A mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville

As campaigners, we have to think all the time about the progress we are making, whether we are on track, and whether or not we need to adapt our strategy and tactics.

It’s important to have good information on which to base these judgements.

But given the nature of campaigning, however good your information is, you’ve still got to interpret it.

Pretty much everything is contested in advocacy. There are always different explanations possible. And campaign progress isn’t linear – so determining if you are on track requires judgement.

So it’s about the quality of interpretation as well as the quality of the information.

And it’s easy to misinterpret things. Here are some common pitfalls:

 

1/ The ‘Wreck of the Old ‘97’ pitfall: Getting sidetracked and missing the important implications.

The Wreck of the Old ’97 is a country music standard that tells the (true) story of an old mail train running late: the driver, under pressure to arrive on time, speeds up, and it ends badly.

Avoiding more obvious lessons, the song’s conclusion is that women should be nicer to men.

(“Never speak harsh words to your true love or husband/He may leave you and never return’)

A load of men are complicit in catastrophe but it’s women who should act differently.

It’s easy to draw the wrong conclusions from the evidence, especially if you have a narrow group of people with common interests reaching those judgements, with others excluded.

 

2/ The Russell’s chicken pitfall: Assuming if something happened in the past it will happen again.

(As a metaphor for the problem of induction), Russell’s chicken was fed every day and so expected this to continue, but then one day the farmer came along and wrung its neck.

There are various things we can legitimately take from past experiences – but not guarantees that things will go the same way if we just repeat what we did before.

 

3/ The Elephant Gun pitfall: Assuming that something caused something just because it happened before it.

My dad used to tell a joke about a man who fired off an elephant gun in his kitchen every day. When asked why did this when there were no elephants anywhere near, he said that was the proof the gun was working.

In campaigning terms, simplistic claims of influence – along the lines ‘we did x and then y happened’ – deserve particularly critical interrogation.

(Based on the emails they send me, this could be called the 38 Degrees pitfall.)

 

4/ The ‘What you see is all there is’ pitfall: Filling in the gaps to give spurious validation to your conclusions.

The way our brains work, we build the best possible story from the information available to us. And if it is a good story, we tend to buy into it.

They say it’s actually easier to construct a coherent story when you know little about a situation because there is less inconsistent information.

This can lead to overconfidence about your understanding of the situation.

So allow for the possibility that key evidence is missing. And deliberately cultivate doubt.

 

5/ The ‘that’s what I thought would happen’ pitfall: Misremembering past judgements in a way that makes you over-confident about current ones.

We systematically misremember our past positions. Knowing how things turn out affects how we recollect what we previously thought.

This for example:

This tendency makes us think we are better at understanding situations, and making predictions, than we actually are.

So track the extent to which past plans came to fruition, and learn from this about getting the balance right between forward planning and reactive adaptation.

 

6/ The Michael Fallon pitfall: Always denying there’s anything wrong.

Michael Fallon is gone now, into a limbo of disgrace, and the waters have closed over his career. But for many years he was the UK government spokeperson who got wheeled out to say everything was fine when it generally obviously wasn’t.

Most things can be defended, most things can be argued away, but better to maintain a more critical perspective if you want to learn and develop. This means searching out – rather than rejecting – disconfirming data, and avoiding defaulting to defensive positions.

 

7/ The ‘This bus pulls in frequently’ pitfall: Falling back on stating the obvious.

Buses in London have ‘this bus pulls in frequently’ stickers on the back, as a warning to cyclists. Fine, but that’s only really useful information if you don’t already know what a bus is or does.

Better to spend time on stuff that conveys something meaningful, something new.

 

To make the best decisions about future strategy and tactics:

(a) Create space for reflection

(b) Cultivate diverse views, including through external input

(c) Respect ambiguity and uncertainty rather than trying to eliminate it

(d) Subject judgements – and the assumptions underpinning them – to a set of ‘confirmation bias’ type hurdles:

  • Be explicit about your prior beliefs
  • Rigorously assess the quality of the evidence on which you are basing any judgments
  • Proactively seek out and emphasise disagreeable evidence

 

[this post draws on Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

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