Strategy: Hold the front page!

Vredesactie's strategic goal in newspaper format

I had the pleasure of working with trainers from Belgian Peace network Vredesactie recently, as part of the work I do for Turning The Tide. Steve, my TTT co-facilitator, and I travelled to Ghent to support a group in delivering strategy workshops to activist groups. We were quite clear from the start that it was a sharing, a dialogue. Our own experience is that strategy work can be tough, and is fraught with problems, especially in grassroots groups.

  • Some people understand strategy. The dangers are that they’re seen as a strategic elite trying to dictate the course of a wider group or movement; or that they actually do try to dictate the course of a group or movement without being given a mandate to do so.
  • Others could get it if they could find time to engage in a life already overfilled with activist commitments. For them strategy is a luxury that they cannot afford.
  • Others cannot engage with the rather cold logic of many traditional strategy tools, or don’t think big picture, and strategy can alienate them, make them feel stupid, or just frustrate them.
  • For some strategic thinking challenges existing power dynamics in a group, opening up the possibility of new ways of being and acting, and potentially lessening their role at the centre of the group.
  • A request for strategy may also be taken to imply that existing approaches are not effective, and cause offence.

This was one of the conversations we had, literally. We played out a conversation between these characters to see what it taught us about how we, as trainers, approached groups, and what the implications were for the tools and techniques we used to increase strategic action. We wanted to go into the workshop sharing the struggle of getting groups to ‘do strategy’, rather than just sharing tools for doing strategy. It was well received, and when we did turn to look at tools it was within a context of finding tools (and language) that would meet groups where they were at.

One tool I brought home with me was ‘Front Page’, a way of making setting achievable goals more accessible and enjoyable. Vredesactie folk went on to spend a day together after we left them, and tried the tool for themselves so you can see an example of what it looks like. The premise is so simple – mock up the front page of a newspaper reporting on your group having achieved its goal, then write some text to flesh out the picture. In doing so the group has some fun, and has a conversation about what it is they’re trying to achieve. Don’t be surprised if different group members discover they have different goals – that’s one of the hidden benefits of the tool – it makes these differing assumptions apparent.

Not sure when I’ll get a chance to use it, but it feels like a lively and useful addition to my strategy work.

Later in the year there will be a week-long gathering , in Belgium, to look at some of the same issues raised here. I hope that Rhizome will make a contribution, and do some valuable learning, of one kind or another