“Battlefield Prep” for Change Initiatives

Man driving two cattle with plow attached to prepare for seeds
Preparing the Ground for Seeds of Change

In the history of conflict, there is a concept that involves preparing the arena of the conflict so that it is more compatible with your plan. It is called “battlefield prep“.  The idea is that your change plan will be implemented in the real world as it is, and that you need to understand that real world, and alter it to fit your plan as much as possible.

So our change plans have two sides:

  • One is the plan itself
  • The other is more general, and works to make the ecosystem in which our change plan will operate more accepting and supportive of our plan.

There are often specific changes that we can make in the ecosystem that surrounds our efforts to accomplish this, and there are more general changes we can support to make the ecosystem friendlier to our change objectives. For example:

  • Collaboration with partners who share the values that support your change initiative
  • Putting some energy into existing change initiatives that are complementary to your plan
  • Investing some time in small but highly visible direct criticism of policies that block your change initiative

In addition to this plan-connected preparation, we must also put in time and resources to mold the context of our change efforts so that it is more supportive over the long run. Some of the possible outcomes we might pursue include:

  • Our values are the best guide for long term change in the larger societal context. Altering the devaluing and stereotyped assumptions of the larger society and its sub-communities will make specific change initiatives more realistic.  The most effective way to foster better defaults is action that embodies the values and the public performance of those actions. Active memes, not just statements.
  • As an extension of this idea, the public performance of team and community based actions that embrace those same values help make people more comfortable with action that support specific change initiatives.
  • It is a reality in trying to change systems that initiatives from a single source are viewed as outsider memes and given less credence than the same messages coming from multiple social levels and multiple geographic sources.  The latter seem more like a wave of consensus than the former and have a correspondingly broader and deeper reach, Yet our assumptions about organizations make it difficult for us to share responsibility for change memes, and especially so the greater the geographic or social distance between our message and that of others. It is hard to see people we don’t know as allies in change efforts. We have to overcome this bias if we expect our initiatives to have more power. And we have to get to know allies that are geographically and socially distant from ourselves.

The idea that we can affect the overall reach of our initiatives by altering the context of our change efforts is a hard sell to most activists because of our automatic assumptions about the scarcity of time and resources. This is part of the same tactical action and operational planning view of change that we have all inherited from historical narratives that focus on the details of how change occurred and not the larger context, organizationally driven risk aversion, and the limitations of single community thinking. These same constraints on our change imaginations are now deeply reinforced by funding sources.

We need to embed our “tactical actions and operational plans” with bits and pieces that reach beyond our immediate goals and tamper with the trends and dispositions of the larger world which, in the end,  will determine the actual effectiveness of our expenditure of time and energy.

Next Post: Innovation as a Strategic Driver of Change



Getting Good at Change

Long line of ADAPT protesters moving down the edge of a Chicago street under construction, with police and media present
ADAPT Action Chicago 2007

Getting good at change requires practice, a lot of practice. The practice will occupy your lifetime, and you can’t practice effectively by yourself.

Because humans can project a future in the abstract, we often lose touch with the reality that,  like going from one room to another, we have to move through all the space between where we are now and where we want to be. No instantaneous transport. It doesn’t matter how powerful our vision. That power can only engage and motivate participation in the change. It can’t let us skip the steps between here and there.

There is a concept for this requirement that we don’t get to skip steps in a process of change. It’s called a phase space and the idea comes from physics (of course), but has been used in many other ways. From where you are, there are only certain moves you can make. If you want to get “over there”, you’ve got to pay the cost in time and resources for these unavoidable moves. No shortcuts.

We can make our efforts more effective though, if we work as a community and pursue important change at the same time as others in our community. In other words, real collaboration makes the limitations of phase space less daunting. But to make real use of collaboration as support for change, we have to give up some control:

  • We have to allow members of our change community to work in parallel, without constant feedback and control. This means mistakes. It also means we don’t punish people for mistakes, since punishment would undermine the effectiveness of working in parallel.
  • Instead of “master” plans, we work to make small inroads or steps in our change process and see how they go, modifying our efforts as we learn what works and what doesn’t.
  • We add redundancy to our efforts by sharing the work of small steps, so that change continues even when persons who have accepted responsibility for some part of the effort are lost to us for a period of time because of changes in their disability characteristic or because they have moved on. Learning parts of other people’s jobs is a great way to soften the anxiety around change, especially when it is combined with “no punishment for mistakes”.
  • We accept the unpredictability of change advocacy as a way to learn how we make what we want in our future.

We can also make ourselves more comfortable with change, especially around our change work. Organizational life has a large component of habitual behavior. It’s habitual because that is a more efficient way to get that particular task done. But habits don’t adjust themselves well even when the world has changed a lot and requires habit adjustment. An example is the inertia of software, where we continue to use an app because we have used it even when the software becomes increasingly useless.

Often, it is easier to transition from an increasingly useless current way of doing business to a newer one if you plan and pace the transition in pairs.

If we can introduce novelty into our work lives to build our skill at embracing change, we can also do the same thing in the larger environment to make our change initiatives easier to implement.

Next Post: “Battlefield Prep” for Change Initiatives


Practicing Change

two persons practicing fencing while others watch
Fencing Practice

(Lost in the UP last week; recently “rescued” by the requirements of work…..)

Everyone knows that people are afraid of change.  We know this primarily because we are afraid of change. This fear comes on us when change is threatened (there are specific parts of the brain that detect and react to threats):

  • People who hate their jobs nonetheless experience anxiety when change in that job is threatened
  • Rumors of change are treated as threats
  • Anticipating learning a new skill is often experienced as a threat
  • Past trauma can enlarge the arena and context  of life changes that are experienced as threatening

It seems that our anxiety about change arises from the apparently unpredictable consequences of actual change and our own doubts about our personal or organizational ability to manage it.


  • Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know
  • Curiosity killed the cat
  • Out of the frying pan into the fire

Inability to Manage:

  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew
  • Too many irons in the fire
  • The perfect is the enemy of the good

Advocacy and Change Anxiety

As we gain experience in advocacy action, we learn that it is much easier to develop a plan that seems to promise what we want, than it is to predict the actual consequences of that plan.

There is no better example than the crash of 2008. Quants were smart enough to design derivatives as a hedge against risk but were apparently not smart enough to see how derivatives would be gamed by their own financial community.

It is common for advocacy organizations to become risk-averse over time. This is especially a problem for managers of advocacy organizations who often bear the public brunt of unanticipated consequences and the punishment for organizational failures that have nothing to do with the advocacy mission.

But, to toss in one more common idiom, “practice makes perfect”.

If we expect to become more comfortable with change, we need to practice it. Obviously, we can’t “practice” big change plans daily, but we can practice small changes in ourselves and in our organizations as a standard part of organizational practice.

These small changes will, in fact, produce increased tolerance for change.

They will, in fact, create comfort with an incremental approach to change initiatives, where we try something and check out the results, adjusting our change plan as we come to understand the larger environment and the impacts we are having.

Like any other frightening skill acquisition process (public speaking, giving bad news, flying, and just the general fear of failure), you can gradually become more comfortable through small steps.

Next time, I’ll try to provide personal and organizational examples of small changes that can increase our comfort with change.

Next Post: Getting Good at Change