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.