The Art and Soul of Building a Movement: The Critical Yeast

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the art and soul of building a movement, following a morning reading an amazing book by John Paul Lederach.

‘The Moral Imagination’ and is one of the best things I have read to help me to make sense of what is going on in my work, understand what I need to do, and how. The fact that it’s about conflict resolution and peace building in war torn places is irrelevant (except that it puts what I’m trying to do into perspective).

In this series of blogs, I am trying to explore how this book is so useful to us in Greater Manchester and hopefully elsewhere too. All Lederach quotes or phrases are in itallics, so that you can see where his thinking is woven in. I hope that it is helpful to others, but I would really recommend you buy the book and read it for yourself. I can’t do it justice here.

That which counts can rarely be counted. (Albert Einstein)

If I had £1 for every time I had said this over the past couple of years…

What I experience though is that whilst system leaders ‘get it’ in Greater Manchester and those we work closely with in Sport England ‘get it’ too, there isn’t a deep acceptance or comfort with this… because we haven’t yet shown that there is an alternative way to understand and learn.

We are moving in the right direction though. I think it will take time, and some courage to hold our nerve on this. We are working hard to find new ways to understand what is changing and why, and to understand the impact and outcomes of a system change approach. In the meantime, I feel a bit like a stuck record, with our constant challenge upwards about attribution, about measuring what matters, and that it’s names, not numbers that are important in this. Although we all say these things, and the people at the top are committed, there are pressures from government and elsewhere that risk us losing our nerve and reverting to programme management, KPI’s and simplistic ways of explaining.

Lederach says:

There is a certain truth to the frame of reference that convincing large numbers of people to get on board with an idea is the key to social change. Numbers are important. However it is equally important to look deeper at how we think [this] shift happens….. what lies invisible behind the numbers counts more. In social change it is not necessarily the amount of participants that authenticates a social shift. It is the quality of the platform that sustains the shifting process that matters. 

Critical Mass vs Critical Yeast

Generally people believe that a critical mass of people is required to bring about change, but here Lederach asserts that the original key insight of critical mass in physics, was in fact asking what initial, even small things made exponentially greater things possible? In nuclear physics the focus was on the quality of the catalyst. He connects this to Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’ whose (sometimes forgotten) subtitle is ‘how little things make a difference

In the case of GM Moving, this focus on the catalysts is exciting. Discovering and noticing the catalysts, whether they are people, ideas or campaigns feels more manageable than plugging away day after day trying to convert a ‘critical mass’ within 2.8 million and making leaders of our entire workforce at once. It could take forever! It’s a relief to be told in this book, that generating and sustaining change is about quality, not quantity.

Lederach says that getting a small set of the right people involved in the right places is the key. The missing ingredient is the critical yeast. He continues with the bread making metaphor which is a simple and very helpful way to understand the concept.

His definition of critical yeast goes like this:

Rather than critical mass, commonly believed to be the moment of shift when large enough numbers of people get behind an idea or movement, critical yeast does not focus on producing large numbers of people. Critical yeast asks the question in reference to social change: who within a given setting, if brought together, would have the capacity to make things grow toward the desired end? The focus is not on the number, but on the quality of people brought together, who represent unique linkages across a wide variety of sectors and locations…

He develops the metaphor and shares some principles, within which the following points I find most powerful:

  • Of all the ingredients in bread making, yeast is the smallest. But smallness has nothing to do with the size of potential change. What you look for is the quality of what happens if certain sets of people get mixed…. a few strategically connected people have greater potential for creating social growth than large numbers of people who think alike.
  • Social change requires careful attention to the way people in their environment mix in relational spaces that provide a warm, initially somewhat separate and therefore safe space to bring together what has not usually been brought together.
  • To be authentic, growth must find a source that rises, again and again, in spite of everything that pushes it down! (and a good bit of kneading will be required). The critical yeast must find a way to sustain the purpose…despite ups and downs, they are characterized as displaying the capacity to generate growth.
  • The place where critical mass and critical yeast meet, in reference to social change is not in the number of people involved but rather in creating the quality of the platform that makes exponential growth strong and possible, and then in finding ways to sustain that platform.

So we need to consider who, if they were able to move together [towards the shared purpose]… would, as their momentum built, bring a much wider set of people with them?

This question is absolutely critical to us. And what I am realising is that if we relax, create an atmosphere of ease, welcome and openness for anyone to join in… those people start to emerge, connect, enquire, and be welcomed in. To enable this, we need a clear vision and ambition, a simple narrative, with a call to action and tangible ways for people and organisations to play their part.

In practice, this means we need to follow up every warm lead, everyone who wants to help, if they are willing and able to work to the principles that guide this approach.

It means creating time and space, buying lots of coffee (!) and asking people what brings them to this conversation, what matters to them and what they can do to help redesign the system.

I spend a lot of my time connecting great people to each other, then helping them to work together, but sometimes I know that the best thing is to get out of the way so that they can build relationships that are not dependent on my intervention or being in the middle. I can’t sustain that position anyway, if this movement is to grow exponentially. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

Who are these ‘critical yeast’ people? It becomes clear when I meet them, but I also need to develop ways to find them in key parts of the system that we need to join in. Lederach says that they are chosen for their capacity, for who they are and how they are connected in the setting, to create an exponential use of setting based forces.

In ‘capacity’ he isn’t just talking about time available. He is talking about understanding, abilities and discipline. It suggests skill and will, and involves practice and attitude. It says I am ‘able and committed’.

They also identify themselves by their values, their ways of being, ways of working and for their character. This will be further explored in the next blog.

For now, I intend to have a good look at the web we are building together, and identify where we can find the critical yeast, so that we can spot gaps in the web, build relationships in places which will make the biggest difference, and create the conditions for the catalysts do do great work.


Linked Articles
The Art and Soul of Building a Movement
On the Gift of Pessimism
On Life in the Web
GM Moving: An Unfinished Symphony
Still thinking about:
On Serendipity
On Pied Pipers

* A note on the workforce. Latest Office of National Statistics figures tell us that the GM public service workforce is 226,000. The state of the VSCSE sector (2017) report stated we have 43,000 voluntary sector and 461,800 volunteers. Add to those the private sector workforce and we have huge potential GM Moving workforce! But we need to find the critical yeast first.

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