Helping people talk to each other – about social movements, reimagining a world that is a better place

[this is adapted from the original blog that was written for a Melting Pot Lunch at*]

 “join something, start something and sharpen each other, so that we all can rise.”

Opal Tometi (2016)

Today, one photo, a single email or a simple hashtag can launch a worldwide movement.

Just three words can be all it takes….





Alicia Garza posted a Facebook post that ended in ‘black lives matter’, Patrisse Cullors created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and Opal Tometi took the phrase Black Lives Matter and helped turn a hashtag into a transnational networked movement. Three women, who wanted to address the issue of racism, who reimagined a world that is a better place and created a movement that challenges systemic racism in every context.

This was their call to action.

When asked what it takes to do this they describe:

  • mobilising a network of people demanding change
  • inspiring everybody to fight for everybody
  • helping people flourish
  • helping them share and shine

When they talk about leadership they believe that leaders are not super heroes but real people who need to trust their teams, recognise that different people contribute different strengths and thank them for what they do.

They say that leaders also need to be supported because ‘being a leader is hard when you have to make difficult choices’.  But they talk of the fear people have of being a leader and call for people to be ‘less brutal’ and ‘you can have disagreements without being disagreeable’.

I have been involved in change as an integral part of my work for decades now. Yet it is often both challenging and frustrating.  It would be easy to get worn down by the effort and energy it takes to make change happen and the people who really don’t like what you are asking them to consider.

One key tactic that Alicia, Patrisse and Opal use is that of ‘reimagining’; using hope and moving away from negativity to a more positive world view, for example seeing people thriving and not dying, showing possibilities.

This on-going movement (#BlackLivesMatter) beautifully describes what social movements are all about. They are agile and dynamic, emergent phenomena that arise outside formal institutions and established power structures.  They cannot be imposed from the top down.  They grow from the grassroots.  Movements make society and institutions deeply uncomfortable as they challenge the prevailing attitudes, values and norms.


Three words that has inspired and moved a generation of women to take part in sport.  Their first phase was targeted at diverse women from ages 14 to 40+ and their second phase is to target from 14 to 60+.  The videos and posters are real stories from real women using real quotes.

There is nothing photo shopped about any of the pictures they show of what a woman really looks like when taking part in sport and the videos are deeply moving.

From Kate Dale @kate_dale campaign lead for #ThisGirlCan the 6 key messages are:

  • be authentic
  • be open minded
  • be passionate
  • work with people you enjoy
  • believe that you can
  • don’t wait to be asked

The campaign became a movement when people started to own the #ThisGirlCan hashtag and values associated with it – taking selfies and instead of some else saying ‘this’ girl can, they pointed to themselves and said ‘this’ girl can.

Strengths of social movements include:

  • Helping people become a community around a shared purpose
  • Helping people work together and think together
  • Learning how to energise and mobilise people to act
  • Developing distributed leadership which avoids the fragility and narrowness of relying on a single person or group who holds all authority or power
  • Evolving decentralised structures and decision making
  • Using real stories to create an emotional link to the shared purpose and values
  • Using visuals and imagery to move people

When people say things like ‘we must harness the power of social movements in order to rapidly improve health outcomes’ – realise that they cannot be forced or manipulated by central bodies.

The way movements can be relevant for the NHS is to learn from them and use their strengths to help shape a different approach to change; for example to move away from top down instruction to helping change grow from the grassroots up.

Even better, create the conditions where the grassroots demand the change.

How can conversations help?

A movement grows from the grass roots, it needs to be emergent rather than forced and while it might seem counter-intuitive, those involved need a mind-set which moves away from a predetermined outcome or action plan.

For a movement to be sustained it has to move from one person to everyone but it still needs to be organised in some way, the right kind of organising.

Without organising there is chaos, poor decision making and a lack of follow through; too much of it and you get a military like organised structure that centralises all planning in the hands of a few chiefs. Scale up quickly without any scaffolding supporting them means the movement is doomed to fail.

You also need to lose control – decentralise, distribute leadership and ownership.

Yes it is a fine balance to getting this right, especially when the default is to take control back in times of crisis.


  • Help people become a community around a shared purpose
  • Help people work together and think together
  • Help energise and mobilise people to act

Instead of asking ‘how do I get all these people to do what I want them to do?’ – ask ‘how can I help all these people do what they want to do?’

The more conversations the more people get involved.

What can we do differently?

Through our work over the last 2 decades in leading large scale change in healthcare we have learnt a few things! We have noticed that there are a number of features that help make this a success.

  • Be clear about your purpose (as Marshall Ganz would say) one that speaks to people’s values, attracts them to want to (even demand) change
  • A social movement requires changing conversations – changing who is in the conversation, how those conversations take place
  • Study what is really happening not what you think is happening– really study the problem – get to know about what it is like, speak to people, go and watch them at work and listen to what they have to say
  • The best way to learn is to experience them
  • Inspire people to accelerate their work – change is less about people doing things that they have to do and much more about doing things that they want to do and things that make them feel great. The better people feel the more motivated they will be over time
  • Encourage openness to new ideas and enable everyone to have a chance to contribute
  • There is a need to increase conversational skills, what is being talked about
  • Think about the skills you need in term of communication – all of these need careful thought; publications, websites, presentations, podcasts, speeches, blogs
  • Build engagement through a combination of storytelling, reward, evidence, fun, joy, collaboration
  • Unleash the power of the personal narrative – people love real stories and they are much easier to remember than statistics or theory
  • Stop making it all so complicated or confusing for people – think about how you can make things easier to do or to understand
  • Help with additional change behaviour methods such as campaigning, collaborative working, communities of practice, spread models and quality improvement methods
  • Relish (rather than fear) the fact you may not know what you are doing or what outcome you might find – this allows you to be flexible and to adapt to circumstances or even try new things without worrying about whether you will fail or succeed

What would your three words be?


* Kaleidoscope Healthcare – a shout out to Richard Taunt and his team…seeking new solutions to old problems across three areas of work:

  1. Building connections and peer-to-peer learning – for example through running networks such as Curiosity Club
  2. Supporting organisations with policy and strategy
  3. Sparking debate and discussion on key topics – such as running Melting Pot Lunches, or hosting events on topics such as provider collaboration