HOW TO BE A SUCCESSFUL ACTIVIST

butterfly The title of this Weblog is How to Save the World. Although the title is intended to be ironic, the number of Googlers that land here after typing in those five hopeful words attests to the fact that a lot of people want to do something about what they think is wrong with the world. And notwithstanding my earlier post about our human tendency to procrastinate, I’ve spent the lion’s share of my business life in one Change Management capacity or another. So I have learned a few things about how to get things done. I thought I’d share them today.

Activism is Change Management writ large. Change Management is all about getting people to do different things, or things differently. In business, the guru of the moment on this subject is John Kotter. In his book Leading Change he describes the eight steps to getting people to do different things or things differently, and they are irrefutable:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Form a powerful guiding coalition
  3. Create a vision
  4. Communicate the vision
  5. Empower others to act on the vision
  6. Plan for and create short-term wins
  7. Consolidate improvements 
  8. Institutionalize the change

The underlying principle here is that, in business as in real life, you don’t bring about sustained, meaningful change by edict. You need to persuade, enthuse, and engage people in sufficient numbers to change behaviours, laws or processes. If you want to do this in your business, buy Kotter’s book, since that’s what it’s focused on. But the same preconditions apply to political, economic, artistic, scientific, spiritual or moral change. Whether the change agent is a preacher or a politician or a philosopher or a post-modernist, the process is the same. Not only does it entail these eight steps if it is to have lasting impact, the steps must be done in precisely this order .

Let’s use environmental activism as an example, since Elizabeth May of the Sierra Club of Canada has writen a wonderful primer called How to Be an Activist that essentially uses this very process. If you want to tighten restrictions on clear-cutting forests, you need to first get people to believe the change is urgently needed, by showing compellingly the dire consequence of inaction. Then you need to persuade some people with significant power (influence, wealth, media access, reputation, and exceptional ability to articulate, fundraise or organize all being relevant types of power) to get on board. The vision you must then create should be a realistic but glowing story or snapshot of the future where the change you propose has been implemented (or a devastating portrait of the future if it isn’t). That vision must be communicated by using the media (press releases, press conferences etc.), public speaking opportunities, weblogs, even phone-in shows – anywhere lots of people can hear your message. Empowering others then requires organizing, lobbying, and making it easy for people to implement, or help you (by signing petitions, giving you money etc.) to bring about the change. The easier you make it for petitioners, politicians, reporters and other ‘helpers’ to do what you want, and the more you do for them to make it easy, the more likely it is they will support you, or at least not get in the way.

Most important changes take time and sustained effort, and since people have short attention spans and can get discouraged easily, short-term wins (such as a temporary injunction on clear-cutting, in our example) are essential to sustain momentum. Consolidating your wins (such as getting the restriction on clear-cutting written into law, or at least government party policy), and institutionalizing the change (e.g. ensuring the new clear-cutting restrictions are enforced, and the new law is difficult to circumvent or overturn), are the final two essential steps to achieving an enduring change. This is not for the faint of heart or the lazy.

This requires a lot of up-front and continuing research to acquire the facts (know-what), the skills (know-how), and the contacts (know-who ) needed to bring about the change. The internet is a great research resource, but as Elizabeth points out it’s not enough and sometimes the telephone is both more effective and more efficient.

As Michael Moore’s unfortunate speech at the Oscars illustrated, sometimes how you do things is as important as what you do to bring about needed change. Here are Elizabeth’s useful hints for how to conduct yourself as an activist:

  1. Refuse to be intimidated. If you are told that a subject is too technical or scientific for you to understand, don’t believe it. 
  2. Be creative! Every campaign and issue has its own dynamic.  
  3. Don’t take no for an answer. Be persistent, the squeaky wheel.
  4. Ask lots of questions. Get to the bottom of issues. Do your homework.
  5. Use the telephone. It is a great research tool.  
  6. Be unfailingly polite. Being persistent is not the same thing as being rude.  
  7. Leave no stone unturned. Ask people for help.
  8. Give public credit and thanks.
  9. You can accomplish anything, if you don’t care who gets the credit.
  10. Remember that politics is also personal. Watch out for burn-out. You’ll need the support of friends and family. Build love into your campaigns.

This may seem simple and obvious. It is, and it works. The reason you don’t see huge grassroots changes being wrought every day is human nature: The road to success is grueling, and long, and sometimes frustrating (ask Erin Brockovich). It takes unusual endurance.

Last word is Margaret Mead’s:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Post-script: The photo of the butterfly, the symbol of change depicted at the top of this post, is from the Causes of Color exhibit on a remarkable site called WebExhibits   This site has some breathtaking studies that can change the way you think about ordinary things.

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1 Response to HOW TO BE A SUCCESSFUL ACTIVIST

  1. Matthew Day says:

    The portion of the Article where you mentioned Elizabeth May’s book, and methods of broadcasting your message to as wide a field of people as possible has proven prophetic. As the next leader of the rapidly growing Green Party of Canada, she has the opportunity to share a wider message with the entire Canadian populace in the widest arena there is. The Electoral political arena.I guess we’re in for a pretty wild ride now.

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