#SocialChangeAsADailyPractice: practicing system intelligence

“Or if you want to stop you have to develop a level of intelligence that is commensurate with what it is they have put in in the first place. Which means changing forms of protest, forms of action, understanding very clearly what it is that we are up against. Because older forms of struggle will not be able to stop those new processes. So unless we invest in that kind of intelligence, our ways of resistance will be completely outmoded. It’s part of what we are witnessing, I mean with what is going on our campuses. These are modes of resistance that are inefficient, they are not adapted to the kind of real hostile forces that are trying to reify everything and commodify everything and our existence.”

— Achille Mbembe

Oh no! Another heavy one! Some of you might be following this series looking for tips on how to be a better human — ways to be charitable and conscientious and “woke” in your daily life. I will include some posts on things like that, but social change needs to be much more informed, deliberate and organised.

These first few posts are about avoiding the rush to a particular, easy/easing solution, and really thinking about the problem, and how we structure our efforts to address the problem. Understanding the problem, and what you are trying to influence, is as much a part of the daily practice as the specific actions, so bear with me.

If only it were this easy? In reality, change requires organisation more than heros. I’ll leave the debate on “violent” vs. “non-violent” (is the distinction always clear?) for another time. (Also: I can’t find an original source for this image, give me holler if you know so I can add it).

In my last post in the series, I introduced a simple tool to use as a part of your reflexive practice, to better understand the system within which you are working.

I then used the case of Wolwerivier to illustrate some common pitfalls of ostensibly well-governed democratic institutions.

Of course, not all people interested in social change are working within democracies. The state of modern democracies is also not all equal — the recent US elections seem to have woken many Americans up to this reality.

Similarly, not all readers are working on issues that the state is a key driver on, or even mandated to address. Some are hoping to influence broader behavioural changes among the general population, others are hoping to influence a specific company or sector.

Regardless of who or what you’re trying to influence, the ability to “know your audience” is critical. Campaigns that assume a rational individual, or a rational institution, and design their messaging, policies, tactics etc as if to influence that rational entity, are often frustrated.

“Knowing your audience” is key in marketing, in persuasion and leadership, in behavioural change campaigns or “social marketing” .

When you know your audience, and you know yourself (I did promise/warn that some posts in this series will deal with self-awareness, its coming), you are better equipped to know:

— Where in the system you are best positioned to intervene

— Who you need to collaborate with (building your community of practice or calling to existence your network of organised activists)

— How to build legitimacy for your work

— Who to talk and engage with

— How to communicate and change the dominant narrative (the Miss Sloan film has a great example of re-framing the Palm Oil Tax to the Nutella Tax)

So, how do you know your audience?

The first step is to set all assumption aside. In recent months I’ve met with numerous individuals wanting to become more active as they see decisions being made that they don’t agree with, or that don’t make sense to them. The first thing they say to me is often something along the lines of “it just doesn’t make sense, why would they even do this?”. And we’re back to assuming rational behaviour, or assuming others would behave exactly as we would. Stop it. Unlearn that.

The second step is to accept that getting to know your audience will be a constant part of your adaptive work — hence the little flow-chart tool in the previous post in this series. Your audience will also change — elections, restructuring, changes in public mood and sentiment, new facts (alt or not) taking popular hold are all waves that you need to anticipate and ride.

Understand what influences your audience, ask questions about them, look for evidence of how they’re responded to other events, or better yet, ask them, things like, and try to assess from observing the choices they make:

— what drives them (ideologies, performance targets, political pressures, constituency pressures)

— what are the counter arguments to yours that they will implore that you need to be ready to address, or preemptively address (and the dominant narratives, assumptions, prejudices, pieces of received wisdom not based on fact or engagement, on an issue that they subscribe to)

— how responsive are they to facts?

— how responsive are they to emotion?

— what types of calls to action do they regard as legitimate?

— what barriers to change do they face? (lookout for a series post on this topic soon)

— what articulations of return on investment are they likely to be responsive to?

Nick Morgan also suggests five dimensions of audience analysis:

  • Openness vs. closed: their receptiveness to new ideas.
  • Powerful vs. subservient: the power relationships in the room.
  • Engaged vs. disengaged: connection with the speaker.
  • Allied vs. opposed: the extent of agreement with you (or with other parts of the system needed to advance change)
  • Committed vs uncommitted: the further buy-in to your ideas.

This will differ in every scenario, and case studies in the series will work to further illustrate how to harness intelligence about your audience to shape your tactics. You want to take someone(s) from a state of conflict with you, through compliance/conformity to thorough commitment and collaboration. Your tactics will also change dependent on where on that continuum different individuals or organisations lie at the outset.

One very general rule that can be shared is that there are very few people who respond well to their power, status, ability to do their job, or ethics being called into question. You need to be willing to make concessions* about your own shortfalls and limitations (oh dear, that authentic self awareness thing again…) before embarking on any communication that intends to persuade change.

*Credit to Garry Orren who taught me Persuasion and who’s Twenty Principles I routinely return to. Gary is a wonderful and insightful communicator — you should just binge watch whatever is available, really.

Break your audience up

Your audience might not, in fact seldom will be, a homogenous group.

Break your audience up into as many meaningful sub-parts as possible, and get to know each of those.

Then, target your issues at the primary audience — the one most likely to adopt the change you are seeking, and influence the rest of the system on your behalf (watch out for a later post on scaling through diffusion).

Later posts will unpack some tools for this, and take you through tactics.

In the mean time, this Canvas tool also has some useful tools for getting to know your task at hand.

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