What I Learned About Managing Passion from Helping "Occupy the Rose Parade"

[Originally published on Jan 10, 2012 on my Inspired Project Teams website. NOTE: You can take this article with you! Download a specially-formatted Kindle, NOOK, or PDF version.]

When a project team is trying to create something great – something that excites and captures the imagination of creators and stakeholders – something that could change the world – then that project’s team leaders have to figure out how to handle the passion that swirls all around that vision. Specifically, project leaders need to answer these questions:
  • How do you harness passion without snuffing it out? … or without having it blow up in your hands because you squeezed it a little too hard trying to contain it or bend it to your will?
  • How do you synchronize the differing passions of individual team members and then embed these as a unified force in the finished product, so that its energy can crackle and arc like a lightning bolt across the chasm that separates your team from your customers?
    I realize, after having experienced Occupy The Rose Parade (OTRP) first hand, that the OTRP leadership team seems to have answered these questions brilliantly. In this article, I’m going to share what I observed and what project managers everywhere can learn from OTRP about managing that most precious of project resources: passion.

    Occupy the Rose Parade: How I Got There

    On January 2, 2012 (Rose Parade day) I dragged myself out of bed at 4:00 a.m., drove to downtown Los Angles’ Union Station, then caught the Gold Line train to Pasadena. (FYI: On the day of the Rose Parade you really don’t want to be driving around Pasadena. So, “Thanks, LA Metro system!” for my car-free ride to the parade!) Stepping off the train, I began walking to the Norton Simon Museum following directions provided by the OTRP website.

    The website had invited everyone to meet there and organize for a nice, friendly, non-disruptive, city-approved mini-parade that would begin at the tail end of the official Rose Parade. Sounds simple enough, right? Just go to the Norton Simon Museum (where I’d been before, though in the daylight and by car!) Unfortunately, in the dark of the early morning, I must have misread a street sign or something. After a somewhat confused, 20-minute walk, I ended up at the LA Sheriff Department’s Rose Parade Command Center. (Whoops!) I bid the on-duty deputies “Good Morning!” and was quickly on my way! 

    Eventually, after wandering around for about an hour, stepping over parade-goers in sleeping bags and getting directed and redirected by locals, I found myself stalled out completely just a couple of blocks from the OTRP rally point at the museum. Turns out the Norton Simon was near where TV camera crews & VIPs were gathering. And it had (just minutes before my arrival) been safely tucked away behind miles of that yellow “Police Line, Do Not Cross” plastic tape. To get through, you had to show a ticket! (I had none.)

    So that was it, it seemed! Game over! Discouraged, I headed back toward the main parade route to figure out what to do next.  Fortunately, just a couple of blocks away from where I had been stopped by the police, I saw some Occupy banners and headed straight for them. Walking up to their bearers, I introduced myself, asked what I could do, and was immediately invited to help hold up a huge banner that said: “Corporate Money Out of Politics: Now!” (That’s me, at the end of the red arrow in the photo below.)


    Whoo hoo! I had arrived! The OTRP folks had staked out this claim hours ago. It was about 40 feet of curb right on Colorado Blvd., the main parade route. Better yet, for our purposes, it was right across from a bleacher full of cameras and reporters. Our job would be to maintain a gently challenging presence here during the official parade. Then, when our OTRP parade arrived, with its Occupy Octopus and walking U.S. Constitutions and human floats, we would simply step off the curb, join our main group and carry our banners along the parade route to the final destination: Pasadena City Hall.  In the meantime, there was nothing to do now but wait and watch the parade and maybe chant or yell a little, as the spirit moved us.

    So… Who Were These People? And What Were They Doing? 

    So. There I was. Standing there holding a banner with this eclectic group of OTRP strangers for more than an hour before the official parade began. I didn’t know anyone. I had never met any Occupy activists before this moment. I just knew that I was full-tilt angry and disgusted and wanting change because [insert your favorite political rant here]. And so I had joined them. While we stood there waiting, we introduced ourselves. I was relieved to learn that most of the people who stood with me hadn’t known each other before that morning.  They had just showed up, full of passion, to see if they could get involved. 

    There was the father of four grown kids from Orange County, the multiple-degreed post-grad Political-Science student who held forth with articulate political justifications and historical perspective, the good natured but determined retirees, the college semi-grads who dropped out due to lack of funds or simply quit when they realized there were no jobs to be had for grads or non-grads, the 12-year-old girl who was there with her dad, the college kids on their bikes. They spoke Spanish and English and a couple of other languages I couldn’t place. And they were African-American and Mexican and White and Asian and other subtle racial blends that I didn’t recognize. Some had grey-hair or white beards, while some had dreadlocks and some were bald. And some were pierced and tattooed and covered with face paint. You get the idea. A wide variety of people made up this little ad-hoc Occupy The Rose Parade “project” team.

    What united them was their passion – an anger – an outrage that the deal they had been promised by the educational institutions (work hard, earn good grades, learn plenty of skills and you'll be rewarded with a job, meaningful work and an independent middle-class life) or the promises made by financial institutions (“Invest here! We’ll make your life savings grow for you!” or, worse, “Sure… You can afford that mortgage!”) – that these deals & promises had somehow been broken or stolen by complicated “Gotchas!” hidden in the fine print. One-by-one they'd arrive, introduce themselves briefly or sometimes just skip the introduction entirely, then ask: "What can I do? You got any extra signs or banners? Are there brochures or papers I can pass out? Should I be yelling or chanting something?"

    Interestingly, there was no specific individual who answered every question posed by each new arrival. There was no leader. I even found myself, complete Occupy newbie that I was, answering some of these questions and helping someone assume a useful role on my newly-adopted team. Somehow someone among us always spoke up and provided guidance or handed over a sign or pamphlet or suggested a place to stand and a way to engage the message. We all wanted the same thing: To succeed in delivering a message with as much force and clarity as possible. So the answers just seemed to bubble up out of the group, cooked up by some magical interaction between these passionate people and the crowd and the imagined media audience we were trying to address.

    After the Rose Parade began, without overt instructions from anyone, we began reacting to various floats and other parade entries by yelling out rhythmic, rhyming chants or simple slogans. Seeing an entry from a financial institution or global mega company, we’d yell, “Hey, Hey. Ho Ho. Corporate Greed has got to go!”  When politicians passed by, it was, “Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” And this was usually followed by something like “Overturn Citizen’s United…” or “Corporate Money Out of Politics.”  When some Wisconsin-based entries went by, someone started yelling, “Impeach Scott Walker! Impeach Scott Walker!” and we all joined in to underscore that message.

    The verbiage we let loose wasn’t always confrontational, however. We’d see floats and marching units from volunteer organizations, equestrian clubs, police or veterans’ organizations etc. and start yelling, “We are the 99 per cent! You are the 99 per cent!” followed by “The people, united, can never be defeated!” And then we’d applaud and cheer them. This frequently got a smile and a “thumbs-up” from someone who was marching among them.

    On a couple of occasions one of the younger Occupy kids would react to a flag-twirling young girl in tights or a short skirt with a wolf-whistle or a provocative comment. When this happened, the kid was immediately tapped on the shoulder by a more level-headed comrade and told: “Hey… Cool it! You’re representing the whole Occupy movement here.

    Show her the respect she deserves!” And he’d quickly comply.

     Eventually the end of the official Rose Parade passed by, our OTRP entries arrived and we stepped in to join the group to its final destination at City Hall. Along the way we were pleasantly surprised that so many Rose Parade attendees had remained to see what we were up to. Many of them waved. Some cheered in solidarity. I walked to the sidelines and smiled and asked people my age to join us “for their kids and grandkids.” Nobody told me to do this. It was entirely spontaneous and it just made sense to me. So I did it. Taking this initiative, I was able to increase our ranks by 15 or 20 people whom I recruited along the way.

    One of these folks – an ancient, but decidedly angry lady – joined in while riding in one of those “Hover-Round” carts! Throughout our “We the People…” parade, we were gently guided by OTRP core team members in special green-fluorescent “99” vests.

    They helped us avoid obstacles, including a couple of piles of horse manure left by the equestrian units! They also adjusted our pace to meet the needs of various news media, handicapped volunteers, and traffic. They were low-keyed – almost invisible.  Yet they maintained safety and order. Eventually we arrived at City Hall, where we milled around waiting for the entire parade group to assemble before hearing from various guest speakers and encouragers.

    And Did This “Project” Succeed?

    The results of Occupy The Rose Parade were clear. An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 Occupy Activists had assembled at one of the largest, most-televised events of the year. And they had achieved the simple goal of raising consciousness about the effects of corporate money in our political process. And, in particular, how the “99%” have been displaced and rendered irrelevant by this money.


    A thousand cameras and microphones and reporters from news entities around the world had asked for, and received, spontaneous interviews from our ranks. And we had replied to these media people at will, unscripted, imbued with the passion that brought us together. And this passion was transformed into all manner of news stories, photo essays, and blog posts. All this came about without any arrests or violence of any kind. So I’d call that a success!

    Managing All That Passion

    OK. Enough about our fun. What are the project management (PM) lessons that I learned from this experience? At the beginning of this article, I posed these questions that every project manager must answer if she wants to create world-changing, creativity-infused results:
    • How do you harness passion without snuffing it out? … or without having it blow up in your hands because you squeezed it a little too hard trying to contain it or bend it to your will?
    • How do you synchronize the differing passions of individual team members and then embed these as a unified force in the finished product, so that its energy can crackle and arc like a lightening bolt across the chasm that separates your team from your customers?
      Here’s how OTRP addressed these questions. Here are the “management” mechanisms I witnessed that kept the Occupiers’ passions alive, while providing guidance and enough boundaries for their actions to ensure success:

      Motivational Support and Logistical Information Available 24/7

      The Occupy the Rose Parade website was (is) not all that pretty. But it is loaded with information that can fan the flames of any discontent you might have with the status quo. The front page answers the cosmic question “Why occupy the Rose Parade??” by presenting short fact-filled motivational videos, articles, and more from great thinkers, artists, comedians, politicians, etc. This stuff is both eclectic and effective.

      I’m sure there were many others who, like me, began this journey by simply visiting the site out of idle curiosity and ended up so highly motivated that they enlisted in the cause. (Note: Some time after my first visit to this site, I had begun to have second thoughts about getting involved. So I revisited the site and reviewed the media collection related to “Why…” and became re-motivated!)

      The site was also the source of vital logistical information. On the weeks prior to the parade, the website presented page after page of detailed info about:
      • How you could be involved (different “stages” and events, different roles, etc.)
      • Where and when to show up
      • Specific, detailed directions and maps
      • Recommended train lines, what to do with your car, what to bring, etc.
      • Broad guidelines re: messaging, signage, etc.
      Here’s an example of the power of this info-rich website: It made the strongest possible case for my involvement. Yet did so in an exciting, entertaining way. And it was very clear about the logistical “how” of my involvement. I could return to the site over and over again, 24/7, to clarify and strengthen my plans for participating. They had made it all very easy! In short, this website encouraged and amplified my passion by deepening my own “Why” through the media presented and linking me to great minds who shared my position. At the same time, I was motivated by the easy, step-by-step “How” that allowed me to creatively visualize with crystal clarity my specific involvement. (I came away feeling: “Yeah! I can do this!”)

      Broad Goals & A Framework for Participating; No Micromanaging

      The OTRP website provided general themes related to the message we were trying to spread. And, while the Occupy leadership had planned for a couple of key entries with specific messages (the Octopus, the Constitution, etc.), the website suggested we each consider the broad themes and create our own signs with our own, personally-meaningful messages. That’s incredibly empowering! I was being encouraged to share some of myself, to reach inside and put my heart on the line!

      At the same time, the Occupy leaders were quite open about the various opportunities for involvement. You could create signs, help organize speakers and guests, become a green-vested “guide,” or take any other role your imagination could envision. If it would support the broad message and work within the general guidelines (safety, legal, etc.), then almost any participation was welcomed. By being empowered to select my job within the event, I could make a contribution that I could personally get excited about.

      Self-Managing Teams

      As I described earlier, I was part of an ad-hoc group of Occupiers positioned along the parade route. I hadn’t planned to join them. But when I arrived eager to contribute they put me to work. I was older than those who welcomed and guided me. But to them, I was simply another resource, quickly evaluated, judged trustworthy, and subsequently empowered to help share the message. And I observed several more team members as they were acquired in this same manner. As noted earlier, this team moved fluidly from one chant to another, judging appropriateness based on the latest stimuli offered up by the parade.

      Occasionally, somebody’s chant or behavior was rejected, gently but quickly, by an ad hoc quorum of fellow team members who swooped in to persuade the offender to curb his misplaced enthusiasm. This group shared a vision. They were guided by the broad OTRP goals as articulated at the website. And they were permitting nothing to interfere with our alignment with these. I honestly believe that had there been a specific, clearly-identified leader, most of us would have felt somehow diminished. The self-managed team, in reality, encouraged passionate, yet appropriate and self-managed, expression. No one wanted to be the one who ruined things for the rest of the group!

      Immediate Communications Through Social Networking

      OK. To be honest, I can only speculate about this. But from what I could tell, many of our team were in continual contact with other teams and with the people who would eventually appear as the “We the People…” procession. I’m not sure exactly what tools they used, but judging from their conversations and responses, I’m fairly certain they were tracking their comrades and the conditions at other venues through Twitter, Facebook, texting, and more. Occupy The Rose Parade existed as a real-time, self-managing organization, courtesy of the internet and the genius “light touch” of those who were behind this event.

      In Sum: It’s All About the Passion! So let’s summarize the management tools and strategies that I experienced by helping to Occupy The Rose Parade:
      • Passionate, smart people – individual citizen activists – whose smoldering coals of anger and discontent had been turned into the flames of passion by a carefully-curated collection of media that was available 24/7 on the web to recruit newbies (or to revive the enthusiasm of the Occupy veterans who might become discouraged).
      • A nearly-invisible team of organizers who gently and deftly leveraged all that passion by providing just enough of a framework for organized, coordinated effort (i.e., strength in numbers!), while encouraging free, unique expression of the broader vision by individuals.
      • Self-managed teams, empowered by all of the above to take independent action and move toward the goal. (Thus empowered, our enthusiasm and sense of having “skin in the game” could only increase!)
      • A not-so-pretty, but highly effective website that provided plenty of essential logistical information, thus eliminating confusion and obstacles that could put out the fires of passion.
      • The social media tools in everybody’s pockets (texting, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to allow real-time adjustment to rapidly-changing conditions, thus ensuring a smoother operation.
      Each of the above enhanced the passion of the individual activists (think “project team members”) precisely because they allowed the administrative stuff… the management stuff… to become nearly invisible. It simply wasn’t noticeable! And when it did appear, it was welcomed as a tool to help keep things moving. If you can employ these or similar tools on your next project that requires an inspired, creative team, you are bound to be successful in keeping their passion alive.

      Click here to see Photo Album: Occupy the Rose Parade