The Judo of crowds – swaying the masses in 5 easy steps

Jūdō (柔道, meaning “gentle way”): is a martial art that relies on using an opponent’s own body weight to defeat them.

Imagine it. You’re in a crowd – a big birthday drinks has spilled out onto the street at closing time. You don’t really know what’s going on. No one seems to be in charge. You think people want to go on elsewhere, but you’re not sure what the plans is, so you decide to sit tight and see what happens.

Nothing happens… not for a long, long time.

Sound familiar? We’ve all been in crowds where nothing very much happens, and for no apparent reason. Whether it is wondering where you are going next on a night out, or when something comes up at work, and no one knows quite whose remit it falls under. You think you are waiting for something in particular, but actually, you are just waiting. And waiting.

Inaction in large groups is easily explained:

–          You don’t know what the motivation is of everyone else, and are afraid of going against the grain

–          You don’t know the context, and assume that people who were there before you have a better idea of what is going on

–          You simply can’t communicate with all the people around you to share a plan, even if you had one

Luckily, there are some fairly simple things that you can do to get groups moving a little faster. Don’t expect a stampede, but you should be able to get the ball rolling and significantly speed things up.

So, here are my five easy steps to swaying the masses:

1. Recognise you are the leader

If you’re in a group situation and you don’t know who the leader is, there is no leader. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting finding the nearest milk crate and launch a career in oratory, simply recognise that if things aren’t happening it’s down to you to change that state of affairs. Take some responsibility; I promise it doesn’t involve public speaking…

2. Question assumptions

Now that you’ve realised that you’ve got to do something, simply ask the nearest person what is going on. This should quickly establish whether or not there is a plan, and someone else in fact in charge. In rare occasions there may in fact be a plan, but let’s be honest, it’s unlikely. Much more likely you will uncover a mix of conflicting beliefs about why you are waiting around, and possibly some vague ideas about what everyone would like to do if they weren’t busy waiting for someone else to take charge.

3. Default to action

With no one else in charge, and no plan in sight, it’s time to suggest a course of action, any action, to a few people around you and act on it. If they don’t like your plan then you can have a quick discussion and agree a new one, but by actually starting to do something you make activity the default option. Most people don’t like making decisions, and as long as it sounds reasonable will follow your lead. Some may either suggest a new course of action or counter propose waiting, but this will have now become an active choice.

4. Use herd instinct

Now comes the Judo bit. Don’t bother trying to convince everyone to follow your lead. You just need to get the people around you to follow. Get anything up to half a dozen people to start moving, you will precipitate action in the rest of the crowd as people pick up on what their neighbours are doing and talking about. Surrounded by people doing nothing, even a small group of people doing something will quickly be noticed and snowball. In larger groups you need as little as 5% of the crowd to start moving in the same direction and the whole crowd will quickly follow.

5. Reduce complexity

Finally, with the crowd starting to move, keep things simple. You have carefully created a sense of joint purpose and action, and all you need to do to maintain this is to fend off any threats of ambiguity. Stay just one step ahead of the masses, and pre-empt people starting to worry about different options and what everyone else thinks. Stick to one clear message which can easily be relayed throughout the crowd, and if for any reason you need to change direction, don’t spring it on people or try to do it suddenly. Rather break it down into a pathway, and feed people steps one at a time.

Wrap up

This whole process of moving crowds reminds me of one of my favourite quotes:

“Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the World. Indeed, nothing else ever has.” – Margaret Mead (disputed)

Don’t worry about changing the World. Get a core group moving and the rest will follow naturally.

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