‘Think Chess not Checkers’: Wilf Mwamba on the role of Analysis in effective Influencing

October 18, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

For our Global Executive Leadership Initiative training on influencing, I interviewed Wilf Mwamba, a long term FCDO/DFID practitioner-thinker on TWP, now working in the private sector. With GELI’s permission, I’m reposting here, along with an abbreviated transcript. The podcast is 25 minutes – well worth it, IMO.

WM: I work for DAI Global, a US international consultancy firm. I’m leading a USAID-funded project on local governance. Our goal is to support the central government’s decentralisation agenda. That involves improving citizen engagement in local governance, improving the capacities of local authorities and the councils that deliver the services.

Previously, I worked for DFID/FCDO for 18 years, mostly as a governance advisor in DRC and Nigeria. I also worked in my home country, Zambia, on public sector reform issues, elections, public financial management, and so on.

DG: And in all that you’ve developed, I think, a really great understanding of how to bring analysis into project design and strategy. And that’s what I wanted to talk to you about today. Let’s start with the way you understand a problem – How do you dig into a problem to find points of entry?

WM: Usually, I find that discovering the ‘what’ of the problem is quite easy. I mean, everyone in Zambia knows if local governance isn’t working, for example. But why it’s not working is where the challenge is. So sometimes I feel like a fraud because you know, it really stems from asking the question, ‘why is this not working?’ And trying to work with stakeholders to agree what the issue is, and then finding something that we can hook onto. And then working with counterparts and stakeholders to try and understand what we can do to unblock the bottlenecks or the constraints.

DG: When you’re doing that, do you use particular tools? Or do you just have a conversation?

WM: I think tools are great, but sometimes we can focus too much on the tools and forget that what we really need is engagement with people, talking to people. Knowing what to ask is important and that’s where the tools come in for me. But really focusing on engaging with the stakeholders is even more important, because some of the original questions you might have may end up being not the best ones. So having an open mind and engaging I find is much more beneficial.

DG: One of the tools we recommend is the five why’s where you just say ‘why why why why why’ .

WM: That’s one of my favourites! It took me a while to appreciate it, because it seems so simple. What I find with our profession is that we get so educated that we think we need to over-complicate. And that five why’s for me is a great tool.

DG: So you’ve done your five why’s, you’ve got a problem that everybody agrees on. And you identify some points of entry, some things that you think you can fix. How do you then start understanding the political economy of that? The context? How do you understand who’s blocking? Who might be allies? Who you’ve forgotten? I remember, we had a conversation a couple of years ago about all the people that DFID forgets – traditional chiefs, religious authorities. How do you go about understanding who’s in play?

WM: I think stakeholder analysis is important, and you will not work in isolation. Names, people, institutions will come up. And it’s really about just keeping a log, as you go, picking up who’s involved, who are the decision makers, who might be blockers who are impacted by this issue. I think this idea that you always have to have a very specific, ‘let’s go sit down and do stakeholder analysis’ moment actually takes away from the everyday political analysis, because we pick these things up from newspapers, we pick these things up from the news, you pick these things up from talking to people.

So yes, it’s really important to have the stakeholder analysis. But I like to say this should be something that’s fluid, really starting to understand who’s impacted, who’s in the game, who can be involved in in this as either a blocker or someone who would be a supporter, and the people around them. Because in Africa, there’s this notion that we have big men or big women, which is largely true. But they do not work in isolation. I mean, even in Nigeria, where you have the very big men, they have what are called Kitchen Cabinets. So who are those kitchen cabinets, and who influences those people in the kitchen cabinets?

Most of that you really pick up by talking to people – talking to civil society, talking to ordinary people. I like to have relationships with journalists, because they pick up stuff that sometimes they publish, sometimes they don’t. Church leaders in most African countries are influential in understanding what’s going on. And, you know, the civil service can get a bad rap in development, because in most countries, they may not be as effective as the UK or the US. But you also have very, very committed people in there who sometimes are just unable to air their views. So for me, I think it’s about really building those relationships, and not missing an opportunity to pick up this name, to pick up that institution, of those people who are impacted, or can have an impact on the problem that you have.

DG: So you keep a journal. When do you bring it together with other people in your project, to compare notes and come up with a more systematic view?

WM: With this project, one of the things that USAID asked us to do was make sure that we are updating our political economy analysis on a quarterly basis. Therefore, because it’s a deliverable, it helps us to make sure that we’ve instituted a discipline for our field staff to continually be asking these questions: whose interests are at stake? Who are the movers and shakers? And just keeping that, so on a quarterly basis, at least we can have these conversations.

I have conversations with field staff to understand what’s changing. Most recently, for example, we had a very big change in the chief executives of the local authorities we work with. And that shift helped us to understand whether if a particular local authority wasn’t performing, it’s because the chief executive wasn’t getting along with someone else senior within that district. (In Zambia, we have what are called district commissioners who are not elected yet have very big influence in a district). We then were able to see very clearly whether if a person was moved, there was some movement towards reform, or if it got worse. Luckily for us, for most places where that change has happened, we’ve noticed because we were keeping these journals and, you know, just identifying little things like when you go into a meeting, how is this person responding? What are the kinds of things they’re talking about that interest them? Officially, they’ll tell you, they like A, B, or C, but later, over a drink, or over time, they will mention what they really care about.

So that systematic gathering of information has been very helpful. It can be challenging, making sure that you don’t lose the thread of the knot. But for us, because we’re doing this on a quarterly basis, we can actually carry that knowledge with us – we have the institutional memory within our team to carry that. The challenge will be if we do lose one or two people who have been influential, we still need to find a way of making sure that that knowledge management gets better.

DG: What I get from that is an extraordinary emphasis on individual relationships and networks of relationships. More important, perhaps, than understanding institutional processes and institutions or both.

WM: I like to think that you influence people, and people influence institutions. If the institutions are the rules of the game, I feel like those rules are still made by individuals. So the more you know about the individuals who then form those institutions, the better. Thinking about institutions in the abstract is very difficult.

DG. I suppose it can be quite paralysing to think about institutions, because you don’t know where to start. Whereas with individuals, you know where you are, right?

WM: Exactly. Yes, they are, of course, within institutions. But I think once you know the individuals and the impact that those individuals may have on the culture of the institution, it’s much more helpful. It’s a place to start.

DG: And just a side question – what do you do if you’re an introvert, because you are clearly an extrovert, right? You like talking to people? What if you actually prefer to read documents? Is there a place in this work for introverts or should they just find a different job?

WM: No, I think there is a place for introverts, but you will have to rely a bit more on secondary sources. I think also that some introverts will not have a problem in a one to one meeting; they have more problems when you have wider meetings. So even as an extrovert, and you might find this surprising, I actually hate cocktails and all that stuff. I prefer to have a one to one and really get to know the person, because you have their attention. You have to find a style that works for you.

I also like to spend quite a lot of time these days (it wasn’t always the case) with people who disagree with me. Because I find that it’s easy to have a perception or a hypothesis, and to start supporting that hypothesis, rather than testing it. And I’m finding that as I’ve grown older and gotten more comfortable in this business, I actually enjoy a good debate, because that helps me to get a fuller picture.

So for me, what’s important is knowing the person, knowing what their interests are, knowing who else is around them that I can find to reach them. If I don’t have a personal relationship with them, who are the other five people that I may be able to find? Or who’s the person who can take me closer to them? And for some people, I know that I’ll never reach them myself. But using those influences or connectors, I may at least have a sense of what they’re thinking and how we might be able to influence their agenda.

DG: I get the impression that your work is quite inside track. You’ve got access to government;  they want you to help them with the decentralisation. So how do you talk to people who are opposed? And how do you involve people who are basically outside the corridors of power?

WM: I work a lot with civil society, and in Africa, the line is thin. I mean, a lot of these guys were in civil society last year and are now in government. If Wilf goes into civil society or government tomorrow, he’s still the same Wilf: if that relationship is built, where I am or what I wear doesn’t necessarily change who I am. And so that’s why going back to your relationships is always important.

DG: Which brings me to my last question. We’re teaching all these tools to analyse the problem – stakeholder mapping, fishbone diagrams, the five why’s. What I’ve seen in some organisations is that people do that as a kind of ballet. And then they just do what they would have done anyway. So if you have these really useful conversations, how do you make sure that what you end up with as a strategy actually builds on those rather than just defaults to business as usual?

WM: What tends to happen is we can focus too much on the tools, that they become an end in themselves. We focus on the Political Economy Analyses (PEAs) – actually, one of the things I really dislike these days are the PEA reports! Because people think that that’s the silver bullet. No! The process is more important than the product.

If PEA becomes a culture, rather than the product, we’re thinking in the right way. In the same way that when I come into the office, I look at my emails, I’ve got to always be thinking, what’s changing in my environment today, which may impact the results that we want to get? At the same time, also thinking what needs to change in my programme in terms of what we’re aiming to do, because the environment is changing?

For example, when this project was first initiated, we were told to very much focus on the local level. And then as we’ve gone on, we’ve noticed that you can do great stuff at the local level, but if you’re not influencing the policy level on the national stage, you’re not going to make any difference. It will be a pocket, but we want to build a critical mass. So as a project we’ve moved from focusing on simply doing good things at the local level, to start bringing those lessons to the national level. And part of what we’ve been doing is building our relationships, we’ve been taking those senior people at the national level, to come with us to the local level, because they don’t always have the capacity, or the time to go and see what’s happening. And that starts to make a difference.

DG: So the influencing content has gone up?

WM: Yes, exactly.

DG: Okay, well, that’s been the most wonderful insight into your work and how to do analysis and make it relevant. Any final top tips?

WM: Think chess rather than checkers or draughts. You’re dealing with different pieces. Each piece on a chess board has its role. And always think about what the endgame is. What does success look like on a chess board? It’s making sure that the king can’t move – in our work, what does that look like? It means sometimes you can still have a full board, and we can win the game very quickly, right? Whereas in checkers, you have to try and get the opponent to lose everything. So you don’t have to change everyone. Sometimes you only have to find the right person, the right group of people to influence in order to see change happen.