Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement appear to have achieved the elusive goal of successfully driving global-scale change with lasting impact. With 70% of organizational transformational efforts doomed to fail – what lessons can we draw from the juggernaut of climate activism?

The world has come to know Greta Thunberg as a fearless and passionate activist for climate change. In 18 short months, a 16 year old’s lone protest outside the Swedish parliament has evolved into a powerful global movement. She has challenged some of the world’s most powerful leaders to act, and inspired millions to make lasting behavioral changes. Global Week for Future (September 2019), saw Thunberg lead an estimated 4 million people worldwide in the largest climate strike in history. December 2019, saw Time magazine award her the accolade of 2019 person of the year.

The impact is far-reaching – Forbes has recently reported on steadily declining airline passenger numbers within Europe. Google trends reports a 3.5X increase in veganism worldwide over the past 5 years, not to mention mounting pressure on the fast fashion industry to address its environmental impact.

How did this movement achieve this scale of global impact in such a short time-frame? Beyond the media hype, we can draw 5 key lessons from this seismic movement on how to drive large-scale corporate change, and make it stick.

1)    Start with Why – Both Thunberg and XR are absolute on their WHY. Simon Sinek popularized the term ‘Start with Why’ positing that our limbic brain has an in-built yearning for meaning and purpose. This meaning gives us hope for the future and motivates us to take action. In his book ‘Actionable Gaming’, behavioural design expert Yu-kai Chou describes Epic Meaning as ‘the drive where people are motivated because they believe they are engaged in something that is bigger than themselves’.

At the COP24 summit in December 2018, Thunberg told UN secretary general António Guterres “This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced … First we have to realize this and then as fast as possible do something to stop the emissions and try to save what we can save.” The XR movement are equally unequivocal and clear on their why in a manifesto posted to their website. To mobilize global teams to invite change into their lives, we must start with a compelling why – being crystal clear on the driver for change. Headlines like ‘reducing costs’, ‘drive revenue, or ‘release capacity’ can appear lackluster when saving the planet is the competition! Time spent crafting the story behind the need for change – why it is needed and what the impact will be, will set you up for success from the outset.

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche

2)    An Agile Organizational Structure – XR has consciously built their global movement using a decentralized entity structure known as a holocracy. The holocracy model is rooted in a more democratic form of organizational governance – preferring a flat organization structure compared to traditional pyramid hierarchies.  Distributed decision-making empowers every member to act, as long as they abide by XR’s 10 core principles and values. These core principles exalt an inclusive world, ‘where creativity is prioritized, and where our diversity of gifts are recognized, celebrated and flourish’.

Traditional corporate structures, team silos, and federated model hierarchies, often hinder transformation efforts with bureaucracy. Self-organizing teams and communities of practice are gaining momentum and having real impact where divergent thinking, improved collaboration, and knowledge-sharing is needed. As you embark on your change journey, think about how teams collaborate in your current structure, and flex the model just enough to inject the right dose of empowerment and discourse.

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

– Stephen Hawking

3)    Resilience – Greta is a passionate believer in her cause, willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to drive her cause forward. Even if that means spending 13 days trekking across the Atlantic Ocean by boat (an experience she has likened to ‘camping on a rollercoaster’). While ‘walking the walk’, she faces a barrage of personal attacks by public figures and bodies, some describing her as an apocalypse guru, a ‘prophetess in shorts’ and the ‘Justin Bieber of ecology’. In the main, she has remained restrained in her response – with one noted exception below.

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Changemakers, transformers and innovators represent disruption to the status quo and threaten long-held beliefs and norms. It is not unusual for change agents to be vilified or labelled troublesome. Being bold enough to take on a position in change leadership will require stoic resilience – there will be naysayers! You will encounter criticism, undermining saboteurs, and obstacles will be put in your way – much of it emanating from fear of change. Resilience comes from following through with your purpose, being excessively clear with yourself and your team about your purpose, and maintaining a healthy relationship with social approval.

4)    Rooted in Data – At a meeting with the US House of Representatives, rather than prepare a speech, Thunberg submitted a 2018 UN climate study – “I don’t want you to listen to me,” she said. “I want you to listen to the scientists.” At a meeting of British MPs in Westminster she challenged the UK’s carbon emissions – describing them as the result of ‘very creative’ accounting. She went on to declare to MPs “You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in the answers that will allow you to carry on as if nothing has happened”. These activists have consistently relied on fact – drawing on scientific proof to cut through hyperbole and deflection. Using data as a reference point strengthens commitment to the goal and allows for measurable impact to be continuously reported.

As we think about corporate transformation – are we clear about the size and scope of the challenge we are about to address? How will we measure impact? Adding a research and storytelling arm to your change efforts will certainly increase the likelihood of crossing the chasm and creating lasting impact. Set a reference base point, add a lofty goal – then chart your progress and share your story!

5)    Coalition Skills – the achievements of the Climate Change movement have not been achieved by any one person or group operating in a vacuum. A google search for climate change activist organizations reveals dozens of globally dispersed teams all working towards a common goal. What is unique to this movement is that these teams are united by a common purpose and have strategic alliances at the core of their operating model.

One of the most common pitfalls in corporate transformation efforts is a failure to identify your spectrum of allies – the key partners and individuals who will act to further your cause and represent your ‘why’ when you are not in the room. How strong is your partnership focus when devising transformation project plans? Do you actively seek alliances that can propel your why and accelerate your impact? As leaders we need to be skilled at building efficient networks that support our purpose – creating viral change is team sport!

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”

– Helen Keller

Launching a transformation of any kind starts with a clear and compelling change narrative. Maintaining momentum requires consistent storytelling, connecting teams to purpose over and again. McKinsey reports that company-wide change efforts are 12.4 times more likely to be successful when senior managers communicate continually.

Leverage collaboration tools to involve people and teams along the journey – when people are truly invested in change it is 30% more likely to stick. Create alliances that propel and support your initiative – fostering social cohesion early on will prevent your program from derailing and ensure it can last through any dissonance. Believe in your cause and use this as your reference point when the waters get choppy. And finally, expect turbulence along the journey – after all, birds peck at the best fruit!


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