In seeking to create positive change in communities, we rarely experience smooth sailing. We run into unanticipated opposition; we discover that our strategy is based on wrong assumptions; and we suffer sudden shifts in the environment caused by forces often outside of our control, such as the ups and downs of the economy and elections results.
This reality has led some foundation leaders to talk about how to understand and learn from failures and mistakes. Rather than overlook the reality of failure, they urge people in the social change business to study it and learn from it.
I agree wholeheartedly with the need to expose and learn from mistakes and failures, though I have some difficulty with the word “failure.” Failure has a sense of finality to it which I believe does not accurately describe the social change process. Most change efforts that run into a dead end pick themselves up and continue on, often succeeding later on. Consider the numerous efforts to pass federal policy in support of universal health coverage. Presidents going back to Truman have tried and over the years we saw significant incremental progress with the passage of Medicaid, Medicare and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Finally the stars aligned and we celebrated the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2009.
I would like to propose the language of bumps, detours and dead-ends. In understanding our social change work, we may benefit from recognizing that some of the obstacles in the road we encounter are just the usual ups and downs (bumps), require a change in strategy (detour), or result in the development of an entirely new strategy (dead-ends). Here are my definitions:
BUMPS: The social change effort encounters friction and may get slowed down but is able to stay on the same path and move forward. For example, a community group seeks to pass a local ordinance to the sale of soda in city vending machines. Opposition emerges, the passage of the ordinance is delayed but after prolonged public debate, the City Council approves.
DETOURS: The change effort encounters a significant obstacle and needs to adjust strategy. For example, a coalition seeks to win passage of new school health policies at the State Capitol and in the process realizes that state legislation is not the right lever to get the change progress moving. The coalition shifts its focus to moving the policy change at the local district level.
DEAD-ENDS: In this scenario, the change effort gets stuck, and may enter a period of dormancy only to be revived later on. Here’s a real life example. In 2002, I was part of a two year campaign led by PICO California to win an expansion of the Healthy Families program to include parents. We thought we were at the finish line, having passed legislation and secured a funding commitment using revenue from the national tobacco settlement. Then in 2003 the “dot-com” bust happened and the Governor and Legislature chose to securitize the tobacco settlement funds to fill the budget hole. We’d hit a dead-end. We brushed ourselves off, got back on our feet, and shifted our focus to expanding health coverage for children and several years later, the PICO National Network played a critical role in the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Of course a social change effort might experience degrees of bumps, detours and dead-ends all within one campaign; one strategy may experience nothing more than turbulence while another may hit the wall.
How do we celebrate our victories and learn from our defeats? The first step is to name our experience, analyze it, and then adapt. By spending time on the bumps, we’re more likely to recognize what’s going on and adapt more quickly next time.
It helps to share your experience with others. Bob Giloth and Colin Austin are doing just that through their book Mistakes to Success: Learning and Adapting When Things Go Wrong. Worth checking out.
Jim Keddy assists social change organizations in growing their capacities in community organizing, advocacy, policy analysis and development, organizational growth and fundraising.