Six girls protesting climate change with protest signs

5 things businesses can learn from Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion is one of the most successful, high growth British organisations on the planet. Founded only three years ago, millions of people worldwide have taken part in their protests. According to The Guardian, ‘In its first year of existence, XR transformed the global conversation around the climate crisis’. In less than a year, they grew from an idea in the heads of three founders to a global movement of 650 groups in 45 countries.

I think they’re worth a closer look. What can other organisations learn from their growth and success? 

1. Make messaging simple

XR have a fantastic grasp of how to communicate in very direct, concise terms. Their audience is often not inclined to give them much time of day – so it’s critical they get their message across quickly and bluntly.

I saw this first hand on Oxford Street in summer 2021. Whilst out shopping, a peaceful XR protest was blocking the road and drawing attention to their cause. Simple messages were clear and everywhere. From the placards of the protestors, to the super-simple leaflets handed out to curious bystanders like me along their route. Have a look for yourself:

Their 2022 strategy is also worth a look. It’s title is ‘As the world looks up we step up’, clearly aimed at their supporters as a rallying cry (and also potentially at politicians photographed at COP26 gazing into the skies they were about to fly home in – in business class seats and private jets). The strategy contains 6 clear goals, very simply put. See for yourself: the document is available on their website.

2. Have a clear purpose

For many people, the pandemic has increased the importance of having a purpose. XR’s ultimate purpose is obvious – to avert climate catastrophe – but they break this down into some simple and more achievable aims.

XR has three simply stated aims which are displayed on their website:

I think XR’s leadership are primarily seeking to motivate and mobilise their supporters by stating these aims. Yes, they are directly addressed at governments and political leaders, but I think they will resonate most clearly with XR’s decentralised supporters and activist groups: the three aims basically set a context to work within and towards, laying the foundations for community activism. Netflix have a very similar approach, and have become famous for ‘management by context’ (their 2009 Cultural Manifesto has been viewed over 20m times on Slideshare).

What’s the take-out from this? By making your aims clear, talented, empowered staff (and activists) are given freedom to work autonomously to build a coherent, successful and scalable organisation.

3. Decentralise

Which brings us onto structure.

Imagine this challenge: expand your business into 45 countries in 12 months, with people on the ground in every country. Think about this for a second: How would you go about this? And how much would it cost?

This is exactly what XR did, on a shoestring budget.

How did they do it? By franchising, basically.

They have a highly decentralised structure, with local branches working from what are essentially a set of central brand guidelines, guiding principles and operational support resources (for example, on how to organise peaceful protests). ‘Launching’ in a new country only requires a few individuals in that country to decide to take up the cause and put together their own plan of action.

Franchising has generally been associated with fast food chains and transactional service companies. McDonald’s, KFC and American Golf Discount and Molly Main Cleaners all use this structure, for example.

But, more recently, the model has been successful adopted within more complex, higher value service industries. Grant Thornton work this way, in the accountancy space. They were founded in the UK – but now exist in 130 countries through a network of largely autonomous local partner-owned companies. Law firms have also adopted the model enthusiastically, allowing a small number of embryonic global mega-brands to rapidly emerge in what’s traditionally been a localised and fragmented market (Kirkland & Ellis, for example, turnover more than $5bn, and have doubled in size since 2015. Their stricture is essentially franchise-based).

Decentralisation has its downsides – XR have suffered from internal disagreements recently and the emergence of rival factions – but their rapid growth, and the success of companies like Grant Thornton and Kirkland & Ellis, show that it’s worth considering, if you’re looking to achieve rapid international growth (sustainably).

4. Show your passion

XR’s supporters are clearly passionate about their cause. Many more commercial organisations are looking to build ‘movements’, often with a social or environmental purpose. Taking a look at how XR do this and display their passion is instructive – but only if your cause or movement is genuine.

Here are some photos of XR supporters on Oxford Street back in 2021. Everything was made for Instagram. Colour, vibrancy, hashtags, energy, passion, love. Photos paint the picture better than words:

People marching and holding a giant pink octopus

Is the lesson here to be fully aware of the image you’re projecting, when aiming to build a movement or a popular groundswell behind your product, service or organisation? To a point, yes. But I think it cuts deeper than this. It’s about having passion and wanting to share and project this onto the world: involve and empower passionate people, and give them a cause that’s genuinely worth fighting for. Then image will follow.

And what’s the fifth learning?

To protect our planet.

You might not agree with XR’s means, but it’s very hard not to agree with their cause. I think business leaders should stop and think hard about this cause, and about the arguments XR use when they represent it. When they tell the truth, they have no hidden agenda: they are genuinely terrified about what will happen to the Earth, its animals and its people if global heating and habitat destruction isn’t halted.

Businesses, and business leaders, have a tremendous opportunity and privilege: we have power to act. Yes, we also need to innovate, create jobs and make a reasonable profit. But there is absolutely no reason why this can’t be done alongside protecting our planet and helping avert climate catastrophe.

Extinction rebellion protest sign. ‘Sorry for the inconvenience we’re trying to save the world’

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