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How Revolutions Fail

2020 October 18
by Greg Satell

I still remember the feeling of triumph I felt in the winter of 2005, in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. During the fall, we readied ourselves for what proved to be a falsified election. In November, when the fraudulent results were announced, we took to the streets and the demonstrations lasted until new elections were called in January.

We had won, or so we thought. Our preferred candidate was elected and it seemed like a new era had dawned. Yet soon it became clear that things were not going well. Planned reforms stalled in a morass of corruption and incompetence. In 2010, Victor Yanukovych, the same man we marched against, rose to the presidency.

The pattern repeats with almost metronomic regularity. Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted in the Arab Spring, only to be replaced by the equally authoritarian Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. George W. Bush gave way to Barack Obama, who set the stage for Donald Trump. Revolutions sow the seeds for their own demise. We need to learn to break the cycle.

The Physics Of Change And The Power Of Shared Values

In Rules for Radicals, the legendary activist Saul Alinsky observed that every revolution inspires a counterrevolution. That is the physics of change. Every action provokes a reaction because, if an idea is important, it threatens the status quo, which never yields its power gracefully. If you seek to make change in the world, you can be sure that some people aren’t going to like it and will fight against it.

For example, President Bush’s support for a “Defense of Marriage Act” inspired then San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to unilaterally begin performing weddings for gay and lesbian couples at City Hall, in what was termed the Winter of Love. 4,027 couples were married before their nuptials were annulled by the California Supreme Court a month later.

The backlash was fierce. Conservative groups swung into action to defend the “sanctity of marriage” and in 2008 were successful in placing Proposition 8, an amendment to the California Constitution that prohibited gay marriage, on the ballot. It was passed with a narrow majority of 52% of the electorate which, only further galvanized LGBTQ activists and led, eventually, to legalized gay marriage.

In our work helping organizations drive transformation, we find similar dynamics at play. Corporate revolutionaries tend to assume that once they get their budget approved or receive executive sponsorship, everything will go smoothly. The reality is that’s the point when things often get bogged down, because those who oppose change see that it has actually become possible and redouble their efforts to undermine it.

The Differentiation Trap

Many revolutionaries, corporate and otherwise, are frustrated marketers. They want to differentiate themselves in the marketplace of ideas through catchy slogans that “cut through.” It is by emphasizing difference that they seek to gin up enthusiasm among their most loyal supporters.

That was certainly true of LGBTQ activists, who marched through city streets shouting slogans like “We’re here, we’re queer and we’d like to say hello.” They led a different lifestyle and wanted to demand that their dignity be recognized. More recently, Black Lives Matter activists made calls to “defund the police,”  which many found to be shocking and anarchistic.

Corporate change agents tend to fall into a similar trap. They rant on about “radical” innovation and “disruption,” ignoring the fact that few like to be radicalized or disrupted. Proponents of agile development methods often tout their manifesto, ignoring the fact many outside the agile community find the whole thing a bit weird and unsettling.

While emphasizing difference may excite people who are already on board, it is through shared values that you bring people in. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the fight for LGBTQ rights began to gain traction when activists started focusing on family values. Innovation doesn’t succeed because it’s “radical,” but when it solves a meaningful problem. The value of Agile methods isn’t a manifesto, but the fact that they can improve performance.

Learning To Love Your Haters

Once you understand that shared values are key to driving change forward, it becomes clear that those who oppose the change you seek can help break the cycle of revolution and counter-revolution and beginning to drive change forward. That’s why you need to learn to love your haters.

By listening to people who hate your idea you can identify early flaws and fix them before it’s too late. Yet even more importantly they can help you identify shared values because they are trying to persuade many of the same people you are. Often, if not always, you can use their own arguments against them.

That’s exactly what happened in the fight for LGBTQ rights. The central argument against the movement was that the gay lifestyle was a threat to family values. So it was no accident that it prevailed on the basis of living in committed relationships and raising happy families. In a similar way, Black Lives Matter activists would do much better focusing on the shared value of safe neighborhoods that in a crusade against police officers.

To be clear, listening to your opposition doesn’t mean engaging directly with them. That’s a mistake Barack Obama made far too often. He would appear on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News, only to be ridiculed as soon as he was off camera. He would have been much better off watching at home and using the bombastic TV host’s remarks for his own purposes.

Achieving Schwerpunkt

In the final analysis, the reason that most would-be revolutionaries fail is that they assume that the righteousness of their cause will save them. It will not. Injustice, inequity and ineffectiveness can thrive for decades and even centuries, far longer than a human lifespan. If you think that your idea will prevail simply because you believe in it you will be sorely disappointed.

Tough, important battles can only be won with good tactics, which is why successful change agents learn how to adopt the principle of Schwerpunkt. The idea is that instead of trying to defeat your enemy with overwhelming force generally, you want to deliver overwhelming force and win a decisive victory at a particular point of attack.

Thurgood Marshall did not seek to integrate all schools, at least not at first. He started with graduate schools, where the “separate but equal” argument was most vulnerable. More recently, Stop Hate For Profit attacked Facebook not by asking users to boycott, but focused on advertisers, who themselves were vulnerable to activist action.

Yet Schwerpunkt is a dynamic, not a static concept. You have to constantly innovate your approach as your opposition adapts to whatever success you may achieve. For example, the civil rights movement had its first successes with boycotts, but eventually moved on to sit-ins, “Freedom Rides,” community actions and eventually, mass marches.

The key to success wasn’t any particular tactic, leader or slogan but strategic flexibility. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what most movements lack. All too often they get caught up in a strategy and double down, because it feels good to believe in something, even if it’s a failure. They would rather make a point than make a real difference.

Successful revolutionaries, on the other hand, understand that power will not fall simply because you oppose it, but it will crumble if you bring those who support it over to your side. That’s why lasting change is always built on the common ground of shared values.

– Greg

Image: Unsplash


2 Responses leave one →
  1. Armando Sobalvarro permalink
    October 18, 2020

    SUPERB! Guatemala, with its recent history of a fight against Corruption & Impunity led by a UN organization, is a perfect example of everything state in this OpEd.
    Thank you. I will share it profusely.
    By the way, could you include a whatsapp button for sharing purposes? Tks!!

  2. October 20, 2020

    Thanks Armando. I’ll look into the WhatsApp button.

    – Greg

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