Critical Mass


‘Today’s organizational and societal challenges are too big to be addressed by heroic leaders alone. A more contemporary understanding of leadership as a shared process is needed. Collective leadership occurs when mobilized masses achieve exponential results through their connections. If leaders, organizations, partnerships, cross-sector alliances, NGOs, community-based organizations, and grassroots movements are going to leverage the potential they have for impact, then they must understand the power of informal networks.’ (Center for Creative Leadership, 2014).
Social organizations can reach a critical mass and grow into a powerful social movement. Critical mass is the explosive attraction of fans around an existing coalition of organizations. The associated openness and the large number of new participants can transform into an explosive movement that produces significant results. Picture 1 shows a power-law distribution, which is especially triggered in social systems where many people express their dissatisfaction about many causes (Shirky, C. 2003). Of course, success is no guarantee, without any form of leadership, chaos will arise with possible far-reaching disadvantages such as violence (what we see in many revolutions).
Pic 1: reaching critical mass (Theory of Disruptive Innovation, C. Christensen, 2006)

Every entity is a network (group structure) network that changes, forms and deforms to adapt to surrounding structures (the environment). Complexity theory learns us that group formation is a result of ‘emergence’: structures that spontaneously form from smaller entities that adapt to the environment. Over time networks tend to look like a spiral e.g. dna, networks of people, evolution, galaxies, see pic 2 (Lissack, M, 2002 ).

The spiral is not just a form, but a very important fractal which we encounter everywhere in life. A fractal is a constantly repeating pattern appearing the same on each scale. Ideal spirals are based on the Golden ratio and the Fibonacci numbers. Most spirals in real life are far from perfect; still that is probbly what we should aim for, to accomplish maximum results.
It is important to recognize that the course of a social movement looks like a (network-shaped) spiral over time. It starts with a joint thematic focus by a small core of organizations, which extends to an ever-increasing coalition and if this leads to critical mass, the open phase of countless organizations and participants joining, follows. Then we speak of a social movement. Ruhri and Katzmair (2007) call this the three main network phases: focus, mass and openness. In general, as high levels of focus, mass and openness are favorable for achieving results (Rulke and Galaskiewicz, 2000).