How do you overcome the blockers to your great idea?

February 22, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Sometimes your (or at least, my) thinking gets stuck without you even realizing it, until a chance conversation brings it home. So it was in a recent conversation with some great participants in LSE’s Executive Masters in Cities programme.

They were presenting their personal projects on various aspects of urban transformation, from access to water, to reviving pollinators/bees in urban spaces to shifting from new build housing to the ‘densification’ of existing downtown buildings in various cities around the world. I was commenting. As usual, I think I probably learned more than they did.

The thing that shifted a bit for me in this conversation was around the ‘why change doesn’t happen’ issue, and (more importantly) what to do about it. Activism is full of great ideas and campaigns that get nowhere, because some people or institutions block it. It might even make a good book, although I’m not sure about the sales potential.

When exploring the factors behind a given piece of inertia, I usually advise my students to consider three broad categories:

Interests: If you’re a leftie, you often assume that the reason something’s not happening is because there’s some rich person who is benefiting from the status quo and blocks change. And that’s sometimes true. Handy Upton Sinclair quote: ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’

But often it’s not interests; it’s institutions. Institutions sometimes don’t have procedures that can cope with what you’re suggesting – for example when aid agencies only have three year time horizons, or politicians can’t think beyond the next election, but you’re saying this has to be a 20 year project (as climate activists on that one).

Ideas are a third, often less visible kind of obstacle to change. Everything from prejudice (‘poor people can’t handle money, so let’s give them stuff instead’) to norms around activism (‘‘we’ have to do something’, when observing the system or staying out of it might be more effective).

And there I usually stop. Which struck me as a bit odd in the discussion this week – surely the next question is ‘so what?’ How do you then think about how you can disrupt the blockers and open up spaces for potential change?

So here are some initial thoughts on where you might go after your ‘blocker analysis’. You could call them theories of change/action if you really have to…..

Interests: Shifting interests could mean changing incentives (eg getting governments/other powerful players to punish some (bad) things or encourage others. That’s how CGD tried to overcome the UN’s foot-dragging on cash transfers, for example. Or it could mean calling bad people/actions out to increase the reputational damage associated with them. Or finding a new messenger for your campaign who your blocker fears or respects.

Institutions: This might be more insider stuff – eg Adaptive Management along the lines of Coalitions for Change in the Philippines, or Harvard’s PDIA approach. Building a reform coalition on the inside, preferably authorized by some big cheeses, and then scoring some quick wins to get momentum. Or getting the right balance between an insider/outsider campaign to keep the pressure on. Or generating some upward competition through a league table that shows your target that they are lagging way behind their peers.

Ideas: More tricky and long term, but we’re getting better at understanding how to influence ideas. Lots of work on how to build more powerful narratives that speak to people’s hearts as well as heads. Perhaps work on shifting gender norms seems the most advanced.

The trick is to identify which combination of the three kinds of obstacle constitute the ‘binding constraint’ and/or which you have most likelihood of being able to influence, and start there. Then see where life, events and other aspects of complex systems take you.

Is this blindingly obvious? Probably – I’m honestly not sure at this point. But my suspicion is that a lot of people still say ‘damnit it X is blocking the change we seek, what is needed is to do more of what we always do, be it research, protest or whatever and do it louder.

Over to you.

February 22, 2022
Duncan Green