Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A process of transformational political change

Influencing Governments has never been more difficult and fleeting. Just when you think they are convinced of your arguments, along comes a political opponent with many supporters in their cavalcade and upsets your applecart, your business plans and your life.

This old way of doing business was simple. You go straight to the political leader and ask for special treatment, as shown in the picture on the left. This approach may have had a big short-term effect, but it's unlikely to be sustainable in the long-term.

In a past life I was a political consultant. Not the kind that knocked on doors, and lobbied politicians. But one that created coaltions of common interests among people and organizations who would normally have little to do with each other, or be uncomfortable working for the same cause.

The coalition buildiing approach is based on one of the fundamental laws of complex adaptive systems, when parts of the system connect to other parts. New order emerges seemingly in a quantum leap. The system shifts from one stable energetic state to a new stable state at a more energetic level. Typical of these phase transitions in human system is the transformation of a group into a team. Or the despatch of an old technology by a new technological ecology. Or a bunch of loosely connected ideas that resolve into a  breakthrough decision, theory or concept.

Phase transitions are also a feature of the activity of large social and political systems.

Think of a political system as widely dispersed citizens and their organizations, closely connected Government department and agencies near the centre of power. The Heads of these government organizations serve the current political leaders. In the US it's the Secretary, in the UK and Australia, the Minister. Many of these agencies and their political leaders are in competition with each other, think environment vs mining, so we should not make the mistake of thinking of "the government" as a unified player in the game.

The picture on the right shows how we used to build coalitions of common interests, by progressively connecting up the whole system, which would then shift, autocatalytically, to a new more organized stable state. A kind of Wisdom of Crowds effect, the kind of activity we can expect to see more often in the emerging Wisdom Age, or its' economic equivalent., the Wisdom Economy.

This approach worked by collectively creating/discovering an idea that better served the interests of all of the parties than the narrower goals each previously pursued. Or a new collective ideal which helped people with diverse interests avoid an outcome that all would be unhappy if it happened

The solutions were never cut and dried. Or known in advance. The clients often had to dramatically alter their wish list along the way. Many of the ideas that emerged from engaging the many stakeholders, were often better than the compromises the client had already grown assumed. More often than not, the client had been backed into a corner and was resigned to their fate.

We would start with a client and their needs. Like prosper and live a happy life. We would take note of the problem, like the decision which might dramatically increase their costs, beyond what was sustainable and restrict what they could do. They often faced choices which had adverse impacts on their employees, contractors, suppliers, neighbors, communities and even their competitors. Often all their efforts to negotiate a political settlement had failed and there seemed to be nowhere else to go.

So we would talk to all the stakeholders - everyone who had an interest - and ask what they thought was the issue, and the best solution possible. As we worked our way around the stakeholder network, many of whom had limited contact with the client, we would discover new ways of thinking about the issue, and feed back these ideas and perspectives to the client and to the other stakeholders.

And very soon a new idea would start to emerge, around which all the stakeholders could unite, despite their differences, which would become the "big idea". And we would create tentative pictures/maps/designs and benefit analysis which gave it substance.

We would start at the periphery and work our way towards the centre, acquiring supporters as we went. We would constantly make adjustments to the "big idea" so that we continued to enroll more people and their organizations. We deliberately stayed away from politicians and their public servants who were often locked in resonance with the old "problem maker" and were often not prepared to change their minds until the winds of political change almost blew them away.

When we reached the central political stakeholders we held back, to give the laggards time to comprehend the practicalities of the new political order. If people are strongly committed to a course of action, they need time to mourn the past, and adapt/adjust to the new. Shoving it in their face merely reinforces their determination to stick to their guns, even in the face of reality.

Most wicked problems have solutions. They are only wicked problems because the principal stakeholders have opinions, values, or interests from which they are unprepared to budge. The Middle East conflict between the Isralis and the Palestinians could easily be resolved if both were to adopt less zealous positions. The debate over abortion could be easily resolved if those who oppose it were to accept that it is unfair and unreasonable for their point of view to be imposed on others who do not share their views. The climate change battle has been hard fought because some see themselves as losers. But when we realize that by sticking our heads in the mud, we are all likely to be losers, attitudes change.

We did not have the Zing team meeting system back in those days, but if we had, these are some of the kinds of questions we would have asked:

1. Thinking about the problem/decision [describe it], what impact will it have on you and your organization/community/family?
2. Who else is there in the community which may be affected negatively by problems/decisions and what do you think they might prefer to happen and why?
3. Who do you think is in favour of the decision or will benefit from it and why do you think they are supporting it?
4. If you had complete comtrol/authority, what would you do differently and why would you want to do this?
5. What ideas might other stakeholders have that could be incorporated into a better solution?
6. What ideas could we include in the final solution to serve the interests of those who support the new solution/decision?
7.  How will we ensure what we really want, happens?

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