In Winners Take All, Anand Giridharadas provides a powerful critique of people around the world who are pushing to take market forces and apply them to solving social problems. Giridharadas follows individuals including Justin Rosenstein of Asana, Dr. Amy Cuddy, a leading researcher on gender bias, and Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation to explore the unintended (or sometimes intended) consequences of the impact investing, social entrepreneurship, and tech for good movements.
A core focus of the book is also on the perverse power dynamics that are unlocked and reinforced at leading conferences around the world including TED, Aspen Ideas Festival, Summit Series, Skoll World Forum, World Economic Forum, Poptech, and the Clinton Global Initiative. I highly recommend reading the book for yourself, while it was deeply uncomfortable to read Winners Take All, the arguments being made are nuanced. Giridharadas encourages us to ensure our actions are not accidentally creating an extra-democratic or extra-political system where the people we want to help the most are completely left out of designing solutions to their greatest challenges.
As the leader of a global membership organization focused on the power of convening to change the world, I felt both challenged and inspired by the analysis of Giridharadas. I’ve spent the last few years attending leading impact conferences around the world, and have been inspired by amazing thought leaders, moved by world changing artists, and engaged in incredible conversations with people who have the power to move entire industries to create more positive impact in the world. To be faced with the critique that Giridharadas brings to bear was a wake up call and this post was an attempt to explore how we may evolve the model of convening to more effectively create positive impact in the world.
The rise of the Thought Leader
In Chapter 4, “The Critic and the Thought Leader”, Giridharadas follows the journey of Dr. Amy Cuddy from her career in academia as a critic researching topics like “how men’s hegemony adapts to local conditions so as to enroot itself” to her rise as a thought leader initially at Poptech and then at TED with her talk “how your body language may shape who you are.” Her TED talk now has over 49 Million views and has catapulted Dr. Cuddy into the spotlight.
“For a thought leader, the advantage of zooming in, of telling the story of sexism and power and systems as a story about your daughter is that you hook people.”
Giridharadas makes the argument that our public discourse has shifted as a result of conveners like TED who have created a powerful model for packaging and sharing ideas. The rise of the thought leader has come at a time when funding has greatly decreased for academics, investigative journalists, and other researchers who in the past had the duty, flexibility, and agency to speak truth to power and to critique systems.
A Thought Leader is someone who is able to speak with authority in a bit sized and palatable manner. As Giridharadas shares:
“Listening to Cuddy, it was possible to understand the symbiosis that developed between MarketWorld elites and their thought leaders. The thought leaders put out a variety of ideas and, being human beings, noticed what moved people at places like the Aspen Ideas Festival and TED. What especially moved such audiences was the rendering of social problems as unintimidating, bit-sized, digestible. The thought leader picked up on this and poke more and more in these terms. The audience responded more and more rapturously. The actual nature of the problem receded.”
So what if speakers and panels are no longer the format that is needed to drive social change?
One way to shift power dynamics is to shift to a new model of convening where everyone has a chance to share their story. This collaborative approach ensures that no one person gets put on a pedestal and idolized. One person is not asked to carry the burden of solving child marriage, ending sexism, or feeding the world. None of the greatest challenges facing the planet can be solved by one person, organization, or even country acting in isolation.
There is a role for speakers, especially when the stage is used as a platform for storytelling. Stories drive human connection, they inspire, and captivate us. The Skoll World Forum has done an incredible job of engaging artists, activists, and change makers to use the stage to share their journey. Where the “sage on stage” model starts to break down is when we rely on those speakers to also share solutions in addition to their stories. By necessity of format, these solutions get packaged in a simplified and digestible format that neglects the nuance inherent in systems change.
There are many conveners who integrate a collaborative approach into the DNA of their events: Opportunity Collaboration, EShip Summit, Hatch Experience, Impact Experience, and Greenermind Summit are all examples of spaces where participants are able to share our authentic stories and experiences. In the sharing of these stories, the systemic nature of the problem becomes clear. We see ourselves in one another and can build the empathy and trust needed to have a significant conversation. As a group we can start to envision and create the relationships necessary to bring to life pilots, tests, projects, and programs that can work to improve over time global challenges like migration and climate change.
“For those drawn to money or stardom or solo influence, publicly oriented sources of support have been eclipsed by privately oriented ones, and the new patrons have their tastes and taboos.”
When money and attention are the currency of convening then the tastes and taboos of the patrons will shape the conversation that can be had and the ideas that can be explored. That so many people say that “I’ll only go to a conference if I’m asked to speak” is a symptom of the attention economy we’ve created on the conference circuit. This mindset is the direct result of a model which treats non-speakers as second class citizens – relegated to sitting passively to hear the thoughts and ideas of others.
We as the conveners can move the “sage off the stage” and transform our audience into participants. We can fundamentally shift the power dynamics at play. This is embodied by all practitioners of Open Space and participant led design including the Art of Hosting and the work of Parker Palmer.
The dynamic of the Thought Leader only further exacerbates a challenge we see in Social Enterprise and tech entrepreneurship – this issue of “heropreneurship” a challenge raised by Daniela Papi-Thornton from her work at the Skoll Center of Social Entrepreneurship at Said Business School. Heropreneurship perpetuates a vision of a change maker as the rugged individual who is able to shift entire systems with a single product or innovation.
Above all a thought leader is not peer reviewed, fact checked, or otherwise held accountable for the ideas they share. Systems change is inherently complex and a complex system is one where you can only know cause and effect in hindsight, there are too many variables, we don’t know what all of them are, and to make matters worse – they keep changing! Through thought leadership this complexity is repackaged in a way that makes us think we can have the “solution” if we only have a good enough idea and the hero/ine to make it happen.
The real work of social change is difficult, and it requires collaboration, partnership, and engagement of the people who are experiencing inequality, hunger, poverty, and so much more. This collective action is absolutely necessary to make the change we need to see in the world – but it doesn’t have to be so hard.
Some people in our space claim that the process of collaboration cannot be clearly articulated, defined, or systematized. I used to agree, but now I see things differently. There are clear models that can help us better understand collaboration and that can set us up for success – though we still will not be able to predict the outcome of collaboration in advance. As conveners, we have an obligation to increase the capability of our community to learn these new skills.
Awareness, Alignment, Collaboration
Do you get married on the first date? If the answer is no, then it would seem strange to think that business partnerships and collaborations would happen after 1 meeting – or even 3 or 5 or a dozen. In the rest of our lives from dating to friendships we know to build relationships that you have to really spend time with one another, share a connection, and make promises that you can deliver on.
As conveners, the structure of an annual conference isn’t enough – it doesn’t provide the level of repeat interactions that are needed to build trust.
When thinking about conference design, it can help to create elements early in the event that focus on building awareness. There are thousands of potential conversations that any two people could have, but only a small fraction of those could lead to a tangible end result – like closing an investment round or building a new tool together. Conference apps, online bios, or interest boards are some asynchronous ways for people to find one another. Speed networking, trio storytelling, and round robin sharing are other facilitation frameworks that help people connect. As the convener your responsibility is to be thoughtful in the questions you ask and the spaces you construct for people to connect and learn about their shared interests and passions – above all, help people move away from the deadly question “what do you do?” and towards questions that connect and resonate with your community.
In the middle of your event is when you shift to alignment. Now that everyone has a sense of each other, are there organizing principles that can help them find others who are in alignment? How might you make it easy to find other participants who have priorities that are close enough that it will be worth spending time with one another? The UN Sustainable Development Goals, geography, and sector can all serve as those frameworks to help people find others who are working in the same area.
Finally, the last step is collaboration. As Kristina Huikka shared, collaboration is really “co-laboring” – working together takes time and requires coordination. Annual events are not enough, participants need to meet more frequently if they are to build trust and take action with one another. Network coordination is required to support these more frequent gatherings. I’ve been deeply impressed by the work of Dr. Jane Wei-Skillern of UC Berkeley has published extensively on the rise of the Network Entrepreneur and through her work with Convergence has shared the importance of having a funded network coordinator to help communities through collaboration.
More and more conveners are exploring ways to engage their communities year round and support them in taking action. For decades YPO has lead the Forum model as a way to build deeper intimacy and trust amongst its member, and this model has proven effective in deepening relationships – but less so in driving members to take action. Gratitude Railroad, SVN, Toniic, Nexus, Opportunity Collaboration, Kauffman EShip Summit, and many more are seeking the tools to build this lasting community – from happy hours and good old fashioned get togethers to more structured approaches.
At Conveners.org we’ve developed Convening Circles as a training framework to build the capability and skills necessary to host these small communities working to take action together. We’ve had the privilege to work with convening leaders from around the world to gather what works (and what doesn’t!) when guiding people to define their action, research what is missing, and make a chance. Our hypothesis is that if we support hosts across all of these convening communities to catalyze a new wave of projects, products, programs, and pilots we may support meaningful advancements to social change. It’s implementation will be messy and it’s by no means a silver bullet, but it’s the kind of meaningful experimentation that is how real change happens.
There are risks involved, and there will be unintended consequences. Giridharadas calls out the bias embedded in global convenings of elites and we must proactively include the voices and perspectives of those in the community who are face to face with the challenges we seek to solve. Our hope is that more frequent and virtual gatherings can serve as a platform for increasing access and breaking down the silos that have kept the global change makers isolated from the communities they seek to serve. Impact Experience has done a remarkable job in using new convening frameworks and discussions to bridge divides and increase connection in parts of the United States that have been polarized by partisanship.
Winners Take All has challenged me to re-evaluate the lens I apply to social change. The questions it provokes and the critiques Giridharadas provides area wake up call. The rise of nationalism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism is a forceful global trend that requires us to look at the strategies we’ve taken to tackle social change from a market based approach and ask ourselves – Where are our blinders? What are the questions we are not asking? How may we look at use our power in the world to make real and lasting positive change?
Giridharadas highlights the work of Aaron Horvath and Walter Powell in framing, “The seasoned and astute private world changer seeks to alter ‘the public conversation about which social issues matter, sets an agenda for how they matter, and specifies who is the preferred provider of services to address these issues without any engagement with the deliberative process of civil society.’” As conveners through the formats we select, the speakers and moderators we hold up, the people invited into the room, and the questions we ask are what shape change in the world. Let’s take this opportunity to envision new ways of convening, ways that can shift the conversation, and the solutions that can get to the root causes of the greatest challenges facing humanity and the world at large.
I’ll end with a final quote from Giridharadas in a chapter that explores the impact of the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Gathering:
“In some small way, it changed how the world operated, because it shaped what ideas got talked about, and what solutions got acted on when people left this room, and what programs got funded and didn’t, and what stories got covered and didn’t, and it tipped the scale in the direction of the winners once again, ensuring that the friendly, win-win way of solving public problems would remain dominant. People asking big questions about the underlying system and imagining alternative systems would not be attending.”