We like to think we’re Stevie Wonder; we plan like we’re the Jesus & Mary Chain; but we’re not even the band in Rick’s Bar in Casablanca

In the way we plan, think about and evaluate campaigning, it’s too easy to put ourselves at the centre of everything:

It’s your campaign, you’re the change maker.

You’re Stevie Wonder. You’re recording ‘Superstition’. You’ve written it. You’ve arranged it. You produce it. You play almost all the instruments on it. You’re in complete control of all aspects of it.

Or perhaps it’s not just you, there are some others supporting you.

You’re Brian Wilson. You’re recording ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’. It’s not just you, but you are in charge of how it’s going to turn out. You direct the band, arrange the vocal harmonies, tell the drummer how hard to bash the drum. And it ends up sounding exactly like it does in your head.

Maybe it’s a bit more collegiate than that. You’re still the main actor but some others play an important role too.

You’re Aretha Franklin, you’re in Muscle Shoals, trying to turn ‘I Never Loved A Man’ into something great. People are kicking ideas around. The keyboardist has an idea for a riff, the drummer starts out, and it all clicks.

Or maybe there’s more to it than just you.

You’re The Jesus and Mary Chain, you’re recording ‘Psychocandy’. You’re producing the music and it’s generating feedback. You’re incorporating the feedback, channelling it creatively.

You’re taking external factors into account, but still it all starts from what you do.

It’s so tempting to take a Ptolomaic view of the world of change and position your campaign at the centre.

And how we plan campaigns can easily fall into that way of thinking.

Theories of change are not supposed to do that. They’re supposed to start the other end. But in my experience they can easily, and do often, reflect and encourage this sort of mindset.

We do these things, this happens as a result, that then leads to something else happening.

It’s all ripples. But they are our ripples. We plot them out from – and then trace them back to – our actions.

At the most we allow for a bit of feedback.

But that’s got to be the wrong starting point.

In reality there is always an existing set of power dynamics that the campaign is challenging.

You’re stranded in Casablanca, you’re in Rick’s Bar, you’re a member of the house band. Some German soldiers start to sing a fascist anthem. But you respond, you drown them out, you swing things your way. 

That’s still not a great representation because it suggests only two opposing actors, not a multiplicity of actors and influences. But at least it conveys the idea of reacting to an existing context rather than being the font of all things.

Much better to operate to a Copernican model of campaign planning, with the target as the focus. The target is the sun at the centre – and the influence you bring to bear as part of a wider constellation of actors is the thing to get right.

Better to start the other end:

  1. Analyse the target,
  2. Identify and set out the barriers to progress,
  3. Prioritise the barriers that you are going to address,
  4. Track progress in breaking down these barriers, iteratively, and
  5. Adapt strategy and tactics accordingly.

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