Which aspects of How Change Happens resonate with campaigners?

Writing, and then promoting, How Change Happens has often left me feeling a bit remote from ‘the field’, with a nagging anxiety that

What do we want? A theory of Change?.....
What do we want? A theory of Change?…..

what I am saying no longer has much connection with what people are doing on (or at least closer to) the ground.

So it was great to get online with some of Oxfam’s best and brightest campaigners and advocates around the world and swap notes on power and systems. I got a reassuring amount of resonance with the ideas and arguments in the book, along with some really interesting experiences and new insights.

One overarching point is how much people value mapping tools – they provide entry points into disentangling a complex system, examining the different parts and how they interact, and then using that to come up with better ideas for ways to change the status quo. Oxfam staff are out there using tools like the Power Cube with local communities, and they really help. ‘Although people think a lot about power, mapping gives them new language and new ideas on what to do. They look again at things they previously took for granted.’ In contrast, Oxfamers are not so keen on big analytical documents – ‘pages of pages of nothingness’, was one memorable description.

power cube exploded
power cube exploded

I discovered that my colleague Richard English has flattened out the Power Cube into a set of 3 columns, which works much better for me – I’ve never found the cube itself very user friendly. We decided to try and apply it to the problem of how to prevent governments from cracking down on civil society organizations. If that goes ahead, I’ll doubtless blog on the results.

When analysing power, one intriguing critique was that the aid business tends to favour structural analyses, and avoid analysing the experiences, motivations and preferences of powerful individuals. In advocacy that means we miss lots of entry points through which to influence decision makers – one recalled a long analysis of South Sudan that failed to mention that the main rebel leader, Riek Machar is a British citizen (and even studied Philosophy at Bradford University). That kind if intel can provide great entry points for influencing.

Another example of the need to take power analysis down to the individual level came from Cambodia, where we used power mapping to identify the individual decision makers and then who influenced them (i.e. who they listened to) as the basis for an influencing and campaign strategy.

Oxfam likes to use power mapping – typically plotting different stakeholders against the level of interest in/support for the issue

power map of climate change negotiations
power map of climate change negotiations

under discussion and their degree of influence over relevant decisions. One African colleague saw one of the main benefits as uncovering those institutions that in practice have absolutely no power over decisions (whatever it says in the constitution), which can save a lot of time and waste (‘ultimately, Parliament is just a rubber stamp’).

But despite the enthusiasm for power mapping, I realized as we were talking that it has one serious flaw: it struggles to address ‘invisible power’ (social norms, the attitudes and beliefs that inspire or hold people back), and usually defaults back to the comfort zone of formal power, perhaps extending to ‘hidden power’ – Old Boys’ Networks and the like. When many change processes (eg on gender rights) rely to a large extent on tackling social norms and ‘power within’, that seems like a serious oversight.

But in some countries, all this talk of power is itself a risk – technical, apolitical language can provide a kind of camouflage, when overtly political language attracts unwanted attention from the authorities. Not sure I’ve helped much there by writing a whole book on power and change. Too late now.

The people on the call were part of Oxfam’s Campaigns and Advocacy Leadership Programme (CALP). The CALP brings together Oxfam staff and partners involved in country programmes and the influencing done at local, national, regional and global levels. We have some exciting plans to make that more widely available, perhaps through a partnership with Open University. Watch this space.

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6 Responses to “Which aspects of How Change Happens resonate with campaigners?”
  1. John Magrath

    Interesting. Just been chatting with a colleague from he Middle East. He was saying social norms, attitudes + beliefs ARE power. They drive the motivations (the motive power, note) in the system. Most of the visible forms that we analyse are grafted on or froth….

  2. jo

    Duncan, you need to make a small correction to your text in the paragraph starting ‘But the enthusiasm…’ – to begin with I made an exasperated exclamation out loud – it looked as though you’d confused hidden power with invisible power and got them the wrong way round; but then I saw it was just an error, as you then had hidden power again, this time correctly. So please correct your first ‘hidden’ to ‘invisible’! And John, I couldn’t agree more with our MENA colleague – invisible power is what enables people who benefit from the status quo to act as if their thinking and action is just ‘how things are’, ‘natural’ or even ‘god-given’ and to keep the people who lose from the status quo believing there is nothing that can be done, or that the problem must be their own failings – or even blissfully unaware that there might be other possibilities. Invisible power can be so persistent and pervasive. The ideas of deserving and undeserving poor, for example, which have extraordinary tenacity.

  3. Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez

    In Latin America, we´ve been adapting our standard power analysis and power mapping tools to help us decipher social norms and invisible power a bit more. Our most recent modification is a set of concentric circles spanning from the individual level, to the reference group (those people whose opinion matters to me – or the individual in question – and whose actions influence me), and then the societal level, which would include institutions, ideologies, common worldviews, all influencing the accepted status quo. So far it´s proving quite helpful in breaking down how social norms are formed, maintained and potentially transformed. If I could upload photos here, I´d share some exciting photos of young people in Honduras and Colombia using the methodology we´ve developed.

  4. Hi Duncan,

    My colleague Bronagh Gallagher and I are developing a two day workshop on complexity and uncertainty for non-profits and activists and we are using “How Change Happens” along with “Simple Habits in Complex Times” as our two key texts. PSA will be shared along with the Cynefin framework as two ways of grounding and orienting practice with a good theory base. Happy to connect with you before, during and after we run the first two sessions, and we could easily set up some feedback loops to get information from participants to you. Feel free to be in touch.