Speed not Secrets Drive Network-Centric Campaign Success
Network-Centric Advocacy Swarm Tool

Strategy Decay and Environmental Activism

A fantastic article by Gary Hamel in the September 2003 HBR looks at resiliency and threats to corporations. Gary looks at the big boys of corporate America and points out that the trend over time (1973-2003) is that big companies are failing. McDonalds, Coke, Intel, AT&T Disney, Ford, Motorola, Sony and Hewlett Packard are not beating the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Big no longer means that the groups have an advantage. Hamel outlines an interesting case that starts to hammer home the idea that the advantage of product incumbency is shrinking.

So What?

Hamel's views are relevant to the current state of the environmental movement. If we shift his focus on companies to environmental organizations many of his statements start to outline the challenge that is identical to the movement.

"Successful companies, particularly those that have enjoyed a relatively benign environment, find it extraordinarily difficult to reinvent their business models. When confronted with paradigm-busting turbulence, they often experience a deep and prolonged reversal of fortune."

Our movement is at the start of a curve into a possibly "deep and prolonged reversal of fortune". Every movement is a successful until it's not and our leadership and funders are surprised that the strategy that has taken progressive agenda this far is failing. Hamel lays out a similar history sketch for the tech and telecom sector. Was it really a surprise for them? Is it going to be a surprise that the poorly organized and deeply divided movement of 14 million old white city dwellers is going to fail to protect the environment? Is it a shock that 18-24 year olds don't embrace the same agenda or the same models for civic engagement?

Hamel lays out a great little sidebar in the article to focus questions on "anticipating strategy decay"(p.59) for businesses. I challenge the leadership of the movement to ask these questions of our own advocacy strategies.

"Business strategies decay in four ways - by being replicated, supplanted, exhausted, or eviscerated" I suggest the same is true of advocacy and political strategy. Hamel questions help clarify meaning in each threat of decay. Again, I think the current leadership would need to truthfully answer these questions in all the wrong ways.

Replication- Is our strategy loosing distinctiveness? Do we possess any competitive advantages that are truly unique? Is our performance becoming less exceptional and more average?

Supplantation - Is our strategy in danger of being superseded? Are there social, technical or political shifts that reduce the power of our current model? Are there nascent business models that might render ours irrelevant? Do we have strategies in place to co-opt or neutralize these forces of change?

Exhaustion - Is our strategy reaching the point of exhaustion? Are our markets getting saturated; are our customers more fickle? Is growth rate decelerating?

Evisceration - Is increasing customer power eviscerating our margins? To what extent do margins depend on customer ignorance or inertia? How quickly, and in what ways are customers gaining additional bargaining power?

The basic strategy and leadership of the environmental movement has centered on building large organizations and centralized "brands" to fight for environmental protection. However, many of the advantages of this strategy are being eroded by shifts in public behavior (not joiners), a devaluation of the main products (newsletters and snail-spam) and rapid changes in technology (low cost organizing tools).

The signs are clear that the movement should not wait for a collapse of the advocacy organization bubble. We need to build a diversity of strategies in the ways that we protect environment, reach out to the public and engage volunteers in our efforts. We need to find more ways to support individual actors and help move leadership opportunity out to the edges of our community.

"Success is not self-perpetuating" yet beyond the basic organizational capacity investments we have not stratgically built the framework for individual, grassroots and network-centric advocacy engagements.