Do you need radicals for change?

An interesting post at Anil Dash: A Malcom and a Martin.

He suggests that change happens when there are two distinct forces at work on the same position. One radical (Malcolm X) and one rational (Martin Luther King. Jr). I’m sure there are nuances to the history of the civil rights movement, but there is a familiar pattern. The radical position gets attention and riles up those who disagree, and space is created for a moderate position to gain ground by being more paletable than the radical.

My position is that you need attention to have influence, and radicals can bring attention to an issue that is being ignored. But there are other ways to get attention. You can earn it from people who learn to respect you for intelligent work you do, problems you’ve solved, or smart things you say.

In my experience real change in organizations happens quietly, in small meetings with a handful of people – The drama of movements, big speaches, and flaming e-mails is to get enough influence to earn a seat in those small meetings. Or to have the ear of someone else that’s there to represent you, or give you the scoop on what’s happening next, before the whole organization knows.

So I don’t think you need radicals for change – They can help by adding leverage to a position, surface a point of view that’s gone unheard, or put momentum behind an idea that is being ignored, but often there are other ways to achieve those things without taking radical positions or actions.

14 Responses to “Do you need radicals for change?”

  1. Jordan

    Whether or not you agree with this sentiment depends on if you are a Buffet investor or Soros investor. From Soros’ theory of reflexivity (

    > So we can observe three very different conditions in history: the “normal,” in which the participants’ views and the actual state of affairs tend to converge; and two far-from- equilibrium conditions, one of apparent changelessness, in which thinking and reality are very far apart and show no tendency to converge, and one of revolutionary change in which the actual situation is so novel and unexpected and changing so rapidly that the participants’ views cannot keep up with it.

    As companies grow in size (to become more Buffet like), what you’re saying become more and more the case as changelessness becomes the norm.

  2. Scott (admin)

    I only skimmed that link, but must confess my eyes glazed over. I’m not sure either: a) what point you’re trying to make, or b) what it has to do with what Anil or I wrote.

    I don’t accept the polarization you’re offering, nor the 3 states Soros describes – not because I disagree with them, I just don’t see how they’re relevant.

    To restate it again, perhaps better, is this: I posit that radical posturing is a tactic used by people without much influence to try and gain attention, in the hopes of becoming more influential. People with power, even if they have radical ambitions, do not need to take radical public positions, and rarely do. They’re more effective at actually making change happen when they use the channels of influence they’ve earned.

  3. Jordan

    Woah, don’t go all Microsoft cynical on me.

    Your ability to rationalize your own bad deeds makes you believe that the whole world is as amoral as you are.
    ~Douglas Coupland

    Sometimes people act in a radical way because they can’t stand for what is going on around them. Whether or not they gain influence as a result is besides the point, mostly they just want to see change.

  4. Timothy

    Scott… been reading your posts for months, and I think this is the first time I’ve ever come close to disagreeing with you (not that I totally agree with Jordan’s approach, either). Rather than bog down your comments section, I’ve extended the conversation at my own site ( on a post entitled “Cause Without a Rebel?” If I’ve misrepresented your position, please let me know.

  5. Scott (admin)

    Disagreement is where the fun is – One or both of us will learn something :)

    I think you’ve run away with what i said – radicals are great, but there are other ways to get attention and influence. If you are the well respected CEO of Timsoft, do you need to be a radical to make change happen? Nope. You have enough authority that you can propose big changes, and probably implement them, without having to talk about reinvention, revolution, or other hyperbole.

    However if you were a fledgling manager or programmer, who didn’t have enough authority to lead change on your own, taking visibly radical positions and challenging the status quo would likely be in your playbook.

    I guess I’m seperating radical ideas from radical behavior. The ability to make radical ideas and big changes seem natural, logical and sensible takes much more skill than standing on chairs, screaming for people’s heads or tornado like reorganizations.

  6. Timothy

    Well put, Scott. From Org Behavior 101, the two most effective bases of power (i.e., influence) are referent power and expert power. In other words, how well do people like and respect you as a person and how well do they like and respect your ideas and your expertise. This explanation puts it into better perspective. (And we did it without my accusing you of Microsoft cynicism… LOL)

  7. Jordan

    I’m glad I’ve fit into a stereotype for you Tim =o) I still think the way both of you have framed the problem is bourgeoisie: those below us are after influence, how can we revese engineer their “playbook”. Malcolm X wasn’t after influence, he was after change. If he was just after influence, he would have had to compromise himself too much and would have never driven change.

    And that’s the thing about extreme talk; it needs to happen to change the frame of conversation. Once the frame of thought has been changed, that’s when upper level management (or in Malcolm X’s case, government) actually puts into place the policies that support these new modes of thought.

  8. Jordan

    And just to clarify, the reason I bring Soros and Coupland into this is that smaller companies will be long dead before there are any employee uprisings (ie, if they’re not on the edge of change then they’ve already lost to the market). Only larger companies with large IP investments to protect, such as Microsoft, have the resources to devote to methodically managing change.

    And certainly this will be the case for many behemoths for many years to come. But what does this have to do with innovation, especially when things like this are happening in the world:

  9. Timothy

    Jordan… I’m perplexed how you can differentiate influence and change. If you want to change, you’re going to have to influence.

  10. Jordan

    No you don’t. You can live the way you think you should live and let the market sort out the non-believers.

  11. Jordan

    And if you follow Gladwell’s argument in the Tipping Point; by simply living the way you think you should live, change will happen in those around you and those around them. In fact, that’s how change does happen.

    It doesn’t happen with bourgeoisie in closed rooms chatting about “influence” and “playbooks”.

  12. Jordan

    And just to cover all my bases here, what the bourgeoisie are good for is determining how to channel said cultural change into the best interests of their company/country. But they’re not the ones actually changing anything; they’re just rationalizing it.



  1. […] From Scott Berkun: (Buy his book now!) My position is that you need attention to have influence, and radicals can bring attention to an issue that is being ignored. But there are other ways to get attention. You can earn it from people who learn to respect you for intelligent work you do, problems you’ve solved, or smart things you say. […]

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