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Points of change
There are points at which we rethink how we do things and we need these more than ever - but how do we make them happen?
It has long been understood by policy makers and marketing strategists that significant change often happens at key events in our lives and that making change outside of these can be hard. This week we explore why this is. But also how learnings from activists, that have fought for change on important social issues, can offer guidance on ways to avoid being tied to events over which we have little control.
When change happens
What we might call ‘external forces’ can have a huge impact on our behaviour. One obvious example is COVID, about which there has much discussion how it disrupted our routines and rituals in many ways. For example, there was a massive increase in adoption of digital channels, something that had been slow to move. This is despite the high levels of investment by the public and private sectors over a long period of time, in attempts to make that happen.
But this is nothing new. In financial services it is well known that events such as moving house, divorce, having a child are points for people reviewing and planning their financial affairs. In health, a scare such as a heart attack or a stroke can create fundamental shifts in lifestyle. We can see the way that in many different areas of life ‘events’ are a means by which change can happen.
Whilst intuitively it makes sense that we might change our behaviour at these moments, it is useful to again a deeper understanding of how they operate so we can understand why they are so important and how we best respond as change strategists.
Kurt Lewin has a useful way of describing this process– his theory of change involves three steps - unfreeze–change–refreeze (which is similar to the DEEP model we have discussed previously). When we are placed in new circumstances, then the routines that we have adopted to master our environment are no longer relevant. Instead we are forced to ‘unfreeze’, which involves pay attention, rethinking and engaging with new possibilities, before we then change and adopt new routines.
It makes sense to capitalise on these moments, taking this limited window of opportunity to make change happen. But if the only times that significant change happens is when external forces or major life events happen, then we are a little helpless. Surely this is particularly relevant in the context of issues such as climate change where we cannot simply rely on ‘external events’ to create opportunities for change, as this needs to take place more quickly. But how do we do this?
To help with this, we continue to draw on the work of social activist Bill Moyer whose MAP model (Movement Action Plan) highlights the way in which a social issue can suddenly take centre-stage in peoples minds. Typically this is through a highly publicized, at times terrible incident - a ‘voltage event’ (borrowing the term from this related body of work).
The event dramatically reveals a critical social problem to the general public in a new and vivid way, such as the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to move to the back of a Montgomery bus in 1955 or the case of 26 year old Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi whose suicide was one of the defining points of the start of the Arab Spring.
As Mark and Paul Engler point out, the impact of these events is often described by political experts in terms of the wider social, economic and geopolitical circumstances surrounding them. The resulting protests, the attention of the wider population and the calls for change are interpreted as the ‘moment being right’ rather than being a function of the individuals themselves that created it. But those involved in civil movements tend to see it differently.
Whilst these wider factors are not denied, the Englers point out that ‘the time is ripe only because people have deliberately endeavoured to make it so’. There are any number of ‘voltage events’ that can happen, many of which are ignored but it takes a lot of work to keep the issues front of peoples’ minds, to create protest actions and reinforce a sense of urgency.
Voltage events are sometime created by those involved in social movements (such as protests at trade summits), while others happen without the involvement of activists (such as Rosa Park’s action). But each precipitate what one campaigner writing about Gandhi’s campaigns called ‘an emotional crisis’ meaning that ‘the humdrum everyday existence of human life needs shaking up in order that man may arrive at fateful decisions’.
There are a range of ways in which it is possible to work on these events, shaking up our everyday existence so that attention is drawn, and our focus is placed on issues that need to be addressed. Some of the themes that we have identified are:
Encourage voltage events: While the events are often out of our control and sometimes tragic (which we clearly do not wish to encourage), there are also events which are directly created by people involved in social movements to draw attention to issues. Take the way that environmental protestors in the UK have blocked roads and disrupted transport systems – not universally popular for sure, but these have certainly created very salient points that have put the issues front of mind for many.
Whirlwind scenarios: Any one voltage event will have a lifespan of focus before peoples’ attention moves elsewhere. Successful campaigns create feedback loops offering new events to make fresh headlines, prompting revelations and attracting greater numbers of people to participate.
Create break moments: If the coverage is sufficiently widespread then the ensuing media coverage can make the public aware of the issue but it can also convey the social movement’s position on it. This can rapidly challenge widely held mental schema, triggering ‘mass psychic breaks’ when the received wisdom of a topic no longer holds true, people suddenly see the issue differently.
Do not focus on powerholders / blockers: Moyer suggests that it is not the goal or expectation to change the mind of people that hold power or are adamantly opposed, this comes later. The point is to take this opportunity to educate the general public – whose support will later on exert pressure on those that are blocking change.
What does this mean for policy makers and marketing strategists?
To think this through, it may be useful to apply this to the topic of climate change, encouraging people to adopt sustainable lifestyles. While polling indicates the vast swathe of the public are concerned about climate change, it can be difficult to convert this concern into behaviours.
A ‘transactional approach’ will focus on identifying specific behaviours to change, and consider what the barriers are to this behaviour taking place alongside designing the means to overcome them. This is important work that needs to be part of any solution to deliver instrumental change. But there is a case that this is more likely to be effective if done against the backdrop of ‘transformational change’ where, using the language of the Overton Window, we move from change being seen as ‘unthinkable’ and ‘radical’ to it being seen as ‘sensible’ and ‘acceptable.
For a brand or a government body then, it is a matter of considering what the ‘voltage events’ are that will keep the issue of changing lifestyles at the front of the public’s mind. For example, when a report is produced by the IPCC, what is the message that can be used alongside this? What are the discourses that can reinforce the way in which change is seen as possible if we act together? But also, how can a follow-up event be created to create a ‘whirlwind’?
Joining different activities together so they are seen as building on each other is important – so we need fewer isolated ‘interventions’ and more campaigns where activities build on each other. This may require the private sector, for example, to find ways to collaborate, as related campaigns seek to create an overarching sense of momentum.
Work needs to be done to consider the different ways that ‘psychic breaks’ can be generated. Arguably The Blue Planet was one such example, the pictures of sea creatures ensnared with plastic had huge resonance with the public and was accompanied by a massive volume of calls for change. Understanding collective mental schema and how to best disrupt these, (whilst keeping people on board), requires a thorough understanding of the public’s minds, as well as skills to communicate in ways that are relevant and impactful.
There are inevitably groups of the population, often quite influential, that will not be easily persuadable and in fact may be turned off these campaigns. In a way this is inevitable, and there is a case to be made (to be explored in a later post) that polarisation of attitudes is not always a bad thing as it potentially mobilises a much wider base. The aim is not to appeal to everyone but to win the hearts and minds of a sizable proportion of the population and keep working at doing so.
Disrupting the way in which people intuitively process information about the world is a key part of the behaviour change process. We need to pull people into a conversation, unfreeze the way they are thinking about an issue and then engage them in sense making, working together to look at it in new ways.
Many of those involved in social movements have long understood the need for transformative change, not simply to focus on transactional, instrumental change. A key part of this is through understanding ‘voltage events’, so we create and utilise them to not only keep an issue front of mind but also disrupt how we think about it, challenging us to rethink the narratives and how we respond.
For those involved in driving change, we cannot wait for events to happen but need to be driving them, and shaping the future rather than waiting for events to do the work for us.
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