Convening Power

As it is the weekend(!) I am affording myself the luxury of straying from the day-to-day of ColaLife to write down the things I’ve been saying about “Convening Power” during recent presentations (Royal Society of Medicine, TEDx Berlin) and how we’ve used this to get where we’ve got with the ColaLife project.

The term, Convening Power, has an intentional double meaning – there’s more to it than I first imagined.

Most individuals, and I include myself in this, have very little power but we all have some. But as individuals we generally don’t have enough power to get the attention of very powerful individuals or institutions. So what do we do? We put all our little bits of power together – we convene to aggregate our power – and approach those more powerful than ourselves as a group.

This was the primary reason for setting up the ColaLife Facebook Group* three years ago. I’d got nowhere trying to engage Coca-Cola as an individual so it was time to gather more people around the idea to give me more power. This is what trade unions have been doing for years and it is captured beautifully in this UNISON video – one of my favourite adverts of all time.

So there is nothing new in this sort of convening for power but what is new is that whereas before you needed an organisation – like a trade union – to do it, today anyone who knows how to use Facebook can do it. Today you succeed or fail more on the strength of your ideas and less on whether you have the might of an organisation behind you.

So what other sorts of power does convening give you? Before setting up the Facebook group I had had a very positive, I’d even say a life-changing, experience, with the process of open innovation. So I was aware that exposing the ColaLife idea at an embryonic stage would generate comment, challenge and suggested improvements to the idea and this indeed has happened. The original published idea was:

What about Coca Cola using their distribution channels (which are amazing in developing countries) to distribute rehydration salts? Maybe by dedicating one compartment in every 10 crates as ‘the life saving’ compartment?

That was never going to work and soon we came around to the idea of making use of the unused space between the necks of crated bottles instead of replacing one with a tube.

ColaLife pods in place Model AidPods in a Coca-Cola crate
What open innovation does. How the idea has developed by sharing it online.

If I’m honest that thought process – the idea of making use of the unused space – started in my own living room and came from Jane (my partner in life and ColaLife) – so you don’t have to have online systems to undertake open innovation but it does help. I’m sure she was stimulated by the online competition! Other improvements to the idea that have come from further afield include:

  • Insights into the way the Coca-Cola system and distribution chain works
  • The idea of the AidPod as a kit
  • The role of enterprise
  • The importance of local determination of how the concept is applied in a particular place
  • Ideas on how to increase credibility eg through our Virtual Advisory Board
  • Etc

Convening people around you and an idea increases your credibility. The higher your credibility the more power you have. Amongst our supporters are some of the most well respected experts in their fields. To highlight this fact we have asked these people to be part of our Virtual Advisory Board and make a public statement about their desire to see ColaLife piloted.

Another outcome of this convening process, which was unexpected, is the heightened sense of responsibility that it generates in you. When I went for that first meeting with Coca-Cola, way back in June 2008, it felt like the 1,000 members of the Facebook Group* were watching me. They weren’t all watching of course but that’s not important. The important thing is that it felt like they were watching. What that meant was that I gave a lot of thought to that meeting before I went in and in particular focused on what I might be able to take away for ColaLife supporters. I’ve attended many meetings in my life and always take them seriously but I had never felt that same level of responsibility before. This, perhaps, is more of a reflection on me than on the process of convening.

Then there is the power that comes with confidence. Exposing your idea to thousands of people and getting a largely positive reaction makes you realise that the idea may actually be quite a good one. You will never get 100% approval and we do not have this, but I can count the number of people who have said that the idea is NOT worth piloting on the fingers of one hand.

So whatever it is you are doing consider being open and sharing. This will give you various sorts of power and is likely to improve your idea and all of these things will help you get your idea implemented. It’s not always appropriate to take the open road of course but often it is. As Rowland Harwood of 100% Open said a couple of weeks ago at NESTA: ‘Default to open’.
Default to Open
Only keep things to yourself if you’ve got VERY VERY good reasons to do so.

* The ColaLife Facebook Group, which now has 8,420 members, has been superseded by our Facebook Page which has 4,240 members


  1. noelito says:

    "we convene to aggregate our power & approach those more powerful than ourselves as a group" @colalife h/t @davidwilcox