Business Lessons Flowed From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

(Previously Published at on October 4, 2015. Originally published on August 19, 2014 as LinkedIn China intern. )

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge recently gained worldwide popularity. It requires challengers to upload photos or videos of themselves having a bucket of ice water poured over their heads, and then to nominate three of their friends to accept the same challenge. The nominees must either complete the task within 24 hours, or donate 100 dollars to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) charity organizations.

In recent weeks, business giants from Silicon Valley and stars from the worlds of sport, entertainment, and the arts have all joined in. Company bosses from IT and other business circles both at home and abroad challenge each other, and this has created an industry spectacle. So, is this just a bit of fun, or does it conceal a more serious purpose? In fact, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is more than a game, and three important business lessons have flowed from it.

1) People are connected by icy water, showing how effective use of personal contacts can achieve career goals.

What makes a great boss? There are many theories, but the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge suggests that personal connections may be one answer.

We have seen the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, challenge Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, NFL star Steve Gleason (an ALS patient) challenge Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella, and Bill Gates nominate Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired magazine. Here in China, we have also seen Lei Jun (CEO of Xiaomi Technology) nominate Andy Lau (superstar in Hong Kong). You have probably noticed that what these challenges have in common is that they reach across sectors, but you may not know that Zuckerberg donated 100 million dollars to New Jersey public schools, that NFL star Gleason starred in a Microsoft advertisement, that Microsoft was the focus of reports in Wired, or that Lei Jun got acquainted with Andy Lau at a business seminar at Tsinghua University.

Cross-sector personal connections provide opportunities for dialogue and the exchange of ideas, enabling business leaders to explore their industry beyond their own sector. Do you tend to stay in your own small circle? Getting out and meeting more people could make a huge difference.

The greatest wealth accumulated by highly successful bosses who started from scratch lies in their personal connections. They have witnessed all the ups and downs of business and they are masters in making use of personal contacts. The relationship chart of the Ice Bucket Challenge in foreign countries shows that challenges between the bosses are usually based on peer relationships, or personal friendship in the case of Silicon Valley, while in China it is much more complex — there are peers in the same industry, competitors, investors, partners, and stars from other sectors all participating in the event.

Why did Liu Zuohu (CEO of OnePlus) challenge Zhou Hongyi (CEO of Qihoo360)? And why did Zhou challenge Xu Xiaoping (famous Angel Investor)? The reason is very simple, because they have common interests either in terms of investment or cooperation.

Suppose you are a boss, how should you contact the powerful people who might support you, and how can you secure their support and maintain a stable long-term cooperative relationship? And if you are an employee, how can you gain the trust of your boss and create opportunities for yourself?

Of course, these are complex questions, but what the Ice Bucket Challenge tells us is that we must not pass up any opportunity to make connections: a coffee appointment, a ‘Like’ on social network, or the shared experience of the ice water could allow your investor, boss, or cooperative partner to see your attractive traits, and draw you closer together.

Take Lei Jun for example. He challenged Andy Lau, Guo Taiming (CEO of Foxconn), and Li Yanhong (CEO of Baidu); these people are, respectively, the superstar with whom he used to work, the head of his supply company, and a strategic ally. Together they represent influence, business, and cooperation, so a connection that at first seems bizarre has actually been made with careful consideration and business sense.

In the relationship chart of the Ice Bucket Challenge we can also find several pairs of people who were previously sworn enemies. Is the Ice Bucket Challenge a battle in another form, or a reconciliation through a game? Is it a provocation of a rival or a demonstration of private friendship?

To challenge a rival in this way is both an enactment of the idea of ‘being both the enemy and the friend’ and an effective method of attracting attention. In NBA or football games, when facing the previous champions or an old enemy, the players usually receive double the attention, because people look forward to the conflict. If you are involved in such a situation at work, don’t be afraid; instead, see it as your show time.

2) The demonstration and interaction effect: Mark Zuckerberg, then Bill Gates, followed by Lei Jun, and then Luo Yonghao.

From the past to modern times, in China and abroad, bosses have fascinated the public. The Ice Bucket Challenge event started as early as two months ago (June 2014), but interest peaked when Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and LeBron James offered to experience the challenge. The challenge was different from charity events within small circles, because after completing it, the person had to challenge three of his/her friends, so the events increased exponentially. Also, the influence of celebrities was magnified by the use of powerful communication tools such as social networks and videos, creating a surge in the click-through rate.

If you want to implement a big project in your industry or company, the support of the boss and influential figures will get you instant results.

The demonstration effect is followed by the interactive effect: when employees interact with each other, companies across the industry will also interact with each other. One major principle of ‘social influence’ described in the book Influence, written by Kerry Patterson, is that people tend to follow the practical example of those similar to them, and that peer group persuasion can be surprisingly effective. In sales, when satisfied customers are in a similar situation to that of potential customers, the words of the satisfied customers are likely to have more impact.

For managers who are implementing new measures in their company, such peer pressure can be very helpful. Suppose you are planning to streamline the working processes of the department, but a group of old long-term employees objects to it, then it would be better to find one long-term employee who does agree with the change and ask them to make positive remarks at the group meeting than to try to persuade these employees yourself. Words from a respected colleague are more convincing than words from the boss. In short, influence is strongest when it operates in a horizontal rather than a vertical direction.

If you can comprehensively use both the demonstration effect and the interactive effect to influence more bosses and peers, you are more likely to see targets exceeded.

3) If you want to drench someone in ice, you should first understand them: social communication and self-realization in the Ice Bucket Challenge.

In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, social needs (or love and belonging) and self-realization needs are toward the top of the pyramid. The Ice Bucket Challenge serves as an example for business cooperation and crowdfunding activities, and if it can simultaneously meet the needs for social communication and self-realization for both participants and the target audience, then this activity is a success.

Athletes, politicians, entertainers, senior corporate executives, and even the mascots of university sports teams are all gathered in the same circle by the Ice Bucket Challenge. It can be seen as a product designed to meet the need for communication, with all the participants as consumers. The consumers pay attention to such a product to find out whether it could improve their own image.

As the leader of a company, you can create opportunities for social interaction among colleagues, help employees seek and build harmonious and warm interpersonal relationships, hold an organized sports event, such as a marathon, a board game, or an Ice Bucket Challenge. And when employees are all together having fun, yelling and shivering, they are no longer the sort of colleagues who can only maintain relationships through work.

Self-realization is the highest need, according to Maslow, and involves striving to realize one’s potential and become the ideal self. From this perspective, the Ice Bucket Challenge is also a consumer product, and consumers judge the product according to their own criteria. The Ice Bucket Challenge brings people a positive feeling of helping charities and involves them in meaningful group behavior. In addition, the rules are skillfully designed to have a psychological effect; the challenge seems to require a simple decision — choose the ice water or make a donation — but caring people, or celebrities concerned about their social status, will also choose to donate money even after enduring the ice water. And for the people who don’t want to accept the challenge, it offers a clear and respectable alternative: if you don’t want to play the game after your name is called, you just show your goodwill by donating money!

Whether charity or business, it is of vital importance to understand and meet people’s psychological needs. If you design an activity with a meaningful theme, based on the psychology and interests of the target audience, making sure it is within their capabilities, your activity will never be unpopular. What are you waiting for? Design and implement a business plan that will arouse positive emotions, encourage self-expression, and in which everybody can participate and make a contribution!