Creative Coalitions: A Handbook for Change
Component 2: A Strategic Convenor
Without smart curation, coalitions can be co-opted by the interests of one member or group. Or, just as bad, the members seek consensus, avoiding the hard discussions that make for stronger strategies and bigger change. Someone needs to catalyse clever coalitions: there must be a strategic convenor.
The crucial thing about being a strategic convenor is this: you are serving the cause, not the coalition, and not an institutional interest. Your role is to maximise the impact of collective action.
You are part talent scout, part orchestra conductor, part sports team coach:
- You spot, coordinate, and deploy expertise and resources.
- You demonstrate humility and deference to others’ wisdom.
- You demonstrate the audacity to rally coalitions to higher goals than the members would set for themselves individually or could achieve with traditional coalitions.
- You demonstrate the value of clear prioritisation and decision-making.
In short, you listen and lead.
For a strategic convenor, listening and leading are inseparable. You will need to draw on others’ insights and guidance to make decisions about where best to focus your efforts. Potential coalition members must be willing to collaborate. By offering a compelling vision of what can be achieved in coalition rather than by working alone, you as the strategic convenor will inspire trust. Coalition members will invest power in you to make an independent decision based on your calculations of what constellation of actions will have the greatest impact.
(See Component 4: the Power of Exceptional Networks for more on how to build relationships of trust that exist beyond the transactional nature of interactions around any one piece of work.)
Here are some tips for how to listen and lead:
- Build your dream team: identify who’s got the strongest information on the social problem or insights into those who have the power to fix it: where and when will decisions be made, on what basis, and what are the best pressure points? If there’s a long list of people with those insights, think of the key organisations that will bring others with them or that have the greatest capacity to deliver on a track of work. You want them in at the start.
- Go direct to the politics yourself: though the best-connected members of the network will have great insights on where policy-makers are, you add immense value to the coalition by seeking advice and testing campaign propositions with high-level friendly policy-makers directly. (See The Power of Exceptional Networks for how you can build these connections.)
- Focus on action: the situation you’re facing is probably very complex. But analysis is only useful insofar as it guides judgements on what actions will improve the situation.
- Bilateral vs. multilateral: at early stages, insights from partners are most likely to come from one-on-one consultations with particular individuals. You should move quickly through this stage to organise short, sharp multilateral discussions. By convening some of the brightest and best allies together you can enable them to test campaign angles, hear others’ insights, brainstorm, and ultimately yield better ideas than consulting one at a time.
- ‘Good enough’ insight: consultations should not be exhaustive. You’re aiming to have enough of a grasp to be able to go to members of your network with a solid plan to refine further with them.
- The snowball effect: focus on doing a few consultations quickly to start generating ideas, get a draft plan and then go to a wider group to build enthusiasm and commitment to a particular approach. But remember, you don’t always need huge groups to have impact: if a small and strategic coalition is delivering the impact you’re seeking, there’s no need for it to grow.
- Keep the wider coalition’s ‘skin in the game’: even if some organisations won’t be directly involved in delivering a particular action, it’s good to keep them informed about plans, so they feel that they are part of the campaign at each stage. Identify and draw on what partners can contribute, and provide periodic succinct updates to all members of the wider coalition on the campaign plan and its progress: any success is shared success, and you should be at pains to emphasise this.
- Lock in agreement on your destination: it is critical to get complete alignment within the coalition on what success looks like, down to the specific language of your objectives. They will provide the reference points by which all future decisions will be made i.e. ‘will it serve the objective?’, rather than ‘will it serve the coalition?’
Throughout all of this, keep in mind: listen and lead. It is through this alchemic process that you will arrive at a strategy more ambitious and more viable than any single organisation or a traditional coalition operating by consensus could achieve.