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


  • 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


  • 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…


Snakes: High influence, negative toward your goal


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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.

Talk about corruption!

"Monster, I see you!" (picture copyright by puuikibeach on flickr)

“Monster, I see you!” (picture copyright by puuikibeach on flickr)

I’m just back from a trip to a not so democratic nation in Africa and from an amazing Net-Mapping session with urban water managers. I knew that they were faced with two major challenges to improving their dilapidated system: Leakage of water and leakage of money.

But as an outsider, can you just come in an say: “Let’s talk about corruption!” Well, no. And yes.
When we draw a Net-Map together, we start innocently enough: “Who will influence whether you achieve 24/7 delivery of water to your customers in this city?” They put everyone and their grandmother on the map and start getting in the flow. Drawing the formal hierarchies and formal flows of money helped them understand the general structure that is the backbone of the system. In this specific case I knew a bit about the informal money flows (a.k.a. corruption) beforehand and proposed mapping them too. The temperature in the room rose by at least 10 degrees and everyone was very awake when they started drawing out the simple and complex lines of corruption and explaining the cartel-like structures involved. For us as outsiders, it helped us to understand what they are up against. But I think the more significant thing was what happened within the group, being in this pressure cooker together, experiencing that yes, they can talk about corruption, starting with the little people, the ground level entry points but also exploring the connections as they lead higher up…
No, we did not find a solution for it. We did not eradicate corruption or discover the secret for world peace. But I am convinced: If you want to get rid of a monster, the first thing you have to do is to look the monster in the face and say: “Monster, I see you!”

Ghost stakeholders

ghostbuster-logoGhost stakeholders are those stakeholders who are not really on the net-map, but who were mentioned in interviews or informal talk as having a great influence on the mapped actors, yet are too embarassing to be mentioned during the net-map exercise. Mistresses, wives, children, siblings, same party members, business partners and close friends, may not have an official role in the project, yet they systematically condition the choices of the “official” actors. For example, in a bilateral cooperation project I was working in – in Burundi – the Art School received special attention compared to the other targeted schools because the project manager’s wife was an art teacher when they were living Europe. Similarly, trainees will not accept contributing a share of their per diem to a common fund which would reinforced the long term sustainability of their project because their wives had already made plans on how to spend the relatively conspicuous allowance. And their friends too were aware that each day of training is worth X.000 in local currency, so they felt socially compelled – more or less overtly – to pay them a beer. Next time you run a net-map, have a close look around your actors: you may find some traces of ectoplasm slime…


Mexico (and elsewhere): What the good guys can learn from the bad ones

Yesterday I listened to NPR’s coverage of the elections in Mexico, and as always, I listened with network ears. Following the discussion I thought: “Well even if (IF) the new president really wants to clean up shop and reign in corruption, what chance does he have against the established illicit networks?” And, thinking about it more broadly, what chances does any of the good guys (and ladies) have in trying to change a system in which the networks of evil undermine all parts of the society?

I believe that in any situation where you are up against an overwhelmingly successful enemy, it makes sense to study their strategy and see if there is anything you can learn from it. No, I don’t think you can stop corruption by decapitating your opponents or hanging them off bridges. But… is there something about the networking strategy of the bad guys that the good ones can adopt and adapt for their goals?

One thing that is typical for these illicit networks is that they are networks of individuals rather than institutions. As the NPR guests yesterday pointed out, a lot of the employees of police and crucial government offices are so close to cartell members that they end up being godfathers to their children. And cartell members will most likely choose officials with two characteristics:

1. They are in crucial gatekeeper positions in their organization, and

2. They have a personality that is open to collaborating with criminals and benefiting from doing things in a less than legal way.

This means: There is one structural aspect (where do they sit in the network) and one personality aspect (what kind of people they are). If you work for an anti-corruption campaign or are someone in any position in this system who wants to fight against corruption, it makes sense to copy this behavior for your own strategy: Figure out who the people in crucial positions are and get to know their personality. Identify those who are as fed up with the corrupt status quo and develop personal, trusting relationships with them. Also, you might consider keeping these connections private and not exposing your fledgeling network of good people to your opponents.

Another thing you will hear when listening to news about corrupt systems is that “The XYZ (bad guys) have infiltrated all areas of society.” In network terms that means: They have developed a very heterogeneous network. Instead of just sticking to  their own people (e.g. just networking with outright mafia members), they will develop friendships and family ties with people in government, legit businesses, religious organizations, courts etc. etc.. You want to infiltrate your system in the same way. Don’t just hang out with the other people of the anti-corruption campaigns. But rather look for friends and likeminded people in all areas and levels of your society, develop a trusted network of good people in the ministries, police, courts, NGOs, churches, business etc. This might seem daunting at first, and – depending on how messed up your system is – it might look like some parts of it don’t have a single good apple. Don’t let yourself believe this: In any of these organizations, there will be people who are intimidated, disenfranchised, frustrated and dreaming of a better country, who are just waiting for you to invite them into your network. The bad apples are more obvious and very often just one or two of them can spoil the whole batch. But if you are committed and have the time and patience to be in it for the long run, your network of good people will grow. And you can use its diversity in a very similar way as the other side would use theirs: By knowing things in advance, having support in crucial positions, protecting you from retribution, warning you etc. Which still won’t make your task simple. But at least give you a fleeting chance…