In the Netherlands, cyclists don’t wear helmets. This in a country where almost 40% of all journeys are by bicycle, compared to around 2%  in the UK [1]. But it hasn’t always been like that. In the 1970s, The Netherlands, like other European nations, experienced a sharp fall in the proportion of journeys taken by bicycle, and a big increase in the number of deaths on the road. The difference was that a group of mothers launched a campaign called Stop de Kindermoord – literally, “Stop the Child Murders.” [2] Through the 1970s to the present day the legacy of this movement can be seen all over the Netherlands – separate lanes for bicycles, speed restrictions and traffic calming measures in residential areas, very clear visual cues for drivers to warn them of where to drive. The cultural norm on Dutch roads is “cars are guests.” These events in the 1970s changed Dutch culture forever.

Transformation and change have never been more important in the modern workplace. Challenges such as the impacts of technology, shifts in the global balance of power and unsustainable environmental degradation cause organisations to need to reinvent themselves to remain relevant to their customers and attractive to their employees. Yet a recent report by McKinsey indicates that up to 70% of change initiatives fail [3].  Such a high failure rate is likely to demoralise work forces, leading to “change fatigue,” exactly at the moment when we need people to mobilise and transform how we work, for the benefit of all. For leaders, they must be experience what Franklin Roosevelt describe as the “terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead – and find no one there.”

Leaders need to understand how movements are created, so they can build the momentum they need to deliver not only change, but also maintain an organisational culture where adaptation and invention are the norm.

Movements are often the trigger for social and cultural change. Many are successful, many are not. As we marvel how a Swedish school girl – Greta Thunberg – became the visionary for a global movement and ended up speaking to world leaders at the UN, and consider whether her actions and the actions of others will be enough to trigger the response required to the Climate Emergency there is much we can apply to our own organisations. Here’s how:

1- Create a compelling message of what you want to be different.

There’s a clear and captivating purpose behind “stop the child murders”. We often make the mistake of communicating what we need to do that is new, when we should first express clearly, and unequivocally, what is wrong, and why it needs to be changed. People are far more likely to be mobilised by a message if it’s clear and involves obvious benefits for all.

2- Expect ridicule.

Leadership is often lonely and people may feel threatened by change as it creates uncertainty. In organisations ambiguity create a vacuum that people seek to fill with their own ideas, hopes or preferences. It is all too easy to react defensively to such dissonant voices. Better to see dissent as one of many likely obstacles on the path to change, and treat it as a problem solving exercise. Or as Abraham Lincoln said – “I don’t like that man, I must get to know him better.” The Stop de Kindermoord campaign involved a lot of “drinking tea with MPs.” These actions ultimately led to the Dutch government sponsoring the movement.

3- Find critical friends.

A critical friend holds you to account for your actions, whilst providing support and help during the difficult moments. Finding a group of activists willing to dedicate time and energy to the cause is critical if ideas are to be generated and actions planned. Enlisting early support sends a clear signal that the movement is worth joining. The Stop de Kindermoord campaign pioneered the use of making streets into a shared space through the innovative ideas of one of their members. They trialled this approach in just one town, before it quickly spread to others.

4- Make the movement greater than the sum of its parts.

Whilst we are often drawn to the hero of the story, it’s actually achieving critical mass that leads to change. The Stop de Kindermoord consisted of many local groups, each organising activities such as national street play days. Therefore, use small groups of people collaborating on specific projects. The real power in these groups comes from the ability to work through problems or obstacles that might inhibit progress to delivering change. In time, they will shape the continued change of the movement. The Stop de Kindermoord’s continued campaigning led to the  launch of a Union for Cyclists.

To grow your movement, it is necessary to transfer ownership of the change to the people it effects. Change works better when it is done with people, rather than to them.


[1] https://www.dutchreach.org/car-child-murder-protests-safer-nl-roads/

[2] https://lcc.org.uk/pages/holland-in-the-1970s

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/brentgleeson/2017/07/25/1-reason-why-most-change-management-efforts-fail/#383d3037546b


By Tom Blower,
Managing Director, Black Isle Group
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