Replacing the Old Order

I recently read John Lynch’s Simon Bolivar: A Life (Yale University Press, 2006).  Bolivar played the central role in freeing six Latin American countries from Spanish colonialism.   The eventual domination of his armies and his subsequent nation building destroyed the old colonial order.  However, creating the new order was a much more daunting task than he anticipated.

Bolivar needed to address the interests and concerns of a large set of stakeholders.  Spanish natives living in Venezuela, Peru, and so on had long ruled these countries with iron fists.  However, now that the old order was gone, a wide range of aspirations emerged among various stakeholder groups.  These groups included creoles (native born people of Spanish ancestry), pardos (racially mixed individuals), the people from the vast grasslands (Llanos), native American Indians, and slaves who were mostly black.

All of these stakeholders had long-harbored grievances and aspirations for social justice.  Bolivar’s message of liberty and equality was heartening and provided a rallying cry.  However, the redistribution of land and other wealth was more important to these stakeholder groups.  This made the transformation to true democracy, or even an approximation, quite difficult. New tensions and infighting hindered Bolivar at every step.

As fascinating as this story is, the more general lesson is perhaps more compelling.  Transformation involves unfreezing the old order, moving to a new order, and then refreezing around the new order.  It may be easier to get people to agree to the unfreezing then getting them to agree to move to a particular new order.  Instead, unfreezing may lead to chaos as newly freed stakeholder interests undermine the possibility of any new order.

Perhaps this is why religious and academic organizations, to name just two, cling to old ways in terms of principles and practices. If they allow any slippage, then they expect they will avalanche down the slippery slope of fundamental change. This may enable many creative possibilities.  However, it is also very likely to upset many apple carts.  The old order, despite its flaws, is a source of stability.

Beyond stability, many will have designed their lives, businesses, universities, and so on around the implicit assumption that the old order will persist.  This is even true for those disadvantaged by the old order.  When this order is replaced, there are many losers.  There may also be many more who will respond in perhaps unpredictable ways once they have the freedom allowed by the loss of the old order.  Latin America, as Lynn shows, provides a good illustration of this tendency.

This perspective may make transformation sound hopeless or, at the very least, a process that is inevitably very long and rocky.  One approach to avoiding this is to build the new order in advance of the dismantling of the old order.  More specifically, create a demonstration of the new order in the midst of the old order. This is a typical path for technological transformation, e.g., from land lines to smart phones.

Could Bolivar have taken this approach?  To a slight extent he did, with a bit of nation building along the way.  However, the monopoly of Spanish colonialism repeatedly squashed these efforts.  There is an element of this in technological transformation as well where monopolies like public utilities can block potential innovations because they challenge the reigning order.

However, these types of monopolies do not have armies, guns and gallows.  Liberating countries is decidedly on a very different scale than transforming markets. In fact, it is not just a matter of scale. The behavioral and social components of liberating countries involve a type of complexity that cannot be avoided by simply having a sound “methodology.” Liberation is inherently much, much messier than transforming companies and markets.


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