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To Create Real Change, You Need To Do More Than Just Protest

2017 January 29
by Greg Satell

Throughout history, social movements — small groups, loosely connected but united by a shared purpose — have created transformational change. Women’s suffrage and civil rights in the U.S., Indian independence, the color revolutions in Eastern Europe, and the Arab Spring all hinged on the powerless banding together against the powerful.

In these movements, protests play an important role. Consider the recent marches in Poland concerning an unpopular abortion law. They inspired millions to take further actions, including a women’s strike, that convinced lawmakers to back down.

Still, protests like the massive global marches that took place last weekend, although crucially important for creating transformational change, are merely a first step. There are clear reasons why some movements succeed and others fail, and activists need to take history’s lessons to heart. To truly make an impact, a movement needs to follow five steps:

Step 1: Define The Change You Want To See

Clearly defining change is a consistent theme in successful movements. Gandhi wanted independence from the British. The civil rights movement wanted specific legislation passed. The color revolutions wanted a change in leadership. These were all tangible goals that they could build a strategy around.

In Serbia’s Bulldozer Revolution, which Srđa Popović helped lead, the objective was to rid the country of dictator Slobodan Milošević. Full stop. No equivocations. It seemed like an unlikely goal, after all, Milošević led the country with an iron hand. Nevertheless, it was achieved.

What was the point of the women’s marches? Was it to remove Donald Trump from power? Are specific policies being opposed and others being advocated for? Those who marched with such enthusiasm need to ask themselves, “If you could wave magic wand and create change, what specifically would happen?” If that simple question doesn’t have any answer, then what was the point of the marches?

The need for a clearly stated purpose becomes glaringly obvious when you look at unsuccessful movements. For example, as Joe Nocera noted, the Occupy movement “had plenty of grievances, aimed mainly at the ‘oppressive’ power of corporations,” but “never got beyond their own slogans.” It’s not enough to point out what you don’t like — you need a clear idea of what you want instead.

A revolution doesn’t begin with a slogan, but with a clear vision of the change you want to see. That doesn’t mean you need to be rigid. You are not trying to impose your vision; you are sharing it, you are listening, and you are respectful to those who don’t hold the same views as you. But above all, you are clear and everybody knows where you stand.

Step 2: Shift The Spectrum Of Allies

Once you clearly define the change you want to happen, you need to examine your spectrum of allies. Figure out whom you can expect active or passive support from and who will offer neutrality at best — or active or passive opposition at worst. As Sun Tzu wrote, “Know yourself, know your enemy, and know the terrain.” The spectrum of allies is the terrain.

Successful movements don’t overpower their opponents; they gradually undermine their opponents’ support. Start at the receptive end of your spectrum, working your way through higher and higher thresholds of resistance. In other words, begin by mobilizing your active allies and core supporters. Reach out to passive supporters, and then bring neutral groups over to your side. Once you start winning over the passive opposition, you’re on the brink of victory.

For example, in the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries started by mobilizing Southern blacks, but then shifted to bringing Northern whites over to their cause. And when Harvey Milk began the LGBT movement, he started with gay people on Castro Street, but then continued to the straight liberals in the San Francisco Bay area.

The path to victory is not to create a coalition through awkward comprises, but rather to expound on your values with such clarity that you persuade others to join your cause. Empires fall not because people oppose them, but because they find their support eroded. To win, you need to convince others to defect. 

Step 3: Identify The Pillars Of Power

While it is crucial to recruit allies from up and down the spectrum of support, it is also important to identify the institutions that have the power to implement the change you seek. Nobody truly creates change alone and everybody with any kind of power depends on others to execute their orders.

These “pillars of power” can be the police, the media, the education system, government agencies, or other organizations. As important as popular support is to a movement, without institutional support, little is likely to change. For example, if you wish to affect the criminal justice system, clearly police, judges and prosecutors need to be part of the solution.

In Serbia, the revolutionary group Otpor saw arrests not merely as an act of defiance, but as an opportunity to build positive relations with the police. In fact, protesters were trained to defend officers from any provocation within their own ranks. In the end, when the police had to decide whether to shoot into crowds or join the movement’s ranks, they chose the latter.

Which stakeholders inside or outside the halls of power have the ability to implement or resist change? What are their incentives? How can they benefit or be hurt by the change you seek? These are all things you need to consider.

Step 4: Seek To Attract, Not To Overpower

Every movement seeks to correct some injustice, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of demonizing the other side. Yet this is where many movements go off the rails. Anger is an effective mobilizer, but anger without hope is a destructive force. You need to make an affirmative case with affirmative tactics.

That’s why it’s best to start with small, achievable goals. Gandhi’s allies questioned his idea to make the salt tax a primary focus of the Indian independence movement, because they favored a plan for comprehensive change, but he saw that a single issue, even a small one, could unify the nation and break British Raj’s monopoly on power.

Cheap, easy-to-replicate, low-risk tactics are the most likely to succeed. They are how you can mobilize the numbers you need to influence a pillar of power, whether that influence is disruption, mobilizing, or pulling people from the middle of the spectrum of allies, especially if your tactics are seen as positive and good-humored.

Blocking streets and throwing rocks at the police is most likely to turn off those in the middle of your spectrum of allies and will make it decidedly more difficult to gain support from the institutions inside the pillars of power. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for example, the “Bernie bros” may have riled up Bernie Sanders’s most ardent supporters, but they likely turned off many that he desperately needed to win over.

Step 5: Build A plan To Survive Victory

Ironically, one of the most dangerous stages of a revolution is just after victory has been won. In Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, the incoming team was unable to create a unified, effective government, and soon the country devolved into chaos once again. Secular protesters prevailed in Egypt in 2011, but it was the Muslim Brotherhood that won the elections that followed.

It’s important not to confuse the movement for change with the values that the movement seeks to represent. Just because you win an election or get a program approved and funded doesn’t mean it’s time to declare victory. In fact, it’s at this point that you must strengthen alliances and renew each stakeholder’s commitment to what created change in the first place.

As Moisés Naím wrote in The End of Power, today “power is easier to get, but harder to use or keep.” To truly revolutionize how things are done, it’s not enough to change a policy or shift leadership to a new regime. You must change the beliefs that lead to actions.

It doesn’t take much to join a protest or throw a rock. History is made by those who can define a path forward and persuade others — even those who are initially skeptical — that it is a journey worth embarking on.

– Greg


This post was co-written with Srđa Popović, the Executive Director of the Center for Applied Nonviolence Action and Strategies. Named (CANVAS). Named one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers and author of Blueprint for Revolution , he was previously a founder of Otpor!, the Serbian youth movement that toppled Slobodan Milosevic. It originally appeared on Harvard Business Review.


10 Responses leave one →
  1. January 30, 2017

    Excellent, impecable timing! Thanks.

  2. January 30, 2017

    Thanks Armando!

    – Greg

  3. Rosemary Siu permalink
    February 2, 2017

    Where does our group stand with one?

  4. February 2, 2017

    Sorry Rosemary, I’m afraid I don’t understand the question.

    – Greg

  5. February 3, 2017

    The sequence is no different when shepherding change through an organisation,even a small one.
    Only the scale is different, the principals remain.

  6. February 3, 2017

    Very true! Thanks Allen.

    – Greg

  7. Michael Breeden permalink
    February 5, 2017

    I love the comment about the Serbian police…

    Everything you say is correct, but, perhaps self servingly, I will mention another vector and process of change – traumatic change. Such as losing a war. In my readings I found an interesting comment about stopping smoking. The author said that habits like that are only changed by “life events”. I assume he was talking about heart attacks, but he wasn’t so specific and we all know there are a variety of life events that smoking can bring on, but the point is that change also happens due to trauma. … What if Americans suddenly found ourselves in a war that was far stupider than even Gulf War II?

    Now I have wanted to bring about social change for a long time. Lets see how I match your list.
    1. Define change I want to see – well, yes and no. Some of it is unknown.
    2. Shift the allies – I have no allies. That is why I am writing here.
    3. Identify the pillars of power – Hopefully I am correct in that, but it is well known that the longest road is from the head to the heart. I may have short circuited that some, but did I do a good enough job?
    4. Seek to attract – I’m trying to seduce, going with both the carrot and the stick though.
    5. Plan for victory – Well, that is a main point of this. If you are talking change, especially the change I want, you have to offer not just a good alternative, but one that complies with human moral instinct.

    Sew… My objective is to get humanity to make a massive change in basic survival strategy, that is moral strategy. The reason is that how we live has changed greatly, we have left the hunter gather tribal ecology, but we are still often using strategies suitable to that ecology. You might call that extractive verses sustainable strategies. The change I want is for humans to create a relatively long term stable ecology where we can be comfortable and develop in long term. So part of this (the next book) is describing that ecology. That is the carrot as well as the change I want to see. So what is the 2, 3, 4, 5? Well, I just published a book called Genetics For A New Human Ecology, that should provide all those.
    Start with 4. Attract, Not Overpower. Nope, I’m going for shock and awe. I said traumatic change, not systematic. If I did my job, that book is going to tell a terrifying story. At the same time, it offers a very attractive solution to the problem.
    2. and 3. I think, hope…. depend on human survival instinct, called moral instinct, to be my greatest Allie and power. Interestingly this includes the religious folks. Hey, they aren’t rejecting science for the fun of it, but because it conflicts with their moral beliefs. I’m avoiding science and going for those moral beliefs. Convincing people that like science is easy. That is singing to the choir. If I have done what I have set out to do with this book, I will convince the people that have the strongest moral instincts as well as the ones with intellectual potentials.
    5. Build a plan to Survive. Well, that is what it is all about. Building a strategy that creates a self maintaining future based on human survival.

    Anyway, the book is short, less than 50 pages which is a great accomplishment for me and almost certainly means I did it right 🙂 . It’s supposed to be an hour read. I have no feedback on it yet. I have no idea if it communicates. It is the second step in my humble plan to completely change the human world… Yes, for the better…. For a good time call – Genetics For A New Human Ecology at

    Lets see if this loads…

  8. February 5, 2017

    Thanks Michael. I always look forward to your interesting comments.

    – Greg

  9. Neno permalink
    February 9, 2017

    you do realize that Otpor had absolutely nothing to do with protests, do you? that they hijacked the protests after they were 100% sure they were safe? that their only tactics was to put their shirts (with a fist logo) in front of as many cameras as possible?
    the part about police is an absolute crap. nobody was trained from Otpor.
    not. a. single. protester.

    these people weren’t against Milosevic. they were just opportunistic enough to find a way to earn money. if the protests were FOR Milosevic and there would be money to earn they’d jump on that wagon.

    and before you reply with “I know people from Otpor…” or “I read their manifesto…” just remember me & many of my friends were there the whole time. long before Otporists put down their silky nightgowns and put on their army jackets to look cool.

  10. February 9, 2017

    I wasn’t in Serbia in 2000, but I was in Kyiv in 2004 where Otpor helped train activists and they were certainly effective.

    – Greg

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