Photograph by Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images
By Rita Gunther McGrath
February 22, 2016

When thousands came together in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in early 2011, connected in anger and frustration by social media, many of us thought it was the dawn of a new era of democratization. Give the people the Internet and the ability to self-organize, the thinking went, and they will be able to take power from despots and design a system that is fairer, more open and certainly more transparent.

The same idea animated discussions of social protests from Hong Kong and Kiev to the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements. And this idea is partially right—social media and the Internet, as Tom Friedman recently pointed out, are very good at breaking things. The problem is that they are very, very bad at creating true transformations, and it is fairly easy to understand why.

At Columbia Business School, where I teach, we use a very simple formula for thinking about what is necessary for a successful, lasting transformation to take place in a business or other organization (like a country). The change formula we use (C = D x V x P > R) was developed by Harvard Business School professor Michael Beer, and it suggests that the likelihood of success depends upon three variables or factors that multiply one another.

The first factor is the level of dissatisfaction (D) with the current state. Absent a clear sense that something isn’t working well today, potential change agents aren’t likely to pay much attention to doing things better or differently.

The second factor is the clarity of the vision (V) of what a better future state would look like. Absent some vision of how things could be better than they are now, people are simply likely stew in frustration rather than act, leaving whatever change effort there is to just limp along.

The third and, in my view, most telling factor, is the clarity and leadership of the process (P) for removing obstacles and creating the new system that replaces the old one.

And of course, these forces have to be stronger than the forces of resistance (R) opposing them.

This is why I think Friedman’s article is so powerful, and why we need to be very careful about launching change in general—whether it is national transformation, corporate overhauls, or even change in political leadership—without deeply understanding whether we have these factors in place.

In the Arab Spring, the Internet did indeed serve the function of creating massive dissatisfaction, which despite the state’s efforts to quash it, became so powerful that leaders were toppled. And that dissatisfaction was fueled by a fairly clear vision of what a model of a better life would look like. Indeed, Friedman intimates that the success of Dubai may well have crystallized that longing. He suggests that for many young Arabs, Dubai came to represent an Arab country that could build world-class, multi-cultural companies (such as Dubai Ports and Emirates Airlines) and where people could find opportunities, enjoy arts and culture, and participate in a society tolerant of secular values. As Friedman quotes the thought process, “Even if we can’t have democracy, why can’t we at least have Dubai?” It’s one thing to longingly observe the success of Singapore, where the culture is so different. It’s quite another to see the success amongst people who speak your language and share many of your traditions.

So, we have the first two ingredients for change in place: massive dissatisfaction and a model worth longing for. But what about the third? That’s where I think the optimism about the Internet leading inevitably to better governance structures was misplaced. When the change equation lacks the plan and process piece, the whole effort creates a vacuum. With high levels of dissatisfaction and a clear goal, you can put together a coalition of people with enormously inflated expectations and get change started. But when it comes time to replacing the old systems and structures, if there is no clear plan and no process leader who can articulate it, you create a void. And power hates a void.

Napoleon’s rise after the French revolution, Hitler’s after the First World War, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt offer cautionary examples of what happens in a void. Failing to think through the processes and have leaders in place before a change movement is launched almost always dooms the effort. But in an age of the Internet, when dissatisfaction is amplified, the risk of this happening vastly increases.

So how can one lessen this risk?

The relative success of Tunisia in becoming a democracy offers some interesting lessons. First, the country had fairly strong institutional relationships among labor unions, civic associations, and professional societies that provided social capital and infrastructure to fill in the power vacuum. This meant that there were secular parties who had power. As a consequence, Tunisia’s traditionalist party, Ennahda, was forced to cooperate, and with a far more moderate agenda than in many of the other Arab Spring countries. Following the fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s leaders moved quickly to put in place a process to elect a Constituent assembly.

The main lesson is that there were process leaders who avoided the kind of power and process vacuum that has left so many other Arab countries in such disarray. It is worth noting that these leaders were not imposed from outside, nor were they of the heroic breast-beating variety. By all accounts, they worked systematically to put in place the new processes and systems which would replace the ones being abandoned.

Void avoided.

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