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Why Business Leaders Need To Learn About Social And Political Movements

2023 July 30
by Greg Satell

Business leaders have long been fascinated by the military. When Alfred Sloan created the modern corporation at General Motors, he based it on the army. In Wall Street, the antihero Gordon Gecko habitually quoted Sun Tzu. Retired generals like Stanley McChrystal earn huge fees advising CEOs and speaking to corporate conferences.

But what about nonviolent conflict? Research has shown non-violent movements are far more successful than violent uprisings, prevailing against powerful regimes against seemingly insurmountable odds. Yet, apart from a stray Gandhi quote here or Martin Luther King Jr. slide there, these go largely unexamined in the business world.

That’s a mistake. As I explained in Cascades, business leaders can learn a lot from the principles of social and political movements. There is abundant scholarship, going back decades, about why efforts succeed and fail. We know what works and what doesn’t. If you’re serious about being a transformational leader, you need to understand these strategies.

We Need To Learn About Not Only Successes—But Failures Too

Organizations are often inscrutable and hard to research. That’s why the preferred mode of analysis is case studies in which insiders are interviewed and a particular situation is interpreted by investigators. These can be helpful, but they also have severe limitations.

First, with shareholders and customers to please, managers are rarely eager to talk about failures. So we usually only hear about successes. Those, of course, are important but also subject to survivorship bias. For example, if a risky strategy results in 1% of the firms being wildly successful and 99% going out of business, then we’ll tend to hear glowing accounts of that lucky 1% and we’ll miss the vast majority that flamed out.

Social and political movements, on the other hand, are largely public events. Gandhi’s Himalayan miscalculation is just as well documented as his triumphant Salt March. We know as much about the failures of #Occupy as we do the ultimate success of the LGBTQ movement. We can look at similar strategies in different contexts and different strategies in similar contexts.

That’s extremely important. We need to learn from failures. It’s one thing to look at a strategy that succeeded, but can it prevail consistently or was that a one-off? Is it a universally successful strategy or highly dependent on context? We need to ask these questions relentlessly and it’s very hard to do that if we only look at the winners.

Change Is Always Multifaceted, We Need to Understand Multiple Perspectives

Another issue with the case study method is that it is necessarily limited. When researchers did a case study on company I used to run, to take just one example, they interviewed insiders (including me) and did their best to interpret what they heard and what they could glean from background information regarding the market.

Yet while I don’t think anything was inaccurate, it wasn’t exactly the truth either. Only a handful of people were interviewed, almost all of them were concentrated in a single part of the business and none of them, besides me, were involved in making decisions. The issues presented in the case study simply weren’t the ones we were actually wrestling with.

Now consider the prominent sociologist Doug McAdam’s paper on recruiting for Freedom Summer during the civil rights movement. He was able to analyze the applications of not only 720 volunteers, but 239 others that withdrew and 55 that were rejected. He conducted 80 in-depth personal interviews and, because the applications asked for social contacts, McAdam was able to document social ties.

That type of documentation simply doesn’t exist in case studies of firms’ internal deliberations and decision making. We rarely get access to internal data, much less insights from partners, customers, competitors and regulators. With social and political movements, on the other hand, we can examine thousands of first-hand accounts from every perspective.

That’s important, because the world is a messy place with a lot going on. Outcomes rarely boil down to a single decision and even key players disagree on which factors were determinant.

We Need To Overcome Resistance

Look at most change management models and what you see is mostly advice that is focused on persuasion. They suggest that the way to drive a transformation is to tell people about it. By creating a sense of urgency and need, you can build a coalition that will implement the change and shift practices for the long term.

Unfortunately, decades of serious research shows that the world doesn’t work that way. Researchers have long been aware of a so-called KAP-gap in which shifts in “knowledge” and “attitudes” don’t necessarily lead to a change in “practices.” For any given change there will also be people who will vehemently resist it, not for any rational logic, necessarily, but for reasons related to identity, dignity and sense of self.

On the other hand, in social and political movements the need to overcome robust—and even violent—resistance is front and center. Practitioners have developed tools such as the Spectrum of Allies and the Pillars of Support as well as innovative strategies like Dilemma Actions. We have decades of documentation on how these worked in a variety of contexts.

Make no mistake. We can’t simply cheerlead change. No one is going to embrace transformation simply because you came up with a fancy slogan. The truth is that whenever you ask people to change what they think or what they do, there will always be some who won’t like it and they will work to undermine what you’re trying to achieve in ways that are dishonest, underhanded and deceptive.

You need to prepare for that and you will learn far more from social and political movements than consultants interpreting case studies.

Change Is Too Important Not To Take Seriously

The most important challenge leaders face is to navigate change. We can optimize operations, streamline our organizations and motivate our people, but eventually our square-peg business will meet its round-hole world and we will need to adapt, build new skills and shift our strategies. Unfortunately, the overwhelming evidence suggests that we will fail.

Consider that, after decades of trying, skills like lean manufacturing, agile development and overcoming unconscious bias are woefully under-adopted in most organizations. Study after study shows that the vast majority of transformational efforts fail. We can’t continue to do the same thing and expect different results.

One reason for this dismal performance is how we research and learn about change. Today’s change management models simply aren’t based on facts or evidence, but rather the interpretation of case studies. Those can help us understand nuance and give us greater depth, but they are no substitute for rigorous research.

The truth is that we know a lot about change. Decades of studies have shown us that new ideas tend to come from outside the community and incur resistance. Research has shown there is a persistent gap between what people know and what they actually put into practice. We also know that transformation follows an s-shaped curve and that ideas are transmitted socially.

Unfortunately, current organizational change practices address none of these challenges. However, social and political movements do and through the work of scholars like Gene Sharp and practitioners Srdja Popović we know what works and what doesn’t. My own work has shown that these principles can be put to use in organizations.

The future is simply too important to be left to superstition and fantasy.


Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an 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 Miguel Bruna on Unsplash


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