DOI: 10.1177/01492063231218234 ISSN: 0149-2063

Back From the Dead: Exploring the Tension Between Imagination and Custodianship in Revenant Organizations

Shelby J. Solomon, Blake D. Mathias
  • Strategy and Management
  • Finance

Organizational actors often look to the past to revive practices of the past. A growing body of research suggests that there is opportunity in the past and highlights how dormant or declining industries have been revitalized. We take this line of research a step further by examining how entrepreneurs (reanimators) revive long-since-failed organizations (revenants), a process we refer to as reanimation. Thus, rather than create a “new” venture, many entrepreneurs are turning to revive defunct or “dead” organizations. On the one hand, the act of reviving a dead organization suggests that reanimators perceive value in the failed organization's past; otherwise, why not start something new? On the other hand, theory predicts organizational actors might likely avoid such associations with the past since they are rooted in failure. As such, understanding what elements of an organization's past an entrepreneur retains or discards and how organizational leaders successfully reanimate failed firms is critical to our understanding of entrepreneurship and tradition. During this reanimation process, we observe a fundamental tension between imagination and custodianship. We find that the entrepreneur's ability to resist the urge to leverage their imagination through innovation and instead act as a custodian by honoring the past influences the organization's prospects for survival post-reanimation. Our theorizing offers guidance for understanding the inherent tensions between innovation and tradition in firms with rich histories, the potential downsides of unchecked imagination, and the importance of gaining stakeholder acceptance before exercising the authority to innovate.

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