Brexit, Trump… and now Jacinda? How change theory can explain political landslides

31 August 2017 | 1:30 min read


One thing everyone agreed on about Brexit and Trump is that almost no one saw them coming. Some argue the polls and pundits were not entirely wrong. But following the failure of economists to pick the Global Financial Crisis, both the UK and US outcomes seemed final nails in experts’ coffins.

Or maybe not all experts. Change management theory has a more sober focus. Instead of cut and thrust, it requires tenacity and a slog, which is one of the reasons the guru of the field, Dr John Paul Kotter, reckons most organisations who try it fail. But look at the theory afresh, and recent upheavals make sense.

The following table shows eight steps Kotter defines for change management success. More recent theory is less linear. But still Kotter’s list reads as a recipe for political upheaval. It suggests success is not so much about policies – instead it’s about building a movement, whose leader effectively leads a change programme (or at least the promise of one) that voters buy into.

Political earthquake calculator (based on change management theory)

 Change priority *

    Brexit Leavers

      Trump

           New Zealand elections

 

 

 

   Jacinda Ardern

    Bill English

 1. Establish sense of urgency

              Y

           Y

 

 

 2. Form powerful guiding coalition

              Y

           Y

 

 

 3. Create a vision

              Y

           Y

 

 

 4. Communicate the vision

              Y

           Y

 

 

 5. Empower others to act on the vision

              Y

           Y

 

 

 6. Plan for and create short-term wins

              Y

           Y

 

 

 7. Consolidate improvements and produce still more change

              ?

           Y

 

 

 8. Institutionalise new approaches

              ?

           Y

 

 

*Based on Dr John Paul Kotter’s summary in Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail, Harvard Business Review, 2011

Trump beat Clinton handily on: 1. (Disaster beckons); 2. All those red hats; 3. Make America Great Again; 4. As above; 5. His audience got chants they could sing along to; 6. Defying the odds in the primaries; 7. Changing the way politics gets done (“improvements” here is a matter of opinion); 8. Hardly needs commenting on.

In New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, Labour’s new leader, is also an unexpected new force: Can she tick more boxes than her National rival Bill English?

You might think the framework only looks good only in hindsight. But it has powerful lessons for losers too. Clinton’s aim to win by not being Trump doesn’t even make it on to the table. In the UK, the Remainers’ vision had something to do with jobs, trade and business. The Leavers had: “Take Back Control”.

In both cases, the winners exploited a desire for change as much as led it. (Their follow-through remains unproven.) But once they spotted the wave, they rode it better. New Zealand politicians better brush up on their Kotter.

Robert Mannion heads SenateSHJ’s New Zealand change practice.


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