Strategic engagement – with snakes, elephants, baboons, mosquitos and meercats

smiling-baboonI am just back from work in Southern Africa. And while I was in a specific country with it’s specifically difficult political context, the question that keept us awake at night was rather universal: How can we influence without much formal authority? How can we achieve the greater good (as we define it, anyway), when doing so will cut off streams of illicit benefits for many people in high position?

Then I found a simple solution, fixed the situation and all is well, world saved.

No, not quite. Rather, I led my participants deeper into the complexity of their challenge (identifying who the actors are, how they are connected, what their influence and goals are, a.k.a. drawing a Net-Map stakeholder map). Then I provided them with guidance to prioritize and strategize for most effectively engaging with their stakeholders.

We divided the stakeholders in

  • Elephants: high influence, positive
  • Meercats: low influence, positive
  • Snakes: high influence, negative
  • Mosquitos: low influence, negative, and
  • Baboons on the fence: high influence, undecided

And for each, there are a number of strategies to explore:

Elephants: High influence, positive toward your goals

elephants

  • Give them credit, let them lead
  • Frame the issue for them, share information
  • Engage consistently, regularly
  • Manage possible power struggle between positive high influencers
  • Build diverse coalitions:
    • Diverse power sources,
    • diverse motivations,
    • shared goals.

Meercats: Low influence, positive toward your goals

meercats

  • Can you increase their influence?
  • They can be connectors and information gatherers
  • They might have helpful friends
  • Build coalitions – strength in numbers
  • Remember: “A leader without followers is just someone taking a walk”

And, don’t underestimate them: threat or belief can activate unexpected strength -see below, together they can kill a snake…

meercats-and-snake

Snakes: High influence, negative toward your goal

snake.png

  • Watch your back – protect yourself
  • Avoid – focus on other issues for now
  • Seek unexpected common ground
  • Explore their networks: Who do they listen to? Who commands them?
  • Explore win-win and trade-offs
  • Undermine their narratives
  • Weaken their coalitions

 

 

Mosquitos: Low influence, negative toward your goal

mosquito

  • What do they care about? Can you entice them to your side?
  • Are you sure they are weak?
  • Watch out for influence increase over time
  • Interfere with their coalition building
  • Can you safely ignore them for now?

 

 

Baboons on the fence: High influence, undecided about your goal

baboon-on-a-fence

  • What do they care about? Can you entice them to your side?
  • Are you sure they are weak?
  • Watch out for influence increase over time
  • Interfere with their coalition building
  • Can you safely ignore them for now?

 

 

By grouping our stakeholders according to their influence and their relationship to our goal, we became much more specific when developing engagement strategies. And calling our important stakeholders baboons or meercats also added a level of levity to the discussion that made us breathe more freely under the weight of our near impossible task. What are your strategies for engaging elephants, empowering meercats, swaying baboons, neutralizing snakes and protecting yourselves from mosquito bites? I am sure the above isn’t complete yet, so I am curious to hear from you.

What is the one little thing you can do?

Want to eat an elephant? Take it one bite at a time (picture copyright by Phil and Pam on flickr)

Have grand New Year’s resolutions? Good for you. Had grand New Year’s resolutions last year too and abandonned them mid-January? Don’t beat yourself up, because you are not alone. But if you want to do better this year, ask yourself: What is the one little thing I can do to move toward my goal? Do that one thing and allow yourself to be proud of yourself. Whether it is: always take the stairs at the office (while your grand resolution was to become a triathlete) or try meatless Mondays once a month (while your grand resolution was to become a vegetarian and loose 50 pounds). Once you see that you can do it, ask yourself: What is the next one little thing I can do?

I recently learned how looking for the one little thing can help you from being overwhelmed if the challenges seem too large to tackle. I guided a colleague through drawing a personal happiness Net-Map, mapping out who influences her personal happiness. Then, as we looked at a messy network of friends, family and colleagues who provided support or sucked energy, it felt like this was too much to even start taking doing anything. By asking for the one little thing we understood that you can eat an elephant one bite at a time. As long as you get started (if eating an elephant is your goal you might skip the meatless Mondays though…)

New Year’s Resolution: This year I won’t take the caterpillar approach to personal growth

New Year's Resolution: This year I won't take the caterpillar approach to personal growth

I cannot fly! I know that from experience!

From Net-Map to Action in less than a Minute

Picture by junussyndicate on deviantART

Today, at day one of our Net-Map training here in DC, participants spend the afternoon mapping out cases from their own experience. And I witnessed the fastest move from a Net-Map to action I have ever seen. One participant mapped out a question around economic development in his community. After the mapping was done, he excused himself, went next door and started making phone calls. He wanted to make sure to catch his colleagues before they closed shop for the weekend. The questions that other participants (who knew nothing about his case before) had asked him, opened a door in his mind and all of a sudden he realized how he could connect to the major influencer in his question. And so he did. And if his strategy works out, he will tell us.

What’s more important? People or structures?

If you look at any great change, in your organization, in history, and you ask people to describe who this happened, most likely you will get one of these two stories:

Story 1.

It’s all about the people: There was this inspired leader, or evil man, or group of passionate individuals, or conspirators, or clever people, who came up with this grand idea who made all of this happen. If you wanted it to happen again, you would have to find the right people again and that’s the only way it would work. This would be an inspirational story (or a gruesome one, if the leader was an evil one) about the power of one but it would also leave you a bit at a loss in the question of how you learn from this for another similar situation.

Story 2.

It’s all about the structure: The time was right, there was a new law, technical invention, financial incentive, change in weather pattern, means of transportation, political system and all of a sudden, people (like sheep) had no choice but to change how they were doing things, it only made sense. The story sounds logical and convincing, enchantingly simple. It holds the promise that, if you want to replicate it, you just have to change the structure in the same way and everything will fall into place.

But have you ever wondered: Which one, now, is the true story? How come the same event can be told in these very different ways? Or do you hear the stories and it’s very easy for you to decide which one is a true account of what happened? If you know exactly which one is the true story, that might make you feel very clever. But beware, being very sure of something is often not a sign of high intelligence but rather of strong bias. You will get much closer to the truth if you don’t just enjoy this feeling of “I’m so clever” but rather explore your bias a bit further and see what other people (with other biases) have to say. The fact that both, the people and the structure story sound so convincing to so many people, can either mean: Half of the people are clever (obviously, the ones who share my view), the other half is stupid. Or it means: Both stories are true. If you combine thinking about people and structures you will gain a far deeper insight into what actually happened. And you double your options for changing the world. Because depending on what your levers are, you can work on both, putting the right people in place, connecting and enthusing them AND changing the structures in which they operate.

When we draw Net-Maps and discuss them, we often jump between talking about individual agency and talking about structure. The network connections (e.g. flows of money, hierarchy, friendships, conflict) tell you a lot about the structure and by mapping out the whole system you can get some insights about incentives and patterns that you would’t see by just talking about inspirational leadership. But when we discuss how influential individual actors are (influence towers) and explore what their goals and specific connections in the network are, and how they use them, we often talk very concretely about the way that individuals lead, disturb, interact, build trust, follow a vision etc. Bringing groups who work together around the table to discuss people and structures can have amazing effects. Because typically group members would either lean toward story 1  or story 2. Opening up to the idea that both stories are true and valuable can bring teams closer together and help them develop far more powerful strategies.

Leadership is an activity, not a position

Writing it on the wall will not make you a leader, sorry 
(picture by Ziggy_Mo on Flickr)

 

We often talk about leaders and what we actually mean is “people who sit in a high position in a formal hierarchy”, people in so called leadership positions. But there are many who hold these positions and achieve very little. Others, from the middle of the organization, or even the outside, may start a movement, develop a followership or coalition, change the way things are done and achieve excellent results. As long as we think that leadership is a position (with a title, a corner-office and a heavy leather chair) we can’t understand this. The person in the higher position should have more followers and be able to lead them to greater results. But once you understand that leadership is an activity (or rather a combination of many activities) the picture becomes more clear.

Leadership is not sitting in a corner office (though flauting your status may be a successful leadership strategy in some situations). And leadership is not something you are assigned and get to keep until you retire. What I find most exciting about the idea of leadership as an activity though is that it is open to everyone. You don’t have to wait to become the boss to start leading. Choose a specific issue you care about, a setting in which you feel comfortable trying it out and start training your leadership muscles. If you work in a very hierarchical organization and doubt anyone would change company strategies just because the cleaning lady (you) said so, start your training elsewhere: In a civic movement, your church, your neighborhood or your dog-training-club. Or, instead of tackling the core strategy in your organization, focus on a neglected side issue, start a “greening group” or a professional development initiative. The most important thing is to start exercising, start leading something, somewhere, some time. And observe what happens: What works, what doesn’t, what feels comfortable? Observe others: How do they do it? Would you feel authentic trying out these strategies? And, give yourself a break. No one needs to lead all the time in all areas of life.

Over to you: Where have you exercised your leadership muscles lately? What are some strategies that you find helpful when leading from below? I’m curious to hear from you.

Advocacy Judo vs. Advocacy Weightlifting

Image

Advocate, don’t break your back (picture copyright by Mr. Moss on flickr)

Whether you are promoting new-born survivial in Nigeria, gay rights in a US church or agricultural policy reform in Bangladesh, you will always encounter people with a lot of influence on the outcome who couldn’t care less about your cause. How do you deal with a very powerful actor who doesn’t share your passion? The typical advocate’s approach is:

Make them passionate about your cause! Convince them of the importance of [fill in the blank].

That’s the weightlifter’s approach to advocacy. You carry the whole weight on your shoulders. And making someone care about something they don’t care about can be very heavy lifting. Advocates tend to be so passionate about their cause that they often don’t see how any good person could not care about their cause. How could anyone be against newborn survival or against stopping the spread of HIV? So if the governor, ministry of finance, parliament, media only knew about the problem, if we gave them enough information they would have to act and support us, right?

Well, no.

Unfortunately that rarely happens. Because there is a big difference between accepting that something is a legitimate concern and actively doing something about it. And to do something about it, you have to either become very passionate about it. And everybody who ever had their love rejected, knows: I can not make you passionate. I can not control someone elses passions. Or, and that’s where advocacy judo comes in: You have to use the power of their existing passions, goals and incentives to move them in your direction.

The most elegant throws and moves in Judo require very little energy from the one who is throwing, you just take the energy that is directed toward you and redirect it. You don’t ask: “Does my opponent really want to land on the mat, is flying through the air their passion?” You just look for the energy, no matter what it is directed toward, and channel it for your purpose.

If you want more funding for state level maternal health projects and the governor holds the purse strings, just stand there and watch him for a while, before you even start talking about mommies and babies, the suffering of the people and his moral obligation. Figure out his passion, what he puts his energy in, where his incentives lie. Then, with your ultimate goal in mind, redirect his energies. How do you do that? By reframing your goals and connecting them to his passions.

I don’t know your governor, but his energy could be directed toward

  • being re-elected
  • balancing the budget
  • his state looking good in competition with others
  • having great connections to international donors
  • being personally recognized and in the media all the time etc.

Now your task as a judo advocate is to develop a throw (storyline) where your goal (money for maternal health activities) achieves these things for the governor. If re-election is the issue, he needs to understand how much his constituents care about the issue. And that maternal health is not just a women’s issue but a family issue. If it’s balancing the budget, show how little investments lead to great impacts – also as compared to spending the same money on something else. If he is competitive with other states, statistics are your friend, set different governors up for a race: Who improves maternal and newborn mortality the quickest? You might even be able to give the winner a price. And you’ll definitely be able to get them a lot of face-time on the media. Developing great connections to donors and other international actors is something that is especially easy for you if you are funded by or work for an international organization. If this is one of your governors desires, help him out there, introduce him.

The indifferent influencer in your field might be a different one and with different drivers. But whatever their drivers are (as long as they don’t go against your conscience), use their energy to achieve your goals: Your sport should be judo, not weightlifting.