Being social, they make it easier for candidates to share that content with their networks (broadening the company’s reach) and to ask questions (increasing engagement).

Supporting retail customers

Another common example is providing customer service, particularly via Twitter. Bank of America, Citibank, and Wells Fargo all do this well.

It’s hard to measure how effective this is. But it’s easy to see that doing nothing while customers trash your brand in public is a bad thing. Here’s a typical exchange on Twitter that turns a negative experience into a positive one – one that’s shared with the customer’s entire network.

@KUSH_MULLA: “#ShoutOut To Bank of America for letting my ATM card expire without sending me a new one in advance still waiting”

@BofA_Help: “I work for Bank of America. Did you call to check the status of your card? Anything I can do to help?”

@KUSH_MULLA: “They need to give you a raise. This is what I call outstanding customer service”

@KUSH_MULLA: “@BofA_Help yeah, I called they said my card should be here within 7 to 10 business day thanks a lot”

Generating leads for brokers

This is where it gets tricky. Having HR and customer service use social media is relatively benign. But when it comes to talking about financial products, there are significant restrictions on who can say what. Anything that seems like an advertisement or recommendation has to be approved by compliance beforehand.

The legal risk is real, and so most firms have shied away from it altogether.

So, Morgan Stanley created a bit of a stir when they announced their brokers would start using LinkedIn (and soon Facebook). In their own words:

“Many of our clients have been demanding social media,” said Andy Saperstein, head of wealth management for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. “Many of our advisers have been demanding it….”

“The crux of social networking is building relationships,” said Lauren Boyman, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney’s director of social media. “That’s what financial advisors do, build relationships, build trust with their clients. This is a tool for them to do that in a more effective way.”

Ms Boyman added that both young and seasoned advisors had long been asking for permission to use these tools to market themselves and get referrals: “I talked to one financial advisor who said, ‘I’m 52 years old now and I know that if I ignore this, five years from now, I’m really going to be a dinosaur.’”

Morgan Stanley is taking it slow. They’ll open up LinkedIn to only 600 of their 17,000+ brokers. Then they’ll see how it goes over a few months before proceeding. But it’s a positive step that other firms are sure to emulate.

Recommending funds

Even if banks have difficulty recommending specific products, it’s easy for customers do so. As for many retail products, consumers face a dizzying array of choices when it comes to asset management funds. And so referrals from friends are a particularly powerful way to cut through the noise:

“Nearly 70 percent of consumers said a positive referral from a “friend” on Facebook would positively influence their purchase decision. In addition to a tool that retailers can use to promote their brand, products and services, Facebook can also serve as a peer-to-peer comparison shopping tool where consumers can seek advice from their friends and family members.”

This is why social platforms are so relevant to commerce. Increasingly, they are a channel for recommendations that lead to purchases. Whether you’re a shoe company or a bank, you’ll have to use those channels to remain competitive.

“Willful ignorance” is not an option

With all these examples, blocking access or preventing businesses from engaging on-line is no longer a viable strategy. Even the regulators don’t recommend it.

Why? Because their own studies show that individuals at firms are already circumventing official policies to use the public social media channels. And the regulators want actual enforcement that works.

Pretending it’s not happening is not enough. So it’s time to work through the difficulties and the rules. To find ways to use the public channels in compliant ways.

It’s better policy. And it’s better business.

Driving enterprise change in a scalable way (Part 2 of 2)

Stories of social change are inspiring. Helping kids with cancer. Giving people clean drinking water.

But what if you need to drive change in your firm?

Say, for example, you need to cut helpdesk costs by 50%. You could do what everyone else does. Shift the work to a cheaper location. Decrease service levels.

Or you could apply the framework and structure from last week’s post and fundamentally change the work.


The framework in “The Dragonfly Effect” has 4 elements and the first, “Focus”, is the easiest: “Identify a single concrete and measurable goal.”

In the helpdesk example, the clear goal is to cut calls and email queries in half while without decreasing customer satisfaction.

Grab attention

The second element is making someone notice: “Make someone look. Cut through the noise…with something unexpected, visceral, and visual.”

Avoid the trap of merely presenting numbers about your helpdesk’s problems:

“100,000 calls a month!”

“$4 million a year!”

Those may be big numbers. But people are already awash in numbers, so it’ll be hard to make anyone notice yours.

Instead, apply principles from “Presentation Zen” (the single best book on presenting material in a visually engaging way) and recast the problem in ways that people can relate to:

 “Every 15 seconds, someone at our firm can’t get the information they need.”

Or make them stop and think of the benefits in a new way:

“The money we’d save by cutting service calls in half could provide clean drinking water for 100,000 people. For 20 years.”


Now you have to make people care: “Create a personal connection, accessing higher emotions through deep empathy, authenticity, and telling a story. Engaging is about empowering an audience enough to want to do something themselves.”

The best advice comes from William Zinsser. In his brilliant book, “On Writing Well,” he relates the secret to animating even the most mundane topic:

“You’ll find the solution in the human element. Somewhere in every drab institution are men and women who have a fierce attachment to what they are doing and are rich repositories of lore…Find these people to tell your story and it won’t be drab.”

In the help desk example, who are the people calling in with questions? How frustrated are they? And the people fielding all the calls every day? What’s that work like?

Talk to them. Share their stories in their own words.

For great examples, look at More than informing you about the 1 billion people without clean water, they tell you stories. They show you the village gathered around the well for the first time. They let you see and hear the emotions of real people.

You need to do the same for your helpdesk problem. Making people care means making it personal.

Take action

Once you’ve caught people’s attention and you’ve built a tribe of people who care, now you have to organize them to drive change: “Enable and empower others to take action…to move audience members from being customers to becoming team members.”

The social efforts described last week – from Alex’s Lemonade Stand to wikipedia – all do 3 things:

  1. They make it easy to contribute.
  2. They make it possible to contribute in different ways.
  3. They recognize and connect contributors.

The helpdesk needs to do the same. (There are many successful internet businesses, like Macforums, that have a tribe of advocates doing most of the work. And Apple has far fewer phone calls as a result.)

The core team might bootstrap the knowledge base and provide the on-line forums, but the tribe is the key to scaling the effort:

  • contributing more questions
  • providing feedback on answer quality
  • contributing answers of their own
  • referring other users to answers that have already been provided.

The individual tribe members get value by shaping their on-line reputation with every contribution. Some of them may contribute enough to earn special responsibilities such as forum moderators or status-enhancing titles such as “Expert”.

Then the core team has to use the engagement techniques above to share stories of the contributors, further bolstering their reputation while motivating yet more people to participate.

Be different

Still uncertain? Then, next time you’re faced with driving change at work, think about Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke.”

There’s a scene when the chain gang is assigned to pave a road. It’s hard, hard work. Everyone grabs a shovel and starts to slowly go through the motions. But Luke takes a different approach. He works quickly. Then someone else joins him. And soon everyone is running, joking, while the bosses stare in disbelief. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

They reach the end of the road, drenched with sweat and covered in dirt, but with the sun still high. They let out whoops of joy as they realize they have 2 hours of “sweet nothing” to do.

Just because it’s work, it doesn’t mean you need to do what everyone else does. At your firm, even for mundane problems, you can tap into the passion and productivity we see in social movements.

You can choose to be different. To make a difference. To drive change at work.

Driving enterprise change in a scalable way (Part 1 of 2)

The key lessons for driving change across your company can be found in a beautiful story about a brave little girl, Alex Scott.

Before her 1st birthday, Alex was diagnosed with cancer. At 4 years old, she wanted to raise money for her doctors, so they could “help other kids, like they helped me.”

Alex opened up a lemonade stand and raised $2,000. Then she did it again. Then friends and family opened up lemonade stands and word spread. By the time Alex was 8 years old and terminally ill, those stands raised $1 million. The movement kept going and Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation has now raised over $40 million.

A 4-year-old girl and her family started with an idea and very few resources. And they built and mobilized a network of 1000s of people to make a tremendous impact for a good cause.

Is it possible to drive that kind of change at work?

A framework for social change

I came across Alex’s story in “The Dragonfly Effect,” (and I’ve since met families who’ve opened up their own stand). This excellent book contains example after example of people using social media to drive social change.

And from those stories it distilled a common framework that’s extremely useful – the 4 main elements they all used to drive change:

Focus: Identify a single concrete and measurable goal.

Grab attention: Make someone look. Cut through the noise…with something unexpected, visceral, and visual.

Engage: Create a personal connection, accessing higher emotions through deep empathy, authenticity, and telling a story. Engaging is about empowering an audience enough to want to do something themselves.

Take action: Enable and empower others to take action…move audience members from being customers to becoming team members.”

In essence, pick a clear goal; make people care about it; and make it easy for them to make a difference.

The key difference in applying the “Dragonfly Effect” at work

The first part is easy. Most companies have no shortage of goals. Increase this. Decrease that. Most goals for your group, division, or enterprise are likely “concrete and measurable.”

The problem is making people care. Typically, it’s just too hard for individual employees to understand their personal connection to corporate goals.

And that’s the key. That’s where companies can learn a lot from charities like Alex’s that use modern media to tell stories. Those stories – of patients, of stand volunteers, of work funded by the foundation – all “access higher emotions.” They make 1000s of people care enough to do something.

At work, you have to go beyond the usual antiseptic reporting of project activities and progress. You need to tell stories. Rich, visual, engaging, personal stories of the people affected by the problem. The people contributing. The people benefitting from the results.

Then you have to do something.

A universal structure for getting things done

Now here’s some good news. All the efforts that drive change in a scalable way tend to use a similar structure. They all have 3 elements:

  1. a very small core team
  2. a large tribe that cares
  3. specific roles within the tribe that let people contribute in different ways, all of which are clear and easy to understand

Alex’s foundation started with her and her family at the core. As they built their tribe, they developed a structure, including ways for more experienced contributors (“Stand ambassadors”) to help others. They broadened the ways to contribute, enabling their tribe to grow yet larger. And they’ve focused on making it ever easier to start a stand. They’ll even provide you with the materials and a fundraising coach.

And this structure isn’t just for driving social change.

Ubuntu is a leading version of Linux with more than 12 million downloads. But even open source has a structure. There’s a small core team of full-time, paid staff. And their tribe includes 100s of developers but 1000s who contribute in other ways. Look at the Ubuntu community site and you’ll see 5 different ways to contribute – from writing code to support to graphic design – with clear rules for organizing and governing.

The oft-cited Wikipedia is another good example. They, too, have a small full-time staff. And while anyone can make edits, select members of the tribe have key roles of administrators, bureaucrats, and stewards, each with clear guidelines on what to do and how to do it. The seemingly free-for-all encyclopedia has a structure so things get done.

Part 2: Putting it all together at your firm

Imagine tapping into such passion and productivity at work.

Currently, change efforts at most firms usually stop at the core team. The clear goals get cascaded down the org chart until the link between the original goal and individual efforts is too weak to motivate people.

But this framework and this structure provides an alternative approach, involving things we don’t often do at work. Telling stories. Making things personal and emotional. Building tribes of people who care (and who span the org chart). Continually making it easier for people to contribute in different ways.

These things unleash tremendous productivity. They allow people at all levels in all locations to contribute to something they care about. And that’s what can make corporate change efforts scalable

Next week’s post will apply this approach to a mundane (but valuable) business goal.

And we’ll see just how different it can be.