In the world of startup tech companies, it is common understanding that 9 out of 10 new businesses will fail. This isn’t due to a lack of demand or not having the right people for the job. Often, failure is as a result to make a plan and then execute on it.
The Atlanta-based organizer and rapper, Killer Mike, seems to understand this concept. In the last few years, he has gained prominence as a voice for the progressive Black community — notably taking the stage alongside Atlanta Mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. In his speech following the first day of national unrest, he urged listeners to turn the energy of rage into political power. He told listeners to “Plot, Plan, Strategize, Organize, and then Mobilize”.
His advice should ring true to anyone who has been involved in building a business and should be taken to heart by anyone looking to organize for power. In the same way that having a good plan and following that plan helps a new startup to meet a market need successfully, having a well strategized and executed plan will help anyone working toward building and wielding political power have a greater chance for success.
In the startup world, you must first be driven by a vision. I’ve sat through so many CEO keynote speeches and to a person, they’ll mention that if you’re starting a business just to make money, you might as well save yourself the time and fold now. The best companies in the technology space are driven by a vision or a mission. Google wants to “organize the world’s data”. Tesla wants to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”. The plotting phase is having a vision of the world you want to live in.
This stage is the view of the earth from space. It is a blank slate and you have the room to create a vision without the messy details from the ground. This is where things are easy but unfortunately, where so many people will stay. In organizing as in the business world, it is easy to state an ambition; it’s much harder to start making progress.
Even in the startup world though, vision can be difficult. It’s almost too abstract. In organizing we want to avoid this mistake. In order for political organizing to be effective, a good vision needs to start with taking a high-level view; it is having a clear picture of a world that looks different from our own. For example, we can see a world in which radically-inclusive democracy exists. We can see how it would help us as a country to be stronger having given a voice for every person to advocate for their needs. A person who truly believes in this vision isn’t going to be set back by a bad election or low turnout for an action. They see a future so promising, that they are energized to overcome hurdles to see real change.
As a person or group, effective plotting starts with a strong vision, but it doesn’t end there. Part of a successful plot involves seeing what landscape lies between your vision and your reality. You can bet that the founders of Tesla who wanted to accelerate the transition to sustainable energy, took a moment to understand why we don’t currently have sustainable energy. They would have looked at the most widely used non-sustainable energy products and found items they could electrify. They would have noted and accepted the real-life constraint that people don’t want to give up driving or that they wouldn’t be able to do so quickly. The founders of Tesla would have looked at other companies trying to make electric vehicles and worked to recognize where the competition was successful and where they were. In short, part of the plot is to do a market analysis.
In building political power, too many groups can easily set vision but they fail to plot out the landscape. If the vision is to have a radically-inclusive democracy, the plot should involve understanding what barriers lie in between radically-inclusive and current status quo. The plot would involve knowing who benefits from maintaining an exclusive democracy, looking at the tactics they employ and understanding where they have vulnerabilities to be exploited.
In the startup world, this is your market analysis.
In short, the plotting phase is the phase of targeted information gathering. It is knowing yourself, what you’re up against, how they are supported, and where their weaknesses are. It is assessing your own weaknesses and where you will need to bring on others to bolster those weaknesses. Once you have knowledge, and data to back up or challenge that knowledge, you can begin planning.
Now that you know the landscape and you’ve plotted out where you can make inroads toward your vision, you need to develop a plan. In the startup world, this is a high-level list of things that must be accomplished to get to where you want to go. It is often called a product roadmap, and that’s a perfect description. Looking at a map, you won’t see current traffic or weather conditions. Likewise, in building a roadmap, you don’t need to include all of your specific details. You just need to know what needs to happen to get you from A to B.
The successful startup roadmap would look something like this:
- Build prototype
- Scale to 100 users who look like beta group
- Compile usage data and determine how many users look like your successful beta users
- Get funding
- Scale to 1000 users
Notice that each step is high-level and has a stated outcome. They don’t include the steps within, for example, to calculate how much funding you would need in order to scale to 1000 users or identify investors who would be most likely to invest in your choses market. That planning happens for each new roadmap item in the following phases. The road-mapping is just a more strategic vision of how you get from where you are today to a point where your vision is a reality.
A similar roadmap for a group looking to implement radically-inclusive democracy might look something like this:
- Identify target districts for policy testing
- Draft policy that would produce a measurable result in diversity of voter turnout
- Work with locals to implement policy
- Communicate wins from policy implementation
- Seek funding to scale to 5 similar districts
- Scale policy to 5 additional districts
Again, notice that each step has potentially dozens of smaller steps that must be taken within but that overall, you can see a plan for moving from the present to your future vision. Maybe the step for forming policy would have several steps within testing different policy options and measuring key performance indicators. At this point, you still aren’t too in the details. You simply have a plan that you can follow to get from A to B. To fill in the details, you’ll need experts and allies to help you plan.
This leads to another part of the planning phase. In a startup you would need to build the team you’ll need to lead different initiatives on your roadmap. This would probably mean finding somebody who has strong marketing and analytical skills that can help research and communicate what the landscape looks like. It would likely include a data scientist to create models and do user testing. It would include a designer who knows what patterns help guide users. And of course, it would involve engineers to build the product.
In political organizing, you would want to find similar roles. You would look for an expert in data to help you identify the best target districts. You would want somebody from a target district who knows the landscape intimately and can identify who you could work with and help make connections on the ground. You would want somebody who knows how to research and present findings in a way that people can use to influence action. You would look for somebody who is skilled in building policy, and you would want somebody specializing in determining what communication strategies are the most effective. Planning should take all of this into account and you as the organizer should work early on to bring together the team.
The final part of a good planning phase is to identify success metrics for each roadmap item. This is the piece of objective data that can tell you when you are ready to move onto the next step. In startups, this is a big reason that companies fail. They don’t know what success looks like for each step in the plan, so they don’t know when to continue putting effort toward a step or when to move onto the next. A good roadmap item will have a key metric planned in before the strategy is implemented to achieve the goal. For a roadmap item of
Get 5 successful beta users, key performance metrics might be:
- Have five distinct users on the product
- All five users can produce an accurate month-end accounting report
- All five users would recommend the software to a friend
When there are clear success metrics on roadmap items, then team members can look at what they need to accomplish and make plans accordingly. Additionally, they can regularly measure outcomes to determine if tactics are successfully moving results in the right direction and make adjustments as necessary. While the work of executing on the roadmap items is not yet taking place, the performance indicators tell you, in more detail, what the roadmap items are meant to accomplish.
The Strategize phase is like the war room planning. In the software startup, it would look like a meeting where the product leader presents a roadmap item to a product team. They would state what the iteam is meant to accomplish and what metrics need to be met. They would outline where this piece of the roadmap falls within the broader scope of the company vision; what it builds on and what it builds toward. Then the product leader would ask their team of experts, what needs to happen to accomplish the goal. Team members would present ideas about how they can use their individual skills to move toward the desired outcome and plans would be made to coordinate those efforts. Any preparatory work that would need to be accomplished is talked about and planned for. Any risks or unknowns are brought up and plans are made to mitigate those risks. Importantly, timelines are created and goals set accordingly. The end goal of strategizing around a roadmap item is that a team knows what they each must to do to achieve success and importantly, what success looks like and means for the overall mission.
Political organizers can learn from these detailed plans. The raw energy that has been seen in the last few years is amazing. We have seen experts with diverse talents from every community in the country coming out to march against police misuse of power or against mass incarceration or climate change inaction. The key to strategizing is to get supporters of these movements working in a coordinated way. If the vision is to have an inclusive democracy, and the next roadmap item is to pass automatic voter registration legislation in an identified district, then an organizing leader should be able to find the talent, communicate why voter registration is important to inclusive-democracy, present findings on why a chosen district would be a good first move, and ask members what can be done to get the policy passed. The strategy phase is taking raw energy and turning it into bite-sized actions that result in pre-defined outcomes.
This work doesn’t happen right away or in one sitting. Often software companies will have several different strategies for a single roadmap item. Product leaders will need to be skilled in recognizing and categorizing different viable strategies and then devising frameworks for prioritizing one strategy over another. It takes discipline to try to remove bias and work toward the best solution instead of the easy or favorite solution. It takes research and finding small ways to test that a solution is the correct solution before too much energy is put into the efforts. Oftentimes, a product leader will set milestones along the way that they can look at to determine if they are on the right track. A startup product group may meet several times before deciding on the course of action but putting in the work at every stage only increases odds for successful achievement of the stated vision. The one that will help drive engagement and participation even when things are tedious or disheartening as is often the case in progressive politics.
To summarize, the strategy phase takes a roadmap item as an input and produces a set of tactics and actions to take that will produce desired outcomes measured using pre-defined metrics.
After setting a vision, too often, would-be organizers jump to this step. People understand that they need to organize but many don’t understand what that means and the preparation necessary beforehand. In political organizing this is the boots on the ground work to build up a base of power. The organized step differs from the previous steps in that they mostly involved a smaller group doing planning measures. In organizing, the aim is to build a base as big as possible that can be mobilized to wield power.
The reason so many organizers fail at this point is that they have the desired outcome or roadmap item of “get more people into a coalition’ but they haven’t done the work to determine who they need to get, how they can speak to those people, which of those people can be used to bring in more people, or what to do with people once they have organized them. The organizer may know that a protest action should drive supporters to bolster the organization’s numbers while at the same time failing to explore how effective these actions are and what other types of actions can be taken. This is why you see organizations that exist for a long time but don’t seem to build any real political power.
An example of organizing with a plan, might be to identify members of a community that have a big following. This could be a religious leader, a political leader, a member of the school board, a coworker, or even somebody with an active social media following. Anyone could be this leader and often they will be organic leaders without a formal title of leadership. With the person identified, steps should be taken court and win over this person.
Thinking about organizing like a startup leader, these organic leaders are your strategic customers. They should be entered into a CRM and have communication with them documented so that it can be analyzed. Communication would involve gauging interest and alignment with the organization’s vision. Vision should be communicated in ways that the customer will connect with and A/B testing of communication methods and messages will make clear which messages work and which ones don’t. A deliberate and methodological approach to communication efforts will allow startup leaders to work with the potential strategic customer to engage in increasingly more meaningful ways until they are ready to sign a contract. The organization is looking to build a base composed of leaders who already have followers who will show up and mobilize when called upon.
Like a good sales organization, organizers should have a constant pipeline of these “customers”. Organization involves selling your vision and strategy to individuals in hopes that they will buy-in and later become a part of your organization. Organizers should be developing programs that act as a funnel to gather as many contacts as possible, identifying target members, then converting these contacts into leaders within the organization.
Detailed review of prospects, customers, and customer engagement happen regularly to see where messaging can be improved and plans strategy adjusted to increase customer loyalty. Likewise, organizers should be well aware of how many people are likely to show up to an action. Organizers should know who are the leaders and how many people they can bring with them. Organizers should know what type of messages work to mobilize which groups and should be constantly working to make sure that everyone knows where the organization is going and how they are necessary to get there. The actions related specifically to the Organizing phase look a lot like the marketing, sales, training, and support roles within a startup.
Politics then is something that you do rather than something that you observe. It is the actions taken to build a base that understands the vision, how they fit into steps to achieve that vision, and who will mobilize at key moments to help bring the vision into fruition. The organizing phase is the heart of doing politics but is done most successfully when the thought has been put in upfront in the plotting, planning, and strategizing phases.
Finally, mobilization is a tool. Mobilization is the means by which an organization can wield their power. Mobilization may be turning up to vote for a particular measure on election day. It could be participating in a boycott or strike. It could also be a protest at an elected official’s office. An organization that can plan mobilization and then have their members show up, is an organization that can stand against existing institutions of power.
In fact, as an individual, it’s very hard to fight against an institution. Most of the status quo institutions exist because they already have the money, power, influence, and resources to exercise political power. This creates an imbalance to which the individual can only fight if they can figure out how to exercise a countering and equal power. The average citizens only have power when they can overwhelm the institution through sheer numbers; banning together with other individuals with a shared agenda. This is the whole reason organizing exists in the first place and why it is so important.
A healthy organization should regularly be planning mobilization actions that help people exercise their civic muscles and remind establishments of the power that individuals have when working as a group. Mobilization actions should also be organized in a way that they make increasingly bigger requests of participants. This is where the roadmap planning comes into play. Recal, an organizing roadmap should be broken into different items, each with their own outcomes. A mobilization could be a planned action where a handful of members canvas a neighborhood or serve at the local soup kitchen. If the outcome is to build goodwill with the community and has a measurable metric to determine if goodwill has been achieved, then the mobilization can be considered a success. If a mobilization action is a success and the organizer can share that success, they will be more likely to have more people mobilize for the next, bigger event.
In the startup world, the actions of increasing member commitments through mobilization can be compared with work to increase existing user engagement. It is making adjustments and planning future work that will increase brand loyalty and the depth to which users interact with the product.
Killer Mike is a natural organizer. He has been a loud voice for Black empowerment; encouraging patronizing Black establishments in the city as well as building alternative institutions to help his community hold political power and influence. He is also quickly building a career as a successful entrepreneur; building ventures ranging from barbershops to his own bank. It is no surprise. The skills that help entrepreneurs identify market needs, make a plan to fulfill those needs, and then execute on their plans, map closely to those of successful organizers.
If the passion that people feel in the aftermath of the events of 2020 can be organized, then there is always hope for real progressive change. The burden of passion is unfairly placed on the young. As a result, there is a lack of experience in the organizing space needing the occasional guidance and framework to transform the energy into the change. That isn’t to disparage the young people in the streets; they’ve done an amazing job considering the odds they are up against.
It is a call for the would-be organizers to seek out individuals with a knack for planning and executing big ideas; but it is also a call for the comfortable professional utilizing these skills to make some tech company more profitable. Don’t be lame. Be the Killer Mike.