Growing strategy, not planning it?

Reading Carl’s recent post I’m seeing some threads developing from our strategy blogging experiment. In some ways I feel a tad guilty – we seem to be posting reflections that support a shift away from the ‘traditional’ strategy tools that facilitators have relied on for I don’t know how long. This post’s no different in that it wrestles with the same dilemma of whether to apply these tools, and if so how much weight to give them.

A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with a fellow facilitator. We were chatting about facilitating strategy with grassroots activist groups. We talked about theories of social change and whether these should be the backbone of campaigners’ and activists’ strategies. Whilst I have a lot of time for the theories such as Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan, I found myself arguing myself against the idea. Can we reasonably expect individual activists to be carrying around entire theories of change in their heads and to be rigorously applying them? Of course for some activists, or for professional campaigners, the theories may be so well-known as to be unconscious, but not for the majority of us. People campaign because they want to make change, usually on an issue or issues. And it’s that issue that they focus their time and attention on, not background theories that seem more appropriate to a sociology course.

A couple of other approaches emerged from the conversation. Just bare bones at the moment but there’s something of value in them, I feel.

Firstly, can we elicit strategy from the decisions that activist groups are already making? Don’t we all make choices at some level, however unconscious? As facilitators can we use a process of questioning to uncover what those choices are, and what values underlie them? By doing so don’t we make explicit a process that is at some level strategic? This has the merit of starting where people are at and leaving them with some clear values-based criteria they can apply to their campaign decisions in future. And if some of the criteria they use are ‘weak’? Well at least that gets exposed. But actually, who are we to make such judgements? However, having said that, when I’ve played with techniques such as Training for Change’s From Tactics to Strategy, I’ve been left feeling that they lack a little substance.

Secondly, I was reflecting on my perception of the way campaigns developed ‘back in the day’. In the Earth First! movement in the 90s there was less of the mass action we see with Climate Camp, for example. Groups took action in their own neck of the woods, sometimes on the same day as each other as part of a ‘day of action’, and reported their actions to the movement’s media – SchNEWS and the Action Update. There were occasional face to face gatherings. Other groups got inspired, took their own actions often building on the reports they had read or heard at gatherings and ideas developed – it had a feel of musicians jamming together. Perhaps a little discordant at first, but soon reaching a strange and wonderful harmony. Strategy was grown not planned.

Now I need to add a caveat at this stage – I was involved in an action group in Scotland and geography meant that we were less connected to the wider movement than other groups may have felt. But to me it seemed that each action fed into the process of developing the next in much the same way as ideas bounce off each other in an ideastorming session.

I’m left with the question that as trainers, facilitators and capacity builders are we here to facilitate strategic planning (and possibly even help define what it means to be strategic?) or to speed up the process of a more organic growth and development? Answers on a postcard….


2 thoughts on “Growing strategy, not planning it?

  1. For me, the test is in something around questions of whether one has deployed ones energy and skills in an effective way. Did doing X create more change than doing Y?

    You can reflect (20:20 hindsight) and learn things which may apply in the future.

    And you can use what you’ve learnt (and what others have learnt – either through introducing a bit of theory or through sharing stories) to decide whether to do A or B. That’s planning.

    And the difference between strategy and tactics is – for me – mostly a question of focus and timescale. Is there a big ‘change fulcrum’ in the system which will give a bigger pay-off if our energies and activities are focussed on it? If we have identified this, is there a case for coordinating activities around it? Or can we work out an intricate path of interconnected influence which means that action in one area of the system will have an effect in another area? In that case, a strategy can help ensure energies are deployed in a way which is likely to create more change.

    If there doesn’t (yet) seem to be this kind of pattern in the system, then tactical activity is fine – going where the fun is, where the local problems or opportunities are – because you’re not missing the opportunity to do something strategic.


    • Thank you Penny for the clearly articulated distinction between when strategy and tactic are appropriate. The question this seems to leaves us as facilitators is how we work with groups in an engaging and accessible way to create a space for them to identify the ‘change fulcrum’ (or the absence of it). Is it enough for activists to rely on their intuition and instinct? Many of the ‘old’ tools seem to work for a select few of the change-making community leaving others cold. Perhaps the same is true of intuition and instinct. More on this in future posts….

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