Making change happen – reflections for campaigners

One of the joys of my job is I get to go off to talks to listen to interesting people. Last week I got to enjoy thought provoking hour with Duncan Green.
Duncan is Strategic Adviser at Oxfam GB – basically from what I can tell he employed to write + say interesting and proactive things to help make NGOs and others involved in international development better. If you’ve not come across his writing before I’d strongly recommend his website ‘From Poverty to Power’.
Duncan is about to release a new book ‘How Change Happens‘ and I’d recommend going along to one of the many lectures and talks he’s giving over the next few months – it’s full of lots of useful content.
This session was especially useful as it was focused on those those involved in running and leading global campaigns, as it was part of a fascinating workshop hosted by Save the Children International and World Vision International sharing what they’d learnt from campaigning on the MDGs (and on that topic this learning from Water Aid about there work on pushing on the post-2015 agenda is also excellent).
The session was also packed full of useful insight, and big credit to both organisations to actively looking to share what they’ve found has worked and not worked from the campaigning they’ve been involved in over the last 5+ years.
But here are a few things from Duncan that got me thinking about our approach to understanding change.
How change happens? It’s complicated.
Campaigning isn’t like making a cake – we can’t just repeatedly add the same ingredients, mix them together, put in the oven, and get the same cake time and time again. Instead change is complex, ‘non-linear’, messy and involves multiple actors. Frankly its complicated!
To reflect this campaigners need to grapple with what changes a system, to reflect on the role of critical junctures in driving change (see some of my thoughts on preparing for crisis’s here) and recognise that causality is uncertain. I was struck that some of the models in Pathways of Change are really helpful here.
But our traditional planning approaches don’t accommodate complexity.
It’s not often Mike Tyson gets quoted in a campaigning presentation but his quote ‘Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth’ is a 21st century take on the ‘No strategy survives first contact with the enemy’ quote. We need to accept that our strategies aren’t up to incorporating the complexity of the challenges we work on.
Instead Duncan suggests that when we to have two types of theories of change – Theories of Change which look at how we think the system is going to be changing even without our interventions, and a Theory of Action which focus on what we hope the impact will be of the interventions that we plan to make. (see more here)
So we need to start to think differently.
As change makers we need to start to think/feel/work in a different way. We need to nurture an inherent curiosity about how change happens, to listen to gossip which can often help us make sense of what’s happening, to learn to embrace uncertainty, and be reflective to recognise our own prejudices and power. In short, we need to ‘learn to dance with the system’ (this draws on the work of Donella Meadows who’s paper on this I’d recommend reading)
Open ourselves to unusual suspects and voices.
To dance with the system we need to look out for those who are already dancing in the system – that might be more ‘junior’ staff in our offices who are actually more ‘in touch’ with with new trends or approaches, to actively get ourselves out of the ‘thought bubbles’ that are so easily to inhabit, or through different ways of seeing he world, for example Duncan ask why do we draw so much from the scientific/econometric approaches in how we try to evaluate advocacy – could we learn as much from history, sociology or social anthropology?
Duncan’s book is published at the end of the month and available at all good bookshops – I’ve pre-ordered my copy.

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