Saturday, February 8, 2020

Success Lies in Failure? How Social Movements Learn from Their Own and Others’ Experience

Firms are often targeted by social movements seeking to reform them or to get their help in changing society. The result can be a tug of war between a social movement with committed members and a clear cause but few resources, and a firm with resources and a broad agenda focused on profits. A key element of this tug of war is the people caught in between – firm employees who agree with the social movement.

Thanks to research by Rich DeJordy, Maureen Scully, Marc J. Ventresca, and W. E. Douglas Creed published in Administrative Science Quarterly, we now know more about who the likely winners are in such a situation. They looked at many dimensions of social movements, and the one that struck me most was the effect of early success versus early setback. They studied social movement organizations campaigning for domestic partner benefits to be offered by firms, an action that costs firms some money (not much) and can expose them to conservative counter-movements. Interestingly, they found that too much early success could be a bad thing.

Most people look at social movements as disconnected pieces and conclude that any social movement organization with early success is a good outcome. But this is not true. A social movement is usually an ecology of separate organizations, and these observe each other, learn from each other, and stimulate each other. The problem with early success is that it may have little to teach because the circumstances are special; it leads to stagnation if the successful movement organization has nothing left to do; and other movement organizations are less likely to interact with the successful and stagnated organization. The “one win and done” model does not sustain a social movement.

But isn’t an early win better than facing early setbacks? That depends. The authors found that opposition from target firms often led to refinement in the strategies used by movement organizations, and it kept the activism high. Repeated blocking by the target firm could make a movement organization stagnate, but often the movement organizations were able to find some approach leading to progress. These were exactly the movement organizations that stayed active and continued to wield influence over firms. Other movement organizations observed them and stayed in touch with them to learn how to overcome resistance and were stimulated by their activism and success.

The key to understanding social movements is not to focus too much on any single movement organization, but instead to look at them as an ecosystem and study their interactions. Interestingly, this is also a good way to analyze how firms overcome adversity. Learning from other firms is always central in how firms adapt to the environment, and a full view of the ecology of firms can help us learn how they overcome mistakes and adversity.

We have learnt much from looking at organizations one by one, and we will learn even more that way. We have also discovered how many more lessons are available when we look at ecosystems of organizations, and this will continue to propel our research progress. For managers, the key insight is that other organizations may already hold the key that unlocks the stagnation their organization is trying to shake off.

DeJordy, R., Scully, M., Ventresca, M. J., & Creed, W. E. D. Inhabited Ecosystems: Propelling Transformative Social Change Between and Through Organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.