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Exponential Protests | blog@CACM | Communications of the ACM



“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead (1901-1978)

Margaret Mead was an American cultural anthropologist and writer. Although the message of her famous, freuqently cited quote is accepted today by many, Herrero (2016) suggested adding the word organized to it, claiming that “Because there is a growing, if naïve belief that all you need is a lot of passion, a lot of commitment, a lot of good intentions, and lots of mavericks, rebels, disruptors, contrarians, and challengers and, alas, change will happen. It won’t. Noise will. Well, it may be change, but God knows in which direction.”

In this blog, I illustrate Mead’s assertion through the case of the current Israeli protest that is drawing hundreds of thousands of citizens to the streets on an almost daily basis. I suggest, in line with Herrero’s suggestion, that exponential organizations (Ismail, Malone, and van Geest, 2014) offer an appropriate organized structure for this, and maybe for other cases of civil resistance.

Background

No matter what your image of protest is, the current wave of protest sweeping over Israel is no less than inspiring. For the past 24 weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have been leaving their homes every Saturday night to protest against attempts made by the current Israeli government to implement, without broad consensus, a judicial reform that eventually will change the regime system in Israel. These governmental actions have created a deep and serious divide in the Israeli society that is pushing countless Israeli citizens, for the first time in their lives, to join a huge, vivid, energetic, yet nonviolent movement that is calling, even demanding, to keep Israel democratic.

The above description reflects the “committed citizens” part of Mead’s quote. But what about the “organized” part suggested by Herrero?

A quick look at the growth rate of the Israeli protest in its first couple of months shows exponential growth. For example, on February 25, 2023, the number of demonstrators in about 120 locations throughout tiny Israel was 291,365; a week later, on March 4, 2023, the total number of demonstrators increased to 377,235, and a week after that, on March 11, 2023, their number reached 489,885. For more data, see here. We should recall that Israel’s population is about 10 million people, which means that about 3% of the Israeli population has been demonstrating actively on a weekly basis, and that the accumulative number of protesters in the weekend protests is about 6.5 million people. Based on research by Chenoweth and Stephan (2011), once 3.5% of the population of a state is mobilised in sustained protest, success is guaranteed.

From an organizational point of view, this exponential growth rate of the protest resembles the growth pattern of exponential organizations. Exponential organizations, such as Amazon, Waze, Netflix, WhatsApp, and Instagram, are organizations whose impact (or output) is “disproportionally large—at least 10x larger—compared to their peers because of the use of new organizational techniques that leverage accelerating technologies.” (Ismail, Malone, and van Geest, 2014, p. 18). In general, exponential organizations are learning organizations that respond to the environment, try out new strategies, are not afraid of failure, and use technological means to increase their impact and crowd commitment and engagement in their growth. In their book, Ismail, Malone, and van Geest characterize exponential organizations according to their massive transformative purpose (MTP) and 10 attributes that are derived from the organization’s MTP and foster its exponential growth.

Famous MTPs are, Google’s MTP “Organize the world’s information,” TED’s MTP “Ideas worth spreading,” and XPRIZE Foundation’s MTP “To catalyze innovation and accelerate a more hopeful future by incentivizing radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.”

As the growth of the Israeli resistance resembles that of exponential organizations, it is interesting to analyze what characteristics of exponential organizations it displays and what is does not.  

The Israeli resistance through the lens of exponential organizations

Like other exponential organizations, the current Israeli protest has an MTP (though informal): “To be a free people in our country,” a slogan that is taken from the Israeli national anthem. This MTP can be found in messages sent in the protest’s dozens of WhatsApp groups and at the end of each video clip created for delivering the protest’s messages. It is important to pay attention to the idiom “free people,” which reminds most Israeli citizens of our history and clearly reflects a meaningful massive and transformative purpose.

Autonomy is an important principle of exponential organizations according to which interdisciplinary teams in exponential organizations work autonomously, managing themselves without any central supervision by the organization. Such a decentralized organizational structure encourages flexibility, enables quick responses to goings-on in the organization’s environment, and fosters learning processes that are adapted to the needs of each team. And, so, in the Israeli protest, about 150 autonomous organizations—some new, some old—are operating in the spirit of the protest’s MTP, based on the rich industrial and social experience that exists in Israel, both in hi-tech organizations and in civil society organizations, respectively. While these 150 or so organizations are coordinated to achieve one major goal—the MTP, each of them is, at the same time, working and responding independently to various events that occur every day. In fact, in the case of the civil resistance, there is evidence that such a decentralized leadership (which is analogous to autonomous teams in exponential organizations) has advantages over a central leadership, since it is more difficult for the regime to “break” the resistance leadership (Alon, 2023).

Another characteristic of exponential organizations is community and crowd, whereby the community consists of members who belong to the core of the organization, and the crowd includes all those who join in the various activities. In the case of the Israeli protest, this characteristic of exponential organization can be interpreted as follows: the community encompasses the 150 autonomous organizations, and the crowd consists of huge masses of people, which although not part of the organization’s core, make a crucial contribution to the protest and to its growth. This contribution is expressed in a variety of ways, from active participation in the Saturday night demonstrations and in the spontaneous protests on weekdays at any event that Israeli ministers participate in worldwide, through membership in protest-related WhatsApp groups (including brainstorming and raising of ideas, expressing opinions, and distributing the messages of the resistance), to participation in webinars, funding, and donations.

Engagement is a principle of exponential organizations that is manifested in the case of the Israeli protest by the concept of nonviolent direct action (NVDA)—a strategy used by individuals, groups, or movements to bring about social, political, or economic change and includes disrupting actions without resorting to violence or harming people. The concept of NVDA is mentioned over and over by the leadership of the Israeli protest as an important attribute of the resistance in order to keep the crowd engaged. Chenoweth and Stephan (2012) examined the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance compared with violent insurgency in achieving social and political change and found that nonviolent struggles were more successful in achieving their objectives than violent ones. In Israel, for example, NVDA techniques include Disruptive Days in which streets are blocked, demonstrations of children and parents in schools, The Handmaid’s Tale parades (for photos see here), and many more. The message imparted by NVDAs is that although these actions disturb people’s lives, their intention and messages are constructive rather than disruptive.

Staff-on-demand and leveraged assets are two more characteristics of exponential organizations that are applied extensively by the Israeli protest movement. Creative video clips, lawyers for protesters who are investigated by the police, and transportation of equipment for the protests are just several examples of activities carried out by volunteers that illustrate the implementation of the staff-on-demand and leveraged assets characteristics of exponential organizations in the case of the Israeli resistance.   

The implementation of the above-mentioned principles (and other principles of exponential organizations) is supported by intelligent use of social technologies (another characteristic of exponential organizations) that enable both rapid communication within the organization and communication with its external environment. For example, the huge demonstrations that took place on March 26, 2023 following the dismissal of the Minister of Defense, and which ultimately led to the suspension of the legislative process, were organized within a very short time, at 10 pm, and were made possible thanks to the use of such technologies. In this case, and in many other daily events, digital tools are used to coordinate, mobilize, and direct participants to the updated locations of the protests.

Reflective thoughts

Ismail, Malone, and van Geest (2014) divide the principles of exponential organizations into two groups:  Internal attributes (IDEAS—interfaces, dashboards, experimentation, autonomy, and social technologies), which are responsible for the exponential organization’s order, control, and stability aspects, and external attributes (SCALE—staff-on-demand, community and crowd, algorithms, leveraged assets, and engagement), which are responsible for the creativity, growth, and uncertainty aspects of exponential organizations. (See also Growth Institute, Inc., 2023).

Based on the analysis presented in this blog, I suggest adding another dimension for the categorization of the attributes of exponential organizations: social-oriented and technological-oriented principles, as presented in Figure 1. The attributes of the exponential organizations analyzed in this blog are marked in yellow; they were selected for analysis since they are more prevalent and salient, at least from my viewpoint, on the events currently taking place in Israel. As you can see, most of them a) belong to the social and external aspects of exponential organizations, and b) are supported by technologies and leadership tools. In my opinion, this combination of applied characteristics of exponential organizations can partially explain the exponential expression of the current Israeli resistance.

To the best of my knowledge, the analysis presented in this blog is the first to apply the framework of exponential organizations to a social movement (rather than an ordinary organization, from either the second or third sector). This examination of the Israeli protest as an exponential organization reflects the accumulative experience, knowledge, and skills gained in Israel both by the huge and creative hi-tech business sector and by the large and active social civil society sector that exists in Israel and that grew in parallel to the growth of the Israeli hi-tech industry.

References

Alon, N. (Mar 8, 2023). How to stop a dictatorship in Israel – 2nd part: Leadership and the power of refusal, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5d2qYatyzBE&list=PLXVUIFXKTtbz8KMtClXkmjhq-ddEOUcos (Hebrew)

Chenoweth, E.  and Stephan, M. (2012). Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Columbia University Press.  

Herrero, L. (February 19, 2016). The missing word in the famous Margaret Mead quote. The Chalfont Project – Chief Organizational Architect /CEO. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/missing-word-famous-margaret-mead-quote-leandro-herrero/ .

Growth Institute, Inc. (2023). 11 Secrets You Need To Know For Exponential Growth, https://blog.growthinstitute.com/exo/11-attributes

Ismail, S., Malone, M. S., and van Geest, Y. (2014). Exponential Organizations: Why New Organizations Are Ten Times Better, Faster, and Cheaper Than Yours (And What to Do about It). Diversion Books.

 

Orit Hazzan is a professor at the Technion’s Department of Education in Science and Technology. Her research focuses on computer science, software engineering, and data science education. For additional details, see https://orithazzan.net.technion.ac.il/.


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