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Here’s Why Your Big Idea Will Probably Fail To Survive Victory

2022 November 6
by Greg Satell

I still vividly remember a whiskey drinking session I had with a good friend in my flat in Kyiv in early 2005, shortly after the Orange Revolution had concluded. We were discussing what would come after and, knowing that I had lived in Poland during years of reform, he was interested in my opinion about the future. I told him NATO and EU ascension was the way to go.

My friend, a prominent journalist, disagreed. He thought that Ukraine should pursue a “Finnish model,” in which it would pursue good relations with both Russia and the west, favoring neither. As he saw it, the Ukrainian people, who had just been through months of political turmoil, should pursue a “third way” and leave the drama behind.

As it turned out, we were both wrong. The promise of change would soon turn to nightmare, ending with an evil, brutal regime and a second Ukrainian revolution a decade later. I would later find that this pattern is so common that there is even a name for it: the failure to survive victory. To break the cycle you first need to learn to anticipate it and then to prepare for it.

The Thrill Of A New Direction And An Initial Success

In the weeks after the Orange Revolution I happened to be in Warsaw and saw a huge banner celebrating democracy movements in Eastern Europe, with Poland’s Solidarity movement as the first and Ukraine’s Orange revolution as the last in the series. Everyone thought that Ukraine would follow its neighbor into peace and prosperity.

We were triumphant and it seemed like the forces of history were on our side. That’s one reason why we failed to see the forces that were gathering. Despite our enthusiasm, those who opposed our cause didn’t just melt away and go home. In fact they redoubled their efforts to undermine what we had achieved. We never really saw it coming.

I see the same thing in my work with organizational transformations. Once people get a taste of that initial success—they win executive sponsorship for their initiative, get a budget approved or even achieve some tangible progress on the ground—they think it will all get easier. It never does. In fact, it usually gets harder.

Make no mistake. Opposition doesn’t erupt in spite of an early success, but because of it. A change initiative only becomes a threat to the status quo when it begins to gain traction. That’s when the knives come out and, much like my friend and I after the Orange Revolution, most people working to bring about change are oblivious to it.

If you are working for a change that you believe in passionately, chances are you’re missing a brewing storm. Almost everyone does the first time around (and many never learn to recognize it).

Propagating Echo Chambers

One of the reasons we failed to see trouble brewing back then was that, as best we could tell, everyone around us saw things the same way we did. Whatever dissenting voices we did come across seemed like an aberration to us. Sure, some people were still stuck in the old ways, we thought, but with history on our side how could we fail?

Something similar happened in the wake of the George Floyd protests. The city council in Minneapolis, where the incident took place, voted to defund the police. Taking its cue, corporate America brought in armies of consultants to set out the new rules of the workplace. In one survey, 85% of CHRO’s said that they were expanding diversity and inclusion efforts. With such an outpouring of news coverage and emotion, who would dare to question them?

The truth is that majorities don’t just rule, they also influence in a number of ways. First, decades of studies show that we tend to conform to the views around us and that effect extends out to three degrees of relationships. Not only people we know, but the friends of their friends—most of whom we don’t even know—affect how we think.

It isn’t just what we hear but also what we say that matters. Research from MIT suggests that when we are around people we expect to agree with us, we’re less likely to check our facts and more likely to share information that isn’t true. That, in turn, impacts our informational environment, helping to create an echo chamber that reinforces our sense of certainty.

The Inevitable Backlash

Almost as soon as the new Ukrainian government took power in 2005, the opposition went on the offensive. While the new President, Viktor Yushchenko was seen positively, they attacked the people around him. His Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, was portrayed as a calculating and devious woman. When Yushchenko’s son got into trouble, questions were raised about corruption in his father’s administration.

A similar pattern took hold in the wake of the George Floyd protests. Calls for racial justice were portrayed as anti-police and law enforcement budgets across the country increased as “We Support Our Police” signs went up on suburban lawns. Critical Race Theory, an obscure legal concept rarely discussed outside of universities, became a political punching bag. Today, as layoffs increase, corporate diversity efforts are sure to take a hit.

These patterns are not exceptions. They are the rule. As Saul Alinsky pointed out, every revolution inspires a counter-revolution. That is the physics of change. Every reaction provokes a reaction. Every success impacts your environment and some of those changes will not be favorable to your cause. They will expose vulnerabilities that can be exploited by those who oppose your idea.

Yet Alinsky didn’t just identify the problem, he also pointed to a solution. “Once we accept and learn to anticipate the inevitable counter-revolution, we may then alter the historical pattern of revolution and counter-revolution from the traditional slow advance of two steps forward and one step backward to minimizing the latter,” he writes.

In other words, the key to surviving victory is to prepare for the backlash that is sure to come and build a strategy to overcome it.

Building A Shared Future Rooted In Shared Values

In the two decades I have been researching transformation and change, the failure to survive victory is probably the most consistent aspect of it. In fact, it is so common you can almost set your watch by it. Amazingly, no matter how many times change advocates experience it, they rarely see it coming. Many, in fact, seem to take pride in how many battles they have lost, seeing it as some kind of badge of honor.

The uncomfortable truth is that success doesn’t necessarily begat more success. Often it breeds failure. People mistake a moment for a movement and think that their time has finally come. Believing change to be inevitable, they get cocky and overconfident and miss the networks of unseen connections forming in opposition. They make sure to press a point, but fail to make a difference.

Lasting change always needs to be built on common ground. That’s what we failed to see all those years ago, when I began my journey. You can never base your revolution on any particular person, technology or policy. It needs to be rooted in shared values and if we truly care about change, we need to hold ourselves accountable to be effective messengers.

We can’t just preach to the choir. Sometimes we need to venture out of the church and mix with the heathens. We can be clear about where we stand and still listen to those who see things differently. That doesn’t mean we compromise. In fact, we should never compromise the values we believe in. What we can do, however, is identify common ground upon which to build a shared future.

These principles hold true whether the change you seek is in your organization, your industry, your community or throughout society as a whole. If you fail to learn and apply them, don’t be surprised when you fail to survive victory.

Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Photo by Júnior Ferreira on Unsplash



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