As I blogged here recently, a startup is in many ways a tiny social revolution: it tries to change how its customers act, how they think, and how their world is connected together. Furthermore, a key measure of a startup’s influence and, well, ‘success‘ is the degree to which it changes how social agents in their industry or segment value products or services. In most important senses, then, a startup’s technology is a means to a social revolution within its marketplace.
All of which does beg the question of why it is that even though tech startups almost always have a Chief Technology Officer, they almost never have a “Chief Revolutionary Officer”. OK, it’s true that, according to the omniscient eye of Google, well-known writer Douglas Rushkoff is CRO of superfluid (which promotes the “Quid”, a p2p social collaboration currency thing), while Mary Beth Campbell is CRO of Boom Boom! Revolution (which promotes an “uprising of guerilla goodness” across the world); but to be frank that’s not exactly a great deal of conceptual coverage for the idea.
Superficially, according to this online comment from Dick Webster, it might seem that CRO is not an entirely new notion, as the title was (effectively) proposed in 1960:-
The idea comes from Murray D. Lincoln’s “Vice President In Charge Of Revolution” (with David Karp, 1960. Pres. of Ohio Farm Bureau, Founder of Nationwide Insurance Companies, 1892–1966). Companies wise enough to take MDL’s advice will have a C-level officer as champion for making good sense, continual improvement and constructive change, for “pursuing excellence” in all its aspects.
However, this 1960-vintage CRO seems to be closer to a ‘quality champion‘ (i.e. inward-facing, promoting kaizen, etc) than the 2011-vintage CRO ‘fomenter of external revolution amongst customers‘ role that I think is now emerging from the primordial soup of contemporary startup thinking.
All the same, “revolution” (and its hip incremental cousin “next generation”) have long been used & abused as buzzy progressivist e-marketing jargonese, and it would be easy to fall into the trap of appropriating the concept as feel-good semantics just for the sake of it. But why not instead look at how Tsarist Russia fell, see if there are any lessons from history for this new generation of CROs? Really, how did the Bolsheviks roll out their social(ist) revolution?
Well… I think the #1 lesson is to choose a regime to revolt against that is already (a) bloated, (b) unsustainable, and (c) just about to fall over all by itself. The Wikipedia article makes it reasonably clear how the Tsarist government had (by October 1917) already lost control (insanely large national debt, mass protests, rapid increases in the cost of living, many enterprises shutting down, etc). In the end, the final battle was over with barely a shot being fired:-
“In actual fact the effectively unoccupied Winter Palace also was taken bloodlessly by a small group which broke in, got lost in the cavernous interior, and accidentally happened upon the remnants of Kerensky’s provisional government in the imperial family’s breakfast room. The illiterate revolutionaries then compelled those arrested to write up their own arrest papers.”
The Bolsheviks, it would seem, barely won a war: the Tsarists had pretty much lost it all by themselves. So for all the romance of exile – think of Lenin in the British Museum’s Reading Room – and the quasi-romantic “agitprop train” that toured the country after the October Revolution of 1917…
“[…] with artists and actors performing simple plays and broadcasting propaganda. It had a printing press onboard the train to allow posters to be reproduced and thrown out of the windows if it passed through villages.”
…the real secret of the Russian revolutionaries’ success was nothing more complicated than readiness: that is, being ready to step in when the self-destructing Tsarist juggernaut finally hit the wall. As far as I can see, it wasn’t so much the quality of their ideas that endeared the Bolsheviks to the people as their perfect timing – in many ways, simply arriving at the moment of greatest need was enough.
By way of comparison, then, how bloated, unsustainable & self-destructive are your competitors – and how good is your sense of timing, hmmm?