The Horizon of Possibility: Tectonica’s Method for Social Change Strategy
July 07, 2021
Progressive movements across the world are failing - losing to a growing tide of right wing populist sentiment, mired in electoral and advocacy setbacks to progressive policy advancement. Even well-resourced efforts are not achieving the change they seek. We believe that organisations, their communities and movements, have the knowledge they need to turn things around. Why then aren’t progressives able to transform their collective wisdom into winning strategy? Organisations often struggle to move past everyday concerns and individual agendas to make a people-powered strategic plan aligned to their vision.
In response Tectonica has developed a solid process to facilitate strategy development, channeling the wisdom of the teams we work with and, more fundamentally, the strength of their base communities. Our client feedback attests to this being one of our greatest strengths, and we’re writing this to share some of our ingredients for success with you
"Thanks to the team at Tectonica, especially Mar and Ned, for showing me how being an outsider prepared me to build a movement." - Amy Henderson, in the acknowledgements to her book ‘Tending’.
What makes a good strategy?
While there’s increasing recognition of the power of movements to create transformational change, the people-power driving movements is rarely at the centre of strategy. But the victory of every movement for change requires some degree of social license - a consensus in the community or society in favour of the cause and solutions. This builds the power needed for movement actors to push forward actual changes in behaviour, policy and practice, whether you’re running an electoral campaign or championing an advocacy cause.
Good campaign strategy - rather than focus on all the particulars of the moment - should begin by defining what this people-powered victory looks like and then work backwards to identify what is needed to achieve that. Many organisations come to Tectonica at the other end of this process, wanting to build a microsite or an app for example, without a clear idea of the role this will play in achieving eventual victory.
We’ve developed a unique process to support organisations to do this strategic thinking, through a process of guided agitational exploration to develop a logic model - a strategic map - aiming for people powered victory.
Common problems with campaign strategy
It’s easy for campaign teams to get caught up in day to day frustrations, leave collective assumptions unquestioned and set an ‘achievable’ policy goal as the focus without stepping back to check this genuinely moves them towards their bigger vision. There are also likely to be conflicting pulls on the approach - preoccupation with ‘brand’ and fundraising, communications schedules, maintaining relationships with department, team leads, and funders, etc. All these factors and more prevent teams from stepping back to work out what victory would actually look like - defining the clear direction they are going in, and then working backwards from that victory to work out how to win considering a proper analysis of the current (swiftly changing) context.
“The strategy process with Tectonica has allowed our senior team to step back from day to day operations and really focus on what it means to build a movement and why that is so crucial for our mission.
Through the facilitated sessions, we’ve been able to align around a vision for how our supporters can play a crucial role in securing the change we want to see.” - Trish Murray, Director of Fundraising, Good Law Project
Tectonica’s approach to strategy for people-powered victory
1) Bring in an outside facilitator to hold a participatory process
You might think - ‘we don’t need help, we can do this ourselves’. It’s true that your campaigns team will likely hold all the knowledge you need to develop an incredible strategy. But without help to draw that out, manage team power dynamics and keep you focused on identifying what real victory looks like, you’re likely to reinforce existing assumptions and continue on the same well-trodden path.
When a strategy process is facilitated well, it draws out the existing knowledge held by the team, using a coaching approach to support fresh thinking. Good facilitation brings in all perspectives cutting across seniority to co-create a strategy, fostering collective ownership, and agitating to tease out the unspoken. It’s impossible to do this inside your own team, constrained as you are by existing dynamics and assumptions. At Tectonica Ned Howey leads this strategic process and has developed a unique participatory approach to facilitating strategic conversations, drawing on his experience from social work and public health programming, training in community development, and even studies in philosophical inquiry.
“The process at times feels a bit like therapy - in a good way. The questions really challenged us and the way we viewed the work we do, in a way that helped us move beyond our assumptions. For our organisation, the resulting realisations helped us view the potential of a new way of working to fight and win campaigns across Europe. ” - Luca Stevenson, European Sex Worker’s Rights Alliance.
Questions for reflection:
How do you run your own social change strategy process?
Are you able to take a step back and challenge your assumptions, engaging the whole team well?
2) Begin by working out what people-based ‘foundational victory’ looks like
Your team probably already knows, or can easily work out, the institution-based victory you’re aiming for in three - five years time - like winning 25 seats in parliament, changing a particular piece of legislation, or getting corporations to change their bad behavior. The more important goal to be explored, however, is the foundational victory - the level of social consensus or support from particular audiences or across society that is required to achieve and maintain institution-based victory. The core power from movements is that which they actually move: people’s deeper understanding of the world, and the social consensus that is built across societies by this understanding.
While we’ve worked with many clients who had achieved institution-based victories through legal means, or convincing institutional powers directly, these victories are fragile at best and fairly limited in the amount of change they can advance. To quote the great thinker of organising Saul Alinsky,
“It is important for those of us who want revolutionary change to understand that revolution must be preceded by reformation. To assume that a political revolution can survive without the supporting base of a popular reformation is to ask the impossible in politics." - Saul Alinsky
On the rare occasions you can achieve legislation without widespread support, it’s unlikely to be enforced; meaning you could achieve your goal without making any actual progress on your issue.
Tectonica supports organisations to work back from this institution-based victory to identify the relevant people-powered foundational victory that underpins the institution-based outcome - by asking ‘how would you know you’d achieved the societal change needed to make your institutional outcome a reality? And what would be some of the underlying signs?’ These signs could be things like media being called out for bias, corporations issuing apologies for harms, adjacent issue-activists including the issue in their demands, and of course, the institution-based victory itself.
For example, working with ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons) the organisation was able to articulate the following difference between their institution-based victory and their foundational one:
Institution-based Victory: The ratification of the UN ban on nuclear weapons, making nuclear arms internationally illegal.
Foundational Victory: Nuclear weapons are so stigmatised around the world that no candidate for public office anywhere could run on a pro-nuclear platform and get elected.
If you don’t know what this foundational victory looks like, you’re unlikely to develop a strategy that is actually fit for purpose to achieve it. So this is the first step of a good social change strategy process. It’s important that your whole team agree on what this victory looks like to move forwards. Sometimes this can take several meetings, with space for reflection and further thought in between. But it’s worth taking this time to get this right so the whole team is on board with working towards it.
Question for reflection:
What signs would you see in the world that would indicate your movement had achieved the social consensus required to win the change you seek?
3) Imagine your victory party, and how you got there
Congratulations - you’ve won! Imagine you’re celebrating at your campaign victory party, and reflecting on all the things that happened that led to that victory. The key moments that you couldn’t have succeeded without. It’s important to be creative here and not get too caught up in concerns that things may never happen due to contextual challenges - the key is to imagine what realistically you needed to achieve to win your people-powered victory - regardless of the current reality.
When you’ve explored this well, and been as clear and specific as possible, prioritise the most important outputs.
Questions for reflection
Imagine looking back from a celebration victory, what happened to make it possible?
What things (assets, resources, agreements) would you need to make these steps to victory happen?
4) What do you need people to do?
Once you’re clear on what is needed for the steps towards victory, you can develop and define the actions that will need to happen by exploring where the power for your movement can be derived from people.
Questions for reflection
What do you need activists, supporters and others to actually do to achieve these outcomes?
5) Where are you starting from?
This is where an assessment of your current context can be helpful - towards the end of the process rather than at the beginning. If you explore this too soon you run the risk of your team getting lost in focussing on what is right in front of them instead of the horizon of possibility. Now you’re ready to take these to your logic model...
Questions for reflection
What strengths and assets can you leverage and build on to have greater impact?
What are the current global trends and specific contextual challenges your movement/s must acknowledge and plan around for success?
Building your logic model
While logic models have a long history in social service and public health programming, they are less commonly used by political campaigners. A logic model is a graphic depiction (like a road map) that illustrates the relationships between your resources, activities, outputs, outcomes, and ultimate impact of your project. It will show different strands of your work, how they progress and lead you towards your goal. This approach isn’t consistently used for social change focused projects, but it can be very effective, especially when deployed using Tectonica’s methodology with some small tweaks focused on achieving people-powered victory (steps two to five above walk you through the basics).
The steps of our social change logic model are as follows:
- Inputs - The resources drawn down to implement your strategy
- Actions - The things you will actually do (that need to happen to produce outputs)
- Outputs - The results of your actions and the building blocks of success
- Outcomes - These are your achievements
- (People Powered) Victory - Description of the social consensus needed for you to win big
The difficult part for many in turning the exploration process into a plan in the form of a logic model, is in allocating each bit of information to the correct area. This kind of information sorting between the categories is essential and an important part of the process. We recommend digital whiteboard tools like Miro or Mural to help drag and drop each bit of plan until it's in the right place.
Along the way you can identify potential evidence that you’ve achieved the different stages, to inform your evaluation framework. The development of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) can be helpful in implementation of your plan, helping you check to see if you are moving in the right direction at the right pace. These KPIs should be community-specific, such as fitness for purpose metrics, moving beyond short-term, easy to measure vanity metrics, and flexible enough to match reality. It is important to remember KPIs are just tools to check on progress that need interpreting, and not the outcomes themselves.
Although the finished logic model will start at the beginning and end at your goal, to develop it you need to work backwards from the people-powered victory. So Tectonica’s strategy sessions look something like this:
- Defining institution-based outcomes and people-powered foundational victory (see point 2 above)
- Imagining a victory party and the key successes necessary to the people-powered victory - to generate outcomes (see point 3 above)
- Working out what you need to deliver to win those outcomes - these are your outputs
- Exploring the actions needed to contribute to those outputs - also know as supporter journeys
- Identifying the resources you can leverage and those you need to gain implement the necessary actions - these are the inputs you will need based on your current context
Strategy should end with digital, not begin with it
Digital tools are incredibly powerful when deployed effectively. In our strategy process, discussion of digital begins when exploring the actions needed to win. When a client comes to us with a particular digital process in mind, we encourage them to engage in this method of strategic thinking. This ensures that the digital work we do remains clearly in service of people powered victory, and is therefore more effective in driving the social change the world needs.
Many clients have come to us asking us to first assess their current support base - but this process would be putting the cart before the horse. To develop a good strategy you need to first develop the overall logic, and prioritise the actions needed and resulting outputs. Only then can you identify audience groups based on these priorities. Regardless of who you are currently engaging, you should ask: who are the key people we need to take action, in order to achieve our victory? You must prioritise in a clear order so strategic focus is weighted on what is most important.
Questions for reflection
Are all your current actions clearly in the service of steps you think will move you towards the people-powered victory you need?
Or have you started from the desire to use a particular tool or work with an existing audience?
Top tips for an effective process
It’s not just the process outlined here that works so well - the way this process is facilitated is equally important. Here are a few of the key things to bear in mind in guiding your process:
Encourage imagination and expansive thinking
It’s easy to get bogged down in the day to day challenges of your work, and to limit what you think you can achieve to the next step you believe might be possible - like making a piece of legislation a little less bad. But this thinking is unlikely to win you the transformational changes you really need, as you’re not genuinely working towards them. Your strategy is an opportunity to dream big, expand your thinking and imagine a world where you’re really winning - then you can start working out how you could actually make it happen.
Imagination is one of the least tapped human capacity resources. While children use it constantly, our cultures tend to discourage its use, despite the fact that it is one of the faculties that holds the most potential for strategy and planning. Many campaigners have lost the ability to dream of genuine change and with it the hope that such change is possible. These dreams and hopes need rekindling in order to build social change strategy with a genuinely transformative goal, and good facilitation can help the team move beyond culturally constraining judgements.
Centre group wisdom and work towards consensus
Multiple perspectives bring richer diversity and complexity of thought than any one person can generate alone. So it’s important to hold a collective strategy process, ensuring all voices are heard and considered. By working this way and taking time to reach consensus, everyone involved will be fully invested in the direction you're taking and therefore much more likely to put their hearts into it and do their best work.
Prioritise the essential
Although you’re working towards consensus, you don’t need to include every little thing that everyone feels is important, but everyone’s personal agenda must be on the table. The process of working backwards from victory helps groups navigate the differences between their agendas in the actions needed to win. Working as a group, you should be rigorous in prioritising the essential, putting everything else to one side.
Understand a strategic plan is just a beginning
The development of a strategic plan is just the first step in actually winning change. The real power of strategy comes from implementing and adapting that change as the context shifts in real time. Having alignment across your team on the victory you are looking to achieve will help you manage this in a way that is agile enough to keep pace, and with everyone able to adapt to the necessary changes in plan.
“Strategy is a verb - something you do, not something you have. An ongoing interactive process of experimentation, learning and adaptation, we strategize as we act.” - Marshall Ganz
Questions for reflection:
Does your strategy dare to dream big?
Was your strategy produced collectively by your team?
How do you develop a social change strategy?
We hope this writing will be just the start of the conversation - we’d love to hear more about how you develop your own strategy, and if our ideas are helpful. Join the discussion with hundreds of progressive changemakers from around the world in Tectonica Organising Network’s slack community, and sign up to our fortnightly newsletter for updates, insights, articles and resources.
If you’re looking for strategic support with your social change work and you like the sound of our approach, get in touch. Tectonica is passionate about good strategy and we have an excellent track record in supporting our clients with this work.
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