4 Lessons in business transformation from a former religious extremist

Learning can come from unexpected places - Notes from a terror propaganda man:

Maajid Nawaz was born in Essex in the UK.  He gave a TED talk at TED Global in July 2011.  In his talk, he revealed that from the age of 19, for thirteen years, he was a member of an Islamist extremist organisation, and his focus, from the UK to Pakistan, to Denmark and to Egypt, was on spreading the messages of their social movement in order to unite similar extremists across borders, to make it easier to take collective action.

After spending time being tortured in an Egyptian prison, he had an ideological change of heart.  He also has a message to spread:  
"The people - he says - taking best advantage of the state of the art in knowledge and tools to effectively spread big messages are the extremists... and this isn't right."  
His talk is aimed at giving some insight to people he would like to see spreading pro-Democracy messages.  I think there are lessons that can be extracted for busines people too.

The four ages of identity - our messaging needs
His brief history of time includes a description of four ages of identity, and what it was  in each of those ages that scholars believe gave us our sense of belonging:
  1. The age of religion:  In medieval times, identity came from affiliation to a religion
  2. The age of the Nation State: where ethnicity was the principal focus
  3. The age of Globalisation: where in citizenship in a nation superceded ethnicity, and
  4. The recently established age of Behaviour: in which people have allegiance to ideas and narratives that transcend borders.
It is in this age of behaviour - where communication is borderless and where allegiance is to ideals, that social technologies  can allow what would otherwise be isolated pockets of parochialism feel connected to each other and start taking action.  This works if they harness the key ingredients of a social movement.

The key ingredients - The anatomy of a social movement in 4 parts:
In his role as a trans-national propagandist, Maajid was conscious that the strongest social movements had four key ingredients:
  1. Ideas
  2. Narratives
  3. Symbols
  4. A Leader
You can see his description in the TED talk here.  His discussion of the four ingredients starts at 8:05.

To bind people together, these four ingredients must spring instantly to mind.  

He uses Al-Qaeda as an example and describes it thus:  
The ideas - the cause - of Al-Qaeda are something you can think of straight away.  The Narratives, the background stories or propaganda Al Qaeda uses to back that up (The "West" is at war with Islam etc...) also spring instantly to mind.  The symbols are easily conjured up (Journalists being executed by hooded men, the twin towers falling etc...), and the leaders of the movement are easily identifiable. 

Applying this thinking to business.
If you have anything to do with sponsoring transformation in your business, how often do you hear about problems relating to organisational "silos"?  I hear it all the time.   The political, ideological and structural 'identity borders' an extremist faces on the world stage show up in a company as its functional silos, its geography, its org design lines and its other organisational constructs.   


The kinds of challenges most businesses are dealing with often require those silos to dissolve - to become irrelevant.  For instance, I'm currently working with a very large national infrastructure provider, and one of their chief strategic goals - on the radar of the CEO - is to become more collaborative.  That is a tall order.  To move a big comapny from a state of being 'not collaborative' to something that people would be happy to describe as collaborative involves big changes to all kinds of things:  Culture and behaviours, the physical environment and processes, and of course the introduction of new technology.  It's a big challenge and it means that the company has to be viewed and treated as a complex adaptive system - while at the same time acknowledging that it is a collection of disparate 'nation states'.  The silos are a fact.

As architects of the transformation, we're being conscious to pay attention to the four key ingredients of social movements in order to help penetrate the silos.

Ideas - This strategy of collaboration is being well defined.  We're using specific strategic planning techniques (including RIOS planning - brainchild of my friend Chris Tipler and subject of a future post) to ensure that those things the company has to be good at are clearly defined, without being restrictive.  Complex adaptive systems have to be able to take advantage of emergence - and trying to lock the ideas into too rigid a construct can backfire.  (Imagine trying to throw a birthday party for 24 nine-year-olds using a Gantt chart and milestones...)

Narratives - Narrative is one of the most powerful tools for establishing boundaries, getting complex messages across, making expected behaviour clear and for answering the question WHY.  The strategic story behind a transformation has to be made explicit.  I first really got bit by the bug of applying narrative techniques in business when I met Shawn Callahan of Anecdote in London.  Gartner has published an article (Use Storytelling to Solve Wicked Problems), quoting a lot of Shawn's research. 

In his last keynote as CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs uses narrative to explain why Apple was doing all the things it was doing in launching iCloud.  It's masterful, and worth the watch.  There's a brilliant analysis of it as a Strategic Story at Anecdote here, but in a nutshell, 

Steve starts by describing the 'Once upon a time' history. He then goes on to share the Turning point (what changed), describe What we want to be, and therefore What we have to do.  Then, he spends the rest of the time interacting with other Apple execs doing live demos to show What the new world will look like
"Ten years ago we had one of our most important insights at Apple..."
In less than two minutes, that core narrative structure did a great deal of the heavy lifting answering the question "Why" about all the work that must've been going on at Apple.  Why people were working overtime building more server farms.  Why, while the champagne had probably just stopped flowing over wrangling out the legal issues to get the Beatles on iTunes, all the contracts were probably having to be re-written because of the new conventions iCloud indroduced around rights and syncing.  Maajid Nawaz, our former extremist knew the power of narrative in doing his job - so does Apple.

Symbols - Symbols - especially concrete object symbols give us a tangible, visual reminder of the cause.  Here's a symbol I saw a week ago at a major bank: 

When I took the picture, I didn't even know the whole story yet, but good symbols say so much on thier own:  

It's pretty clear that in a movement to simplify processes, one of the bank's internal paperwork forms was universally hated.  Once they had managed to streamline their processes and retire that form, they mocked it up in cement, smashed it to smithereens with a big hammer and then, like heads on a row of pikes on the road into a medieval village, they left the rubble in a wheelbarrow in a prominent communal place as a symbol of the movement.  (And a warning to any other overly bureaucratic and un-necessary bits of paperwork?) 

Non-visual symbols
Of course, not all symbols have to be visual.  This is another role for stories.  Good executives can tell stories.  Better execs can tell a story and recognise a story when they hear one (so it can be harnessed..)  The best executives can tell a story, recognise a story and know how to trigger a story.

Two companies known for their outstanding customer serivce, US retailer Nordstrom and global hotelier Ritz Carlton use stories of amazing, surprising, inspiring acts of customer service as the main focus of their induction and training material.  Blow the profitability of a sale at Nordstrom by going over the top with story-worthy customer service do you don't get sacked?  No - you get turned into a rock star.  Both that fact, and every story associated with it are great symbols in aid of their movement.

The fourth ingredient for a social movement is a leader.

Leader - Does the leader of the movement spring to mind?  Who is steadfastedly sticking to their guns in the face of difficulty?  On whom can you depend as a beacon when the waters get muddied, when the decisions get tough or when you just don't know what to do next? 

How emboldened, empowered, and galvanised for action do you think employees would feel under these circumstances:  They got the email describing behaviours they were expected to start showing because of the new program, they'd been subjected to the PowerPoint presenation, seen the roadshow and have the little reminder card that has been deposited on every desk.  But then, when their boss, or their boss's boss stood up at some event, or had a one-on-one with them, or was somehow involved, they got nothing.  Or worse, they saw something inconsistent or off-message with the transformation?

Steve Jobs is an obvious visible leader for his cause.  So was Osama bin Laden.  If the leader of the movement springs instantly to mind, it's easier to unite those critical pockets who are already living the new values.  Who is the face of your transformation effort?

Learning can come from unexpected places.

Clarity Rule:  Know the anatomy of a social movement, and cover all four bases.  Know your ideas, have a core narrative, propagate symbols and have a leader.

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