The corporate sandcastles we've built are crumbling fast as the waves wash them away. Some have called our existing system a "Ponzi Scheme". Throwing billions of dollars to rebuild them may not be the answer. Maybe its time for some creative destruction? But what will replace the sandcastles? The answer may be right under our feet. How can we create new competencies for building effective grassroots organizations that can solve many of the emerging problems?
For the impatient reader, I have put together a brief list of some of the competencies that seem to be necessary for the grassroots organizations of tomorrow. Afterwards, I outline some of the root causes and possible solutions in more detail.
New competencies for new organizations
So we need to build new competencies. I don't profess to know all of what these competencies are, but I'm getting busy studying the grassroots organizations that have worked to see what we can replicate. Here are my early learnings from this journey...
1) Effective Grassroots organizations must be grounded in people gathering around a specific, common interest. The more specific, the better. Its all about getting traction. A tight definition helps.
2) You need a BHAG (Big-Hairy-Audacious-Goal). As Jim Collins tells us in Good to Great, big goals set our souls on fire.
3) People need to be passionate in the topic. Passion drives personal investment and volunteerism. These organizations thrive on self-fulfilling human energy (which is a renewable resource!)
4) Specific governance practices are key. I'm sure there are many ways to do it. My favorite is Holacracy.
5) Specific processes help. Some may find prescribed processes to be too rigid, but the most effective grass-roots organizations I've seen have specific protocols, that are kept simple and understandable.
6) Provide multiple communication channels... and allow easy participation. Whether it's by email, a forum, a blogging platform or Twitter, you need to enable full contribution from the members.
What have you found to be effective in building grassroots organizations that can make real change?
The Great Disruption
The New York Times columnist and "World is Flat" author Thomas Friedman posted a recent column called "The Inflection is Near". He highlighted the convergence of our economic crisis and environmental crisis and suggested that we may have hit a wall. Joe Romm of climateprogress.org calls our current system for creating wealth 'a Ponzi scheme".
Our institutions were created to convert exploited resources into wealth. For hundreds of years, most of our marketplaces, exchanges, financial institutions, corporations and governments have been built on the backs of slavery, deforestation, burning fossil fuels and vast ghettos of human poverty. If you need to see how we got here in more detail, check out the apocalyptic Internet movie Zeitgeist Addendum.
The Sandcastles are crumbling...
My good friend Valeria Maltoni of Conversation Agent and I were talking about this. We observed that the institutions (banks, corporations, etc.) we've built over the past 50 years or so are like so many sandcastles laid out along a coastline. And the waves are coming in higher and higher and washing them away. And our government... actually most governments, are throwing money into rebuilding the sandcastles!
Grassroots to the rescue?
Could the answer be growing right under our feet? I believe that Grassroots organizations are emerging to supplant the role of these depleted institutions with vibrant clusters of activity. Passionate individuals are self-organizing into collectives which plugin into the economic grid.
There is no greater example of a successful grassroots effort than the work of President Obama's Presidential campaign. The folks at Blue State Digital, the team that built the popular My.BarackObama.com platform, report that the Obama campaign mobilized over 3 million individual donors to contribute over $500 million online, sent 2 billion email messages, motivated over 2 million social networking participants who wrote 400,000 blog posts and created and promoted more than 200,000 offline events across the country. If this isn't a testament to the potential of grassroots organizations, then I don't know what is! (BTW - I have the honor of introducing Blue State Digital CTO Jascha Franklin-Hodge in this week's Emerging Technology Enterprise conference. Come if you can!)
To further illustrate the point, I was recently at an advisory board meeting for The Founders Factory, a grassroots-based event put together to support the Philadelphia Entrepreneurial Ecosystem. This eco-system, it turns out, was recently re-invigorated by another grassroots organization called PSL (Philly Startup Leaders). During the meeting, the board members rattled off several new organic organizations supporting the Philly entrepreneurial and creative community without batting an eye. (Philly Startup Leaders, Founders Factory, PANMA, Mobile Mondays, IgnitePhilly, ...)
Across business-people, spiritual seekers, hobbyists/enthusiasts and any other group that has a center of gravity around a common passion, new groups are springing up. How many new, organic groups are you involved with?
Can the government help?
One last thought. You may wonder if the government is going to be able to get with the program. I was pointed to an article co-authored by incoming SBA (Small Business Association) Administrator Karen Mills. Ms. Mills recognizes that 70% of business is generated by small businesses. In a paper authored in 2008 on Industry Clusters, Ms. Mills and colleagues advocate fostering a system of regionally grown clusters that share in a common industry focus. Sounds like a great opportunity for some grassroots development to help rebuild our failing economy.
Where do you stand on this? Will it be business as usual as we rebuild or are we ready for some Creative Destruction... with new, grassroots organizations that grow to dynamically meet the needs of tomorrow?