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Why Some Movements Succeed And Others Fail

2015 May 31
by Greg Satell

On September 17, 2011, Occupy Wall Street took over Zuccotti Park, in the heart of the financial district in Lower Manhattan.  Declaring, “We are the 99%,” they captured the attention of the nation.  Within a few months, however, the park was cleared and the protesters went home, achieving little, if anything.

In 1998, a similar movement, Otpor, began in Serbia.  Yet where Occupy failed, Otpor succeeded marvelously.  In just two years they overthrew the reviled Milošević government.  Soon after came the Color Revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring in the Middle East.

While Occupy certainly did not lack passion or appeal—indeed its core message about inequality continues to resonate—it was unable to translate that fervor into effective action. Otpor, on the other hand, created a movement of enormous impact.  The contrast is sharp and it is no accident.  Successful movements do things that failed ones don’t.

Clarity of Purpose

For Otpor, there was never any question about what they were setting out to achieve—the nonviolent overthrow of Slobodan Milošević—and everything they did was focused on that mission.The group also focused on specific pillars upon which the regime’s power rested —such as the media, bureaucracy, police, and military— to target their efforts.

This clarity of purpose led directly to action.  For example, rather than focusing on staging large scale demonstrations, in the early stages, Otpor focused on street theatre and pranks to embarrass the regime.  When they were arrested, they made a point to be respectful of the police, but also made sure their lawyers and the press knew about their detention.

By starting slow and building scale, Otpor could show, to their own members and the country at large, that they not only had clear goals, but that they were making progress against them. That led others to want to join them, which in turn led to even greater success and more support, resulting in a positive feedback loop.

Compare that to Occupy, which as Joe Nocera noted in a NY times column, “had plenty of grievances, aimed mainly at the “oppressive” power of corporations,” but “never got beyond their own slogans.”  While the group captured attention, nobody, even the protesters themselves, was clear on what was to be done.  Before long, everyone lost interest.

A Genome Of Shared Values

Otpor developed a clear doctrine.  Its principles included a focus on students, unity, tolerance, and nonviolent discipline.   Much like a biological genome, these principles provided rules for adaptation that others—in Serbia and around the world—could easily follow and apply even as the facts on the ground evolved and changed.

Rather than a vague set of slogans, the group developed an explicit guide for action.  As Tina Rosenberg describes in Join the Club, Otpor published a manual, developed training course and brought in activists from all over Serbia to indoctrinate them.  Otpor might have been a protest group, but it operated as if it was a startup company marketing a product.

After Milošević was overthrown, founders of Otpor created CANVAS (Centre for Non Violent Action and Strategies) and the movement spread further.  First to the Georgian Republic (Rose Revolution), then to Ukraine (Orange Revolution), then to Egypt (Arab Spring) and beyond.  Like Otpor, these groups succeeded in bringing change to their respective countries.

Occupy, on the other hand, had little in the form of organization, structure or doctrine.  As Nocera pointed out, “Occupy protesters were purposely — even proudly — rudderless, eschewing leadership in favor of broad, and thus vague, consensus.”  Perhaps not surprisingly, they never achieved anything meaningful.

Effective Planning

To the outside world, the revolutions that these movements brought about looked spontaneous and chaotic, yet they were anything but.  In fact, planning is something that Otpor put an incredible amount of emphasis on in both their training and publications.

The CANVAS training manuals are loaded with advice like “Break down a campaign into small and concrete tasks” and “backward planning forces you to break down a campaign into small, realistic tasks.”  It further advises that, “working towards achievable tasks motivates people to complete them.”

As noted above, Otpor’s first actions were small, but they were not haphazard.  Even getting arrested served a purpose. Otpor’s polite and respectful attitude toward the police, even as they defied and embarrassed the regime, helped win officers over to their cause.  Coordinated publicity campaigns helped turn even mild provocations into major coups for the opposition.

The purpose of all this was not to “knock out” the pillars of the regime, but to draw them in. Pranks embarrassed the regime, but they were funny and garnered support, even from business leaders, government bureaucrats, the police and security forces.  Where Occupy saw objects vilification for vilification, Otpor saw potential allies for conversion.

In the end, it was the pillars of the regime that actually overthrew Milošević,  Otpor was merely a catalyst.

Connecting To The Mainstream

For any change to become truly revolutionary, it eventually has to be adopted by the mainstream.  That was the crucial difference between Occupy and Otpor.  Where Occupy sought to disrupt society, Otpor was determined to embed change within it.  While Occupy’s “We are the 99%” rhetoric was engaging, its actions were not.

After change came to Serbia, Otpor’s movement began anew with such organizations as, Kmara in Georgia, Pora in Ukraine and the April 6th movement in Egypt, which received advice and training from the group and found similar success.  It continues to live on in places as far flung and diverse as Iran, Burma and Zimbabwe, just to name a few.

These are, of course, political movements aimed at creating change in societies as a whole, but the same principles equally apply to brands, organizations and even the healthcare system. To make change happen, gathering a band of passionate enthusiasts is not enough. You need to make your purpose clear, establish values and create a plan for success.

Most of all, you need to understand that the change you seek will not happen inside the movement, but outside of it.  As one of Otpor’s founders put it, “Our main goal was to show the general public that the regime could be changed.”  When the people of Serbia—including some of those inside the regime—believed in that possibility, they made it a reality.

And that points to new role for leaders in the networked age.  Today, we can most effectively influence and persuade not through coercion, but by inspiring and empowering belief among those who will be affected.

– Greg

If you liked this article, you’ll love my book on the same subject!

An earlier version appeared in Harvard Business Review

7 Responses leave one →
  1. May 31, 2015

    Fascinating discussion in many ways.
    I study human change mostly in biological terms and describe it as a change in ecology. It’s a great way to organize the problem. … many many words… One of those changes will be the political / economic form. It seems unlikely that we are going to tolerate a rule by princes of wealth any more than we tolerated rule by princes of war, especially because the princes of wealth have tended to show themselves to be far more oppressive. One problem though is that we absolutely must avoid violent revolution, because that not only creates the “old ecology”, but makes fertile ground for the psychopath that thrives in chaos and violence that was common tot he “old ecology”.
    The Occupy group was probably before its time. I see that over and over. It is the internet that makes us aware of things, before there is enough gravity to force change to actually occur. My guess is that at some point there will be a surge in automation. Then it will be time for Occupy to read the Otpor’s play book.

  2. May 31, 2015

    The interesting thing about Occupy is that they had a message that still resonates, but were so inept that they weren’t able to accomplish anything.

    – Greg

  3. May 31, 2015

    To me, it is only partly that the message resonates. It resonates because the message is true, but also because it is important and why it will remain. Many messages resonate, but that is a moral message and so catches the attention of some instincts, but not enough yet for survival instincts to really kick in. Instincts are simple though and at some point, when they finally start to feel threatened, they will become aroused. That is when leadership and a plan will be needed. Remember, you work to see what is going on, so future history gets foreshortened to you. It will play out in its own time. What is most important is that the strategy is in place when it is needed. Your article will inform that the strategy does exist and may be read by those that will be the leaders when the time comes. My work is to make up plans for other events that I expect humans will have to over come.
    Ya know, a funny thing. I mentioned that the internet is making it so that people are aware of things before the momentum even really starts. The fact that our economic model is hopelessly flawed is already common knowledge. There is already talk about guaranteed minimum incomes and E. Warren talks about expanding Social Security. B. Sanders talks unapologetically about Socialism. The Conservatives get more extreme, bombastic, dubious and dig in. What is needed though is a far broader view. All these problems are related and the solutions must be too. That is what I work on. Really, the economy part of it is minor.
    … Oh yah, if y’er interested, one of my main points is to convince the conservatives that change is to their benefit. Singing to the choir has never seemed important, but if you can convince the conservatives, you have succeeded. My messages are meant to reach the survival instincts that are actually most powerful in the conservatives. The Occupy message will never reach most of them.

    PS. Your other article about Platforms was interesting. One of the few I have read recently that I actually had to think about. I could see it apply to medicine perhaps… wondering about other institutions and industries.

  4. Eli Cummings permalink
    June 2, 2015

    “Our main goal was to show the general public that the regime could be changed.” When the people of Serbia—including some of those inside the regime—believed in that possibility, they made it a reality.

    In the U.S., the general public relies on voting to change a regime. Protests are more about bringing the behaviors of the regime to public attention through television. That lesson was learned during the cultural upheaval of the sixties. For civil rights it was more pictures of police and their dogs attacking protesters that captured the attention of the public and made them aware of what blacks were facing in the South. Momentum for the anti-war movement came about as television portrayed both the deceit of our political leaders and the lack of effectiveness of America’s military in fighting a nationalist insurgency. Movies also played a role. Sidney Poitier in “Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner?” highlighted the uncomfortable place that race had in white America even with those of a liberal persuasion.

    The Occupy movement was using the playbook of the sixties. The idea of “occupying” was reminiscent of the the campus protests where administration buildings were occupied by students to press home their dissatisfaction with administration policies and large gatherings were sure to get the attention of the media and so provide a platform to reach tens of millions.

    In less democratically liberal countries such tactics will not work. Change must be a grass roots effort not a mass propaganda effort.

    With the coming of the web, hand held movie cameras that enable almost anyone to make a movie and cameras in every phone it is still a free media that validates and changes our reality. Television increasingly draws from those outside of the organization (which is a main theme of this site) for a portion of its programming whether it be web clips during news reports or comedy shows like Tosh.0 which uses almost nothing but user generated content from the web.

    Grass roots tactical efforts in America often devolve in lobbying organizations that deal with incremental legislative change. Clinton’s foreign policy regarding Sudan may have had other motives but it certainly helped that Americans were shown mass suffering on the news shows prior to that “invasion”. Amber alerts didn’t come about because of law makers concerns for children but because of heart wrenching stories of abducted children on television news.

    One can easily argue that the changes occurring in marijuana laws certainly had nothing to do with law makers becoming enlightened but rather with the decades long portrayal of pot smoking in movies and television as something that had nothing to do with its false historical portrayal as something that incited blacks to violence and would result in the destruction of American society if left unchecked.

    All the lobbying in the world by NORML never budged the Federal government an inch.

    America is a country that is ruled by media propaganda. The conservatives finally understood this as they captured the AM radio talk market and created Fox News. Oddly, some of the entertainment portions of Fox are often at odds with their conservative leanings.

    Does anyone think that the gay rights movement would have occurred had not we seen movies and television shows portraying gay people as regular people? Would we have a black president had not a number of movies (mostly with Morgan Freeman as commander in chief) acclimated our population to the idea that it could be black man?

    In a liberal democracy it is the acclimatizing of minds in mass that changes things.

    Occupy Wall Street didn’t point out anything that most people didn’t already know, that the wealthy were benefiting more than they ever had before from being in America and that no one knew really what could be done about it. If the police had come in with tear gas, clubs, dogs and water cannons it would have been better for the Occupy movement. As it was the authorities were smart and just let it fizzle out like an open bottle of soda slowly going flat.

    Geography matters. Change in the heart of empire occurs very differently than it does in the remote underdeveloped provinces.

  5. Neno permalink
    June 2, 2015

    I’ve been to Serbian protests. front line at times.
    I’ve seen Otpor in action.

    you couldn’t have been more wrong.

    “focusing on pillars”? yeah, right.
    “building scale slowly”? in lines for coffee maybe.
    “pranks to embarrass the regime”? been there long before some Otpor member showed up with megaphone in her hands claiming they organized that.

    did they capitalize & starting to make huge amounts of money out of that – sure.

    I don’t know in detail what was going on in other cases where Otpor interveened – but in Serbia their role was negligible.

  6. June 2, 2015

    I can see why you might think that, even though Otpor’s role has been well documented. It was a similar situation in Ukraine with Pora. By the time the large demonstrations took place, they were mainly in the background and many people who were present weren’t even aware of them.

    And just for the record, I have been on the front lines myself, as have thousands of others.

  7. June 2, 2015

    Thanks for commenting Eli, although I’m not sure your analysis fits the fact pattern. For example, any “playbook from the sixties” would have to include the civil rights movement, which was similar in many ways to Otpor and its successor movements. At the same time, in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine, Otpor and its successors eventually triumphed through the democratic process.

    In all cases, the movements weren’t exactly telling people things they didn’t know, but inspired the mainstream to believe that things could be different.

    – Greg

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