12 habits of successful change-makers: being adaptive and responsive

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s Social Change Project investigated how social change happens. The research identified “the 12 habits of successful change-makers”, behaviours found in both individuals and organisations. Every month in 2019, SMK CEO and ACEVO trustee Sue Tibballs will reflect on what these habits mean for civil society leaders and invite you to do the same. 

Habit #3: ensure your campaigners are able to respond quickly

‘Events, dear boy, events’, as Harold MacMillan famously said. Social change is often catalysed by events – are you ensuring your campaigners are able to respond quickly?

The image of Alan Kurdi, the young refugee whose body was washed up on a beach in Greece in 2015, mobilised a whole new level of response to the refugee crisis. The 1987 Kings Cross fire raised awareness about the fire risk of smoking. Despite the depth of these tragedies, the effect on public consciousness was relatively fleeting. In the wake of such events, there is a brief window for campaigners to make an impact.

We are in the midst of just such a period. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, political appetite for investment in safe and decent housing has grown. As a direct response, Shelter convened a housing commission that brought together politicians from across the parties. Was this in Shelter’s plan a year before the fire? I don’t know. I do know that Grenfell changed the terms of the debate and that Shelter was flexible enough to adapt their approach, lever people’s desire to ‘do something’ and focus hearts and minds on a long-term problem.

The point is that social change is not linear – it takes unexpected turns and rarely follows a plan. Navigating this complexity requires an agile response. Campaigners need to be alive to the world around them, and ready to change course quickly, while remaining focused on their goal.

Yet, change-makers repeatedly tell us their organisations act as if progress is linear. Organisational systems require predetermined outcomes and fail to recognise the inherent ‘messiness’ of change.

It’s this fundamental misunderstanding that can make internal decision-making about campaigns drawn out and painful. Where this is the case, campaigners will be under pressure to say that change can be predicted with more certainty than is actually possible. They report on measures that may say nothing useful about impact. They might even operate one set of activities that they report on, and another that they think will actually make a difference.

One thing can be predicted with confidence: this insistence on inflexible planning and reporting will waste resources and make you less effective in fulfilling your mission. Unless you give your campaigners a clear ‘licence to operate’, one that better balances accountability with permission to act, that waste will continue. It’s time to find out whether you are getting in your own way.

The good news is that change is in the air. Organisations are letting go of the idea that they must be seen to win single-handed. Collaboration is not the threat to ‘brand recognition’ it once was. Clever minds like Jim Coe and Rhonda Schlangen are re-thinking how we can meaningfully monitor campaigning. Funders are more open to projects that do not pretend that change will happen step by perfect step.

Each of these represents a possible solution. This is one set of events you can’t afford to ignore – grasp the opportunity now before it slips away.

Previous blog in the series: Habit #2, looking at the bigger picture

Photo by Zara Walker on Unsplash

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