Over recent weeks, I’ve been delving into thinking about how change happens in communities. The role of community organiser is all about stimulating change, even revolution and understanding the factors that support and sustain change seem to me as important as tackling those factors that prevent social change. This week, I want to explore the importance of conversations and their key role in opening up groups and communities to change.
All the evidence points to the need for individuals to have confirmation of their planned action from peers. Again and again, communities only act en mass when individuals can see that the action required is supported by others around. And how do they find our what others are doing or saying about the move? By conversation of course!
We all like to imagine ourselves as free agents, acting on the basis of conscious and rational considerations. Again the evidence is clear; we are deeply influenced (but not determined) by the networks in which we exist. Our friends, our family, our advisors affirm the change or bring it into question. This is how recommendations on consumer sites work. People, perhaps from across the globe, offer their thoughts on the product or service. We see this as confirmation (or otherwise) of our choice.
So in community, asking individuals to act alone in a new way or to take on new behaviour may last a while but it requires significantly more effort and determination than asking the same person to act with others. We need to act in a group context for the change to last.
Everyone is not built the same when it comes to change. Some individuals are made to adopt change more quickly. They may have a higher tolerance for risk or be better informed about a particular opportunity. The discipline called Diffusion of Innovation has long studied the way in which groups respond to change and the bell curve has become an icon of such study. What it tells us is that most people are not ready to take on the challenge of untried change; they wait for the early adopters to iron out the kinks, to do the trials and to ensure the quality of the results.
But early on, innovation was discovered to rely on two bell curves, not one. The first is based on the salesman’s words, on the website’s assertions and the newsletter’s promotion. Some people – the early adopters – take up new thinking and action directly from such sources, the later adopters – pragmatists and conservatives – need not just the information but make decisions based on conversations with their peers. Marketing spreads knowledge whilst conversation is key to changed behaviour.
So ‘diffusion of innovation’ teaches community organisers that you must create a buzz about the change. You might hand out endless leaflets, email or post hundreds of newsletters and create the best Facebook page but real community-wide action will only take root when people start chatting about the initiative. You can hold many group discussions but until the people who hear about your work are exploring the ideas in turn with their neighbours and friends, you will not have mass behaviour change on your hands.
Once again, not all members of the community are the same. We’ve all met the individual who has a finger in every pie, the person with loads of friends and acquaintances, whose knowledge of community affairs is comprehensive. Just as there are individuals who can tell you everything about the newest car in production or the latest news of great supermarket deals, these folk are the reference point for many community interests. To steal a term from the Jewish tradition, they are the ‘mavens’ of community, the go-to people with outstanding knowledge and understanding of this patch and who are consulted by others who need advice or signposting.
These mavens are key people to identify in any community work. They are the opinion leaders for the community, the people with a wide network with whom they often buzz about the most recent incident. They are the buzz agents who can enable your work to become mainstream rather than peripheral, influencing the majority rather than just the enthusiastic early adopters. Organisers need to focus on finding them and building strong
Recipe for a buzz
[The photo shows a recent action at the bottom of a Bristol tower block. The organisers constructed two washing machines from cardboard and a washing line of clean card tee-shirts. Residents were asked to share their dirty washing (their concerns) and to write on a tee-shirt their solutions. Well done Rebecca and Steve – this was a great recipe for a buzz!]
When looking to create a contagious impact, there are a couple of elements that make it much more likely to ‘go viral’. The first is to make the conversation surprising (or more technically ‘salient’). Our elementary neural wiring – the amygdala – makes us ever alert to the surprise in our environment. We attend to the extraordinary or unexpected in a way we just pass by the normal and average. It’s the power of confounding our expectations that make great stunts or campaign protests so memorable and grabs our attention.
The second is the emotional quality of the message. Once again, our deepest reality is dominated by emotions of disgust, desire, fear, wonder, dread or delight. Every memory, word or even colour we know is tagged with an emotional quality and hence we need to find the right way to trigger the emotion at the root of everyone’s motivation. Tying emotion into your hopeful story is fundamental to motivating residents to take action, to stand up for what they believe.
And of course as we know, human beings are born storytellers. We tell stories to ourselves that reinforce our positive view of our efforts. We tell stories to family members about our history, origins and identity. We tell stories to our friends and neighbours about what matters to us and how things are. And the role of the community organiser is to change the community stories to support transformation!
Les Robinson (2012) Changeology: How to Enable groups, communities and societies to do things they’ve never done before Greenbooks An excellent introduction to social marketing, tackling some of the key issues head on and offering evidence-rich strategies to improve your organising.
Malcolm Gladwell (2001) The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference Abacus This is an oldie but an absolute classic. It is the pinnacle of Gladwell’s writing and explores how information travels and ideas take root.
Valdis Krebs and June Holley (2006) Building Smart Communities through
Network Weaving Available from www.orgnet.com/BuildingNetworks.pdf In
this seminal work, Krebs and Holley explore what makes networks effective and
how network weaving can enhance their functioning. Much else on the orgnet site
is also worth exploring.