What's strategy ever done for us?

I thought it was time for a more upbeat post on strategy whilst I find the time to edit 2 interviews that I hope to post soon – the first with Kathryn Tulip of Seeds for Change focusing on overcoming challenges in facilitating strategy at the grassroots, and the second with Peter Chowla of Bretton Woods Project offering insights into their chosen strategic process and how it’s benefited them as a small NGO. But in the meantime a reminder of what activists might gain from ‘doing strategy’….

What’s strategy ever done for us?Well apart from winning campaigns, allowing us to set the agenda, focusing our resources most effectively, helping us prevent burn-out, and therefore changing the world for the better? Not much.

Campaign strategy is a huge topic. Often it seems like a topic suited most to the more academic amongst us, to strategy geeks, to the kind of people who enjoy creating GANNT charts, PEST or SWOT analysis. Many strategic thinking tools are dry. They lack the passion that drives us as campaigners and activists. Maybe that’s a good thing? Maybe we need to step back, put our passion to one side, and look objectively at what we’re trying to change. Or maybe we need to let our passion have its head and guide our campaigns and actions. No doubt we’ll talk about tools for strategic thinking another time. Here we want to focus on ‘why be strategic?’

So with apologies to the Pythons, back to the question – What’s strategy ever done for us?

Whether you advocate objectivity, or passion there are very strong arguments for doing some strategic thinking. Here’s a sample of them:

Strategy allows us to set the agenda. How many campaign groups spend their days (and nights!) constantly reacting to the agenda of the governments, councils or corporations that they are campaigning against? Or firefighting the latest media article? This model of campaigning can be exhausting. Don’t you sometimes wish that our side of the story was being heard by more people, more often? Strategy can deliver that. It allows us to plan ahead and explore how we can get the message out there, by direct contact with the people who matter, through audacious direct action that the media just can’t ignore, or by creating our own independent media. It can put our opponents on the back foot running to keep up with us.

Strategy helps us to map out the landscape in which we’re campaigning. Who’s out there? Who’s working with us? Who’s working against us? Where can we be most effective? What are the natural alliances we could forge? All of this thinking helps us find the right action for our campaign group to take. Often, for example, the direct action element of the campaign might be missing or weak. Someone needs to step into that role and take action. Thinking this way means we don’t duplicate the work of other groups, unless more of the same is needed. It also means that we’ve thought about who the powerholders really are and not just jumped to the easy conclusions. Behind that politician may well be a corporate lobbyist pulling the strings!

Strategy keeps us sustainable – a bit of forward thinking gives us the luxury of planning to:

  • also look after ourselves as a group – making sure we take the time to improve the way we communicate, to have fun together, or to prevent unwanted hierarchies or bad habits developing, for example
  • bring in new people (and keep them involved!)
  • raise any money we need to fund the campaign
  • share skills so that we don’t become reliant on a few experienced individuals
  • take breaks when we need them, knowing others have the information and skills to carry on the campaign
  • build links in the community right from the start and not at a moment when relations are strained
  • make time for the positive actions that build alternatives to the problem as well as the negative tactics that are all about stopping the problem

Strategy can see us through the hard times. Understanding strategic models – analyses of how change happens in society – can help us deal with those moments of a campaign when it looks like we’ve lost momentum, and we begin to despair that change will ever happen. For example, Bill Moyers in the Movement Action Plan talks about a fifth stage of crisis and burn-out for activists at the heart of the campaign happening just before, or even alongside the campaign developing unstoppable momentum. Sometimes we’re just to close to the campaign to see how much we’ve actually achieved and what we have to celebrate. Good strategy involves plenty of celebration!

So there you go – four good reasons to take time to do strategy. If you need more convincing, take a look at some case studies from around the world put together by those lovely folk at the Change Agency. If you want to share you experience, add your comments or get in touch.