Agile Activism

[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]


Reimagining Strategy and Vision


Recently, I have been introduced to an organizational style for developing software called Agile Programming. I believe many of the principles from Agile Programming translate well to activism. Below, I lay out the case for why meta-thinking about strategy is worthwhile, and some principles and examples for using vision effectively.




In my time in activism, I’ve run into people who fall along a spectrum from those who believe that if you only plan enough everything should work perfectly, to those who believe that all planning is a waste of time and only action is necessary. The tensions between these two types of personalities plays itself out repeatedly in group after group. In part, this is because both sides have a point. Some people get so bogged down in vision and strategy that they never get around to actually doing anything. Others are so eager to do things, that they never evaluate whether their actions are useful or the best way to get them done.


What I’ve written below is an attempt to take the best from both of these perspectives, a first cut at answering the question: how do I develop effectively use visionary and strategic thinking to improve my activism? Many effective activists have internalized these principles without ever needing to write them down. But I believe that by consciously evaluating them, all of us have something to gain.




Develop vision and strategy sparingly.

Developing visions can benefit your activism, but costs time and effort.  Time spent developing strategy and vision is time not spent implementing it. Consider both sides of this tradeoff and try to find the sweet spot.


Plan and act in short cycles.

Most people plan first, then act. As we get new information or more experience, or as circumstances change, we often need to (or ought to) change our plans. The shorter our planning/action cycles are, the more opportunities we have to adjust our plans, and the less time we waste making plans that will be changed later.


Only fill in details when you need to.

Plans need to be detailed to act on them, but circumstances change frequently and new insights are developed based on experience. Therefore, make detailed plans for projects you’re about to work on, but don’t fill in details yet for distant projects. If you fill in details for projects you’re not ready to act on, you’ll be missing out on the new insights you have between planning the project and acting on it. In addition, even the presence of long-term details can constrain creativity in the short-term.


Address bigger risks first.

Address the risks your project faces, starting with those most likely to cause failures.




Develop vision and strategy sparingly.

As a result of strong vision, a housing coop that I lived in managed to shift over time from a rented coop with a fragile existence to a non-profit coop that owned its own house. We benefited immensely from the vision of "owned" coops; if it were not for this strong vision, the coop could never have survived long-term.


Yet, once that vision was fulfilled and we were living in the purchased house, the tradeoff shifted. We discussed the core values of our organization in long meetings, but by the time we had come to a shaky agreement on a vision, let alone a strategy for implementing it, the membership turned over sharply, and the results of the discussion weren’t put into use. Valuable time that could have been put toward improving our organization was instead wasted on plans and visions that were never likely to bear fruit.


Plan and act in short cycles.

At this same coop, many of us took decision-making very seriously. We had surveys and straw polls, We operated under consensus, and frequently sent plans back to the drawing board if we detected potential problems with them. Because making decisions took so long, we always tried to get everything right the first time. This slowed us down immensely, but the benefits of farsightedness were overvalued.


Planning in shorter cycles wouldn’t have meant the decisions would have come out better the first time. But if we had confidence that it would take less time to go from problem to solution, we would have been able to only address problems as they come up, we would have saved effort from addressing problems that might never have come up, and would have more effort left over to address other issues.


Only fill in details when you need to.

In the Austin Project for a Participatory Society, we had few details on what short-term projects we would do, but a detailed long-term vision: Parecon. Unfortunately, Parecon’s detailed plans (e.g. balanced job complexes) were mostly difficult for us to implement. The presence of those detailed plans made it harder for us to come up with new ones that fit the circumstances of our project better. We failed to judge short-term projects on the outcomes we thought they would produce, but rather on superficial similarity to the detailed projects of the long-term vision.


In hindsight, if we had used the less detailed insights behind Parecon, rather than the detailed visions, we would have generated much better ideas. For example, the idea for Balanced Job Complexes is based on the insight that for people to have equal access to power, they must have equal access to information and good practice at decision-making. With that insight, there are hundreds of directions you could take: from writing software to present government data in an easier way for people to understand, to helping small organizations develop better information-sharing practices, such as best practices for mailing lists or committee structures. Many of these methods were better within the reach of the organization. But none of these projects seemed appealing to us, in part because we had mentally committed so much energy to 


Address bigger risks first.

I was an activist in the Green Party in the years 1999-2002. A constant specter hung over the party and its efforts: the voting system in most elections meant voters had to choose between voting for us and having an effect on which candidate wins. The spoiler effect was an obvious, effective, and true talking point used against us. I, along with many others, countered with two arguments: the two main political parties opposing us were extremely similar, and it was the responsibility of the powers-that-be to prevent the spoiler effect, as we had no power to change it. Perhaps to avoid losing morale by acknowledging the odds against us, we talked about solutions to overcome the spoiler effect very little. Predictably, the spoiler effect did and continues to have an enormous effect in directly and indirectly stymieing the party.


In hindsight, there were many counterstrategies we could have tried against the spoiler effect problem. Instead of publicly downplaying the spoiler effect, we could have acknowledged it and emphasized our role in making noncompetitive districts more competitive. We could have aimed to place second in Democrat-controlled districts in order to recenter the debate. It’s not clear these or any strategies would have worked–but it was almost inevitable that failing to adequately address the biggest risk we faced wouldn’t work.




In any given group, some of them principles might be important and some might be unhelpful. Groups whose timelines are determined by outside events (e.g. electoral activists) might need to structure their decision-making in a very different way than groups trying to build tools for other activists. But I think that these are a good enough starting point, that it’s at least worth justifying if you find yourself breaking them.

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