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.

The gift of doubt

Albert O. Hirschman

When reviewing my colleagues’ experience in improving the water and sewerage system in Baghdad, using the Outcome Mapping method, I realized one thing: The really big learnings, changes, breakthroughs happened when something went wrong, when people made mistakes, not when everyone was doing things perfectly. For example only the bad reactions of the public to initial newspaper articles made the team understand that they had to listen more than preach. If the initial communication had been o.k. – though not great – and no one would have even noticed or complained, there would have been little learning.

Today I read an inspiring article which shows me that aparently I am not the first to see this – the literary economist (who prefered to quote Kafka to doing math) Albert O. Hirschman made a science out of researching this. His biography is out, and this New Yorker article gives you a first flavor:

“Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.”

“Developing countries required more than capital. They needed practice in making difficult economic decisions. Economic progress was the product of successful habits—and there is no better teacher, Hirschman felt, than a little adversity. He would rather encourage settlers and entrepreneurs at the grass-roots level—and make them learn how to cope with those impediments themselves—than run the risk that aid might infantilize its recipient.”

The three biggest networking mistakes of advocacy groups

That’s one way of getting your message accross – just throw it at them… (picture copyright by Emily Layla)

A member of our new Net-Map LinkedIn Group asked about how Net-Map can be used to improve the effectiveness of advocacy groups. So here are three things that advocacy groups often do that hampers their success and where Net-Map can help them understand these limitation better:

1. Develop homogeneous networks: They just hang out with their own kind of people. Let’s say your a health advocacy group. You tend to network with other health groups, the ministry of health etc. But it might be that the Ministry of Education or Agriculture, or the farmers associations or a cell phone company can contribute things that you don’t have and make you much stronger. By putting up the influence towers in you Net-Map you might understand that there are other powerful actors that you want to relate to.

2. You focus on the “advocacy” link: Many advocacy groups see the world structured by the “advocacy” link and often overestimate the influence of advocacy as compared to other forces. By Net-Mapping and including links such as flows of funds, conflict, family relations, formal hierarchy, bribes etc. and then seeing these links in relation to the influence towers, they can see that advocacy is just one part of the puzzle. And there might be areas of the network where pure advocacy is a waste of time and resources, because the incentives are stacked so strongly against you that just repeating “But it would be better to did it differently” will get you nowhere. Mapping links that are very different from advocacy might also help the group to become more creative in what they can do to further their cause – or what their coalition partners can do to further their cause.

3. You focus on your own message only: The ultimate goal of advocacy is to change what people do. But often advocates also want to make others believers in their cause. This leaves them to talk about their own message all the time. Instead of thinking about what drives the other network members. One example how Net-Map helps break up that thinking pattern is the Nigeria Newborn Survival Case here. A colleague from Safe the Children told me a story about the power of framing the message for your audience instead of for your own ears that goes along the same lines: It’s about improving the healthiness of school feeding in the US: To convince conservative congressmen to do something about this, they went through senior army people, who turned it into a national security case – unfit young soldiers being unable to defend the country. I’d love to Net-Map that.

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


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.

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…

Elections in Egypt: I’d have preferred to get it wrong

The gate-keepers of (very) old networks of power in Egypt (Luxor, copyright by eviljohnius on flickr)

Do you know this bitter-sweet feeling of saying: “Told you so…”? You are somewhat proud of having predicted something correctly but deep in you heart you wish you had gotten it wrong. That’s how I feel when hearing the news from Egypt these days. I so wished to be contradicted by the way things unfolded. But I also see how powerful an understanding of social networks can be to predict a political course of events. And so we see that twitter and facebook are not the social networks with the strongest impact on who will rule Egypt in the future (just as I predicted about a year ago). And that the two most successful networking strategies are

    • Knock on every door (Muslim Brotherhood / Mohamed Morsi) and
    • Stay close to your influential friends (Ahmed Shafik)

Which is what the two leading candidates Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik mastered perfectly. In my post from March this year I described in detail how I see these trategies working out for the Muslim Brotherhood, the established political class and the military. And, as I said above, the satifaction of “I had it right” is rather small as compared to the disappointment of “I had it right”.

And there are a number of questions that keep bothering me: What is there to learn from this for the revolutionary masses on twitter, facebook and the freedom squares of this world? Is it realistic (and even desireable) that they fast track the real world network development that their opponents had decades to establish? Will there be a point in the future where we will learn to turns online masses into well structured movements quickly? Or would that be against the core beliefs of too many of the online activists and would you destroy the movement by trying to structure it? And, if demonstrating on the square got you a revolution, but didn’t make you win an election – is going back to the sqare alone going to get you what you want for the next step?

What’s the next season after (Arab) Spring?

Getting ready for "happily ever after" (copyright by jedimentat44 on flickr)

Getting ready for "happily ever after" (copyright by jedimentat44 on flickr)

Last June I thought a lot about the way that “Facebook and Twitter aren’t the only networks that matter in Arab Spring“. My main prediction was that while the “masses” were extremely powerful in organized regime changes or revolutions in some of the Arab countries, they will have major problems in developing enough leadership and real-world traction to play a role as important in the next step, forming the next governments. Interesting to see how this plays out in Egypt and to look at some of the real world networking strategies that were successful for those who wanted to get into or remain in power. Basically I see two strategies as being highly successful:

  • Knock on every door (bottom-up) and
  • Stay close to your influential friends (top-down)

The two groups that have been highly influential in securing a share of power in Egypt today are the Muslim Brotherhood and the old establishment (with strong representation of the military). Both used long term network building strategies that started long before Spring with a lot of real-world face-to-face interactions. The Muslim Brotherhood, even when it had to work underground, knocked on every door and worked hard at putting their roots down in neighborhoods, with a public face that highlighted their social activities, presenting themselves as your brothers who help you out in tough times.

The generals and other representatives on the other hand put their effort into establishing long lasting elite networks, whose members helped each other increase  the power base, in political and economic terms. Even as an outsider you can safely guess that everybody in this network owes a lot of other “insiders” some favors and that they share a lot of closets with a lot of bodies hidden in them. And the pressure their network has come under through the political changes of the last year will increase this sense of cohesion and the need to stick together against the threats of the outside world. An elite network can be weakened by removing the head and some of the formal power of its members. However, if the elite network members did a good job of positioning allies in all areas of leadership, not just the legislative but also administration, private sector, police and military, the revolutionaries are looking at a long up-hill battle.

In the initial celebrations after the end of the Egyptian regime it seemed to many that this was the ultimate success of the Arab Spring movement in Egypt, that they had achieved their goal. It was a bit like an old school Hollywood movie, that ends when the hero and heroine kiss and get married to live happily ever after. Well, if you are married in the real world (and not a movie), you know that all the fun, challenges and hard work happen after the “I do” and that happily ever after is not a guaranteed reward that you get automatically.

It will be interesting to see the Arab Spring movement grow into their role after the end of the movie. Which of the real networking strategies will they apply to work on their own “happily ever after”? How will they split up in different factions without the uniting force of a simple common enemy?

From tweet to action: Who moves social movements on twitter?

People (boxes) who tweet and core words (bubbles) they use

The fact that today’s social movements, from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, rely so heavily on twitter and similar communication tools, pose an amazing chance for researchers and other curious people who want to understand who moves these movements. The other day I discussed with a friend what kind of networks you want to look at to better understand this and I’d propose three different kinds: People networks, semantic networks and two-mode people/semantic networks.

People networks are the easy intuitive ones: Who follows whom? Who re-tweets whom? Looking at this will help you understand who the leaders, boundary spanners, broad-casters are.  Most likely, for an issue that manages the step from tweet to action successfully, you will look at a core-periphery structure, with a small inter-connected core (who might also communicate regularly outside of twitter) and a large periphery of followers, who are less inter-connected but look at the core for calls to action and thought leadership. Over time, different clusters might pop up as their own sub-cores or even take over from those initially starting the debate.

Semantic networks look at which words appear together in the same document (a document could be a single tweet, a string, all tweets from one person, whichever works). This can tell you something about the discourse around your issue: Is it just one large well connected issue or are there different schools of thought (more moderate and more radical for example or more philosophical versus more pragmatic and logistics oriented)? You might see that things evolve over time, for example it might be that the movement starts out united behind one cause (“Let’s overthrow the government!”) and after that is achieved, the debate disintegrates in many different camps (moderate and radical islamists, market oriented democrats, socialists etc.).

And to really understand how this development of the debate and the connections between the tweeters hang together, you want to look at two-mode networks. But I have to warn you, they are the least intuitive. In a two mode-network you look at two different categories of things, for example people and words and how they connect to each other. So, there are no direct links within one category (no people-to-people links or word-to-word links). This picture shows you: Who uses which words? Who is connected by being part of the same discourse (even if they have no direct link to each other)?

By looking at all three of these together, you can see who the leaders are, what their role (content) in the movement is and how that develops over time. And if you can compare either different incidents or different points in time, you will learn something about the network structures that are best suited to lead from tweet to action.