Questions to ask when planning an action

I’ve been ruminating on how a social movement can make decisions about what to do, and in my true obsessive fashion I’ve written out a kind of template of questions to share with others.

Please note that I’m not claiming any special expertise on social movement organizing. I have been an observer of and occasional participant in movement decisionmaking processes for the past fifteen years or so, and I’ve read a little bit on the subject (especially The Activist’s Handbook by Randy Shaw and, of course, Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, although I preferred Shaw to Alinsky).  But there are many people who could claim as much or more. So these are just thoughts.

Probably these questions and the categories they invoke get too detailed and nitpicky as they go along.  Anyway I’d be interested to hear others’ opinions about whether these are useful.


1)   Does this action contribute to the goals of our movement?

2)   Does this action contribute to the action capacity of our movement, i.e. to movement building?

These are the two most important questions about any action.  Ideally any action will do both.  Any action must do at least one of these two things.  An action that does neither of these things is not worth doing, regardless of its intrinsic appeal.

Intractable disagreements about whether an action contributes to one of these two priorities can indicate an underlying disagreement about the goals of the movement, or about the best strategy for achieving those goals.

As much as possible movement goals should be defined in concrete, practical terms, and not ideologically. This does not entail prohibiting ideological discussion; it just means agreeing that we don’t need to agree ideologically to agree about goals. Defining goals concretely also helps keep the movement oriented towards action and to goals that can be definitely achieved.

3)   Does this action pursue an achievable goal?

Goals must be achievable. They might be difficult to achieve, or it might be uncertain whether or not they will be achieved, but it must be possible to reasonably believe that they will be achieved.

It must also be possible to decide whether the action achieved its goals. Achieved goals are what fuels a movement, giving it its forward momentum.  Achieving goals makes activism fun and rewarding, attracts new members, and contributes to realizing substantive goals.

A given action will probably have several goals. These include conducting the action itself. For instance: “We planned to hold a demo, raise awareness, and enroll new members. Did we hold the demo? Yes! Did people pay attention to us? Yes! Did we enroll any new members? No. Okay, well, we achieved some of our goals!”  Goals may include a mix of short-, medium-, and long-term effects.

These three questions, in a way, cover everything. The rest is just details.


4)   Does taking a position on this issue contribute to movement goals or movement building?

  1. Does it introduce our movement to new publics and/or reaffirm our relationship with our existing publics?
  2. Does it convey a clear, easy-to-understand, and accurate impression of what our movement is about ?

Taking a position is itself one form of action. Usually this is a fairly short-term, low-effort form of action consisting of writing an editorial, issuing a communiqué, etc.


Here I’m treating ‘time’ as shorthand for ‘time and effort expended’.

5)   Is this a short-term, medium-term, or long term action?

  1. short term:
    • doable within the next few days or weeks
    • usually, something we can unilaterally make happen, by just going out and doing it
    • 1b. delayed short term: an action that we won’t do right away, but that once we do it will take only a few days or weeks to bring about
  2. medium term:
    • doable within anywhere from over a month to a couple of years
    • usually, something that requires an institutional reform, like a new policy or a change in practices; therefore, something that requires someone else’s cooperation to happen
    • compressed medium term: an action that normally would take months to carry out but that is pulled off in a few weeks through an extraordinary effort
  3. long term
    • doable in an uncertain or indefinite amount of time
    • deeper systemic changes will initially start out in this category, but hopefully will not stay there

6)   What are the short-term, medium-term, and long-term effects of this action?

Ideally short-term actions help make medium-term goals more feasible and medium-term actions help bring long-term goals closer to realization.

Strategy and tactics

7)   Is this a strategy or a tactic?

  1. strategy: a pattern of actions designed to further movement goals
  2. tactics: specific actions designed to further a strategy
    1. Note that this distinction is relative, so the same action could be part of a strategy or a tactic depending on the frame of reference

For example: a labour union trying to achieve bargaining goals may decide to opt for a strategy of being conciliatory and non-adversarial; associated tactics might include sharing information freely with the employer, holding joint public events with the employer, etc.  Failure of that strategy to produce results might prompt a change in strategy, e.g. to a more adversarial approach, with different tactics like picketing, grievances, and going on strike.

Medium-term actions are strategies relative to short-term actions, and are tactics relative to long-term actions. For instance, a tactic (holding a protest) might serve a strategic goal (raising awareness), but raising awareness is also a tactic for achieving a still broader strategy (e.g. mobilizing a mass movement), the ultimate goal of which is free education, for example.

8) Do our tactics support our strategy?

Tactics should fit strategies and strategies should fit the ultimate movement goals.

9) Is our strategy suited to the circumstances in which we act?

Strategies whose practical effects do not advance the goals of a movement are self-defeating.  The effects of a strategy depend as much on the situation as on the strategy itself.

10) Has the situation changed in a way that makes it wise for us to change our tactics or even our strategy?

To achieve success, strategies and tactics must connect up with the actual circumstances the movement faces. If circumstances change, so tactics and strategies must change with them to be effective.

11) Do the results of our actions so far suggest that we should change our tactics or our strategy?

One must learn from experience.


12) What differing effects would this action have on our members, allies, supporters, bystanders, opponents, and enemies?

A member is someone who is an active participant in the movement.

An ally is someone who actively assists in achieving movement goals without being directly involved in the movement.

A supporter is someone who supports the achievement of movement goals through passive or responsive actions (like voting for a movement-initiated proposal in a referendum).

A bystander is someone who is neutral or unconcerned about the movement. Usually this is the largest category.

An opponent is someone who deliberately works against movement goals. Opponents can be active or passive.

An enemy is someone who is actively trying to destroy the movement, not just block its goals. The line between opponents and enemies can be blurry because a movement needs to achieve goals in order to thrive, but it’s important to know if one has any genuine enemies (which often is not the case) and it is very important not to mistake opponents for enemies.

All of these categories overlap and are fluid.

13) Does this action help turn allies or supporters into members? Does it help turn bystanders into supporters? Does it help turn oppenents into bystanders or even supporters? If we have enemies, does this action help turn them into mere bystanders?

Ideally one’s actions would help move all players on the scene one step closer to being movement members.

However, often this is not feasible and one must choose which elements of the scene the actions is directed to.

It’s important not to push people further away from the movement and especially to not turn bystanders or opponents into enemies. However, some groups of people will have interests that are already opposed to the movement’s goals before the movement even does anything and are therefore ‘natural’ opponents; sometimes a bystander becomes an opponent just by learning what the movement really stands for. Any attempt to change anything substantial will generate opponents.  It’s good to anticipate who these will be and how to cope with them.

8 thoughts on “Questions to ask when planning an action

  1. It seems exhaustive and very systematic, and to have the makings of a useful analytical framework for academic research and/or pedagogical purposes.

    I’d like to add (speaking as yet another long-time observer and occasional participant) a little gloss to the category of “enemies”. Intuitively, the term suggests antagonists from an outside camp, e.g. Nazi skinheads v. anarchists, or the other way around. But a movement can have *internal* enemies as well. This element purports to share movement goals, but comes to the table with a rigid and aggressive dogma and-or covert agendas, and foments division and disruption that can severely impede movement solidarity and purpose, and in some cases destroy it altogether.

    For example, I’ve been told by some old-timers that all sorts of start-up radical movements in the 1960s and 70s were hijacked and/or ruined by the arrival of Maoist hardliners. The exact same thing happens in Church when a fundamentalist-type faction emerges, within the congregation, around a charismatic lay leader; the latter typically ends up leaving, but not without taking several other members with him or her.

    Finally, and above all where the possibility of getting public or private funding exists, opportunists show up with the hopes of feeding off the funding teat and/or getting a leg up into mainstream politics- and to those ends, try to dumb down movement goals into inoffensive fluff. Opportunists are just as intractable, disruptive and divisive as hardliners, but much better at politics, and so either take over the movement altogether, or leave a scorched earth behind them as they leave.


    • Thanks. Those are good points. When I wrote this post, I was thinking of a very small movement organization in the process of just getting started up. Such an organization probably wouldn’t have the problems you identify, but larger movements do, of course. I’m tempted to an ecological metaphor – both of these phenomena are a kind of parasitism, whereby something attaches itself to the movement and sucks energy away from it or consumes it completely. Hm.

      One criticism I have of my own schema is it feels still very logocentric, especially where I write about strategies and tactics being “designed” to further movement goals. This doesn’t leave room for nonpurposive decisionmaking, emergent collective intelligence, and the like, but does leave more room than I’d like for authoritarian or disciplinary models. This expresses the limitations of my own knowledge of decisionmaking.


  2. “I write about strategies and tactics being “designed” to further movement goals. This doesn’t leave room for nonpurposive decisionmaking, emergent collective intelligence, and the like”

    Considered as the formal positive specification of the set of variables relevant to the attainment or non-attainment of movement goals, the framework applies to a genuinely collective actor as much as to more purely individual actors and decisionmakers, e.g. it is justifiable to speak of “design” in the case of truly emergent phenomena, which after all are “teleological” and can legitimately (and indeed, must) be described as such.

    Somebody somewhere made a distinction between “weak” and “strong” forms of emergence that is probably important here. A reasonable hypothesis seems that this or that particular social movement, at the outset, would display only the “weak” emergence of unintended consequences and the like, and not the “strong” emergence of the overall primary social system that itself is the condition of possibility of the secondary, voluntary interactions and associations (social movement organizations, etc.).

    The limiting case is a movement that over time is *institutionalized* and becomes a fully-fledged social system in its own right, and/or a structural feature of a wider social system, not just a transient and weakly-emergent “network” or the like. Here strong emergence (of the wider social system as it institutionalizes a new sub-structure, or immanent on a sui generis basis within the new institution itself) becomes applicable.

    Strong emergence predicts that the “intelligence” of the system would see to the development of an authority structure in order to meet the functional needs of the “G” in the AGIL scheme. Hence the “iron law of oligarchy” proposed by the now-obscure Robert Michels: any egalitarian social movement that successfully institutionalizes itself invariably generates an elite (and elitist) leadership, and does so notwithstanding the movement’s egalitarian ends.

    Thus the course of emergence would seem to entail a cycle from conscious authoritarian decision-making to emergent intelligence and hence back to authoritarian decision-making- albeit this time unplanned by anybody in particular.

    Sorry for the theory geek-fest.


    • Not at all; you’ve articulated a number of point that I’ve been concerned with a long while. Essentially I agree precisely that Michels’s iron law of oligarchy is real and is a function of strong emergence. But I think that the laws which result from emergence are, from a universal perspective, local and contingent, a function of their particular systemic contexts. So in a way my intellectual problem is exactly this: how to break Michels’s law? How to knowingly cultivate forms of relations whose strongly emergent effects act as equalizing rather than hierarchical forces? This might seem like an impossible proposition. But I can’t think of a more exciting problem for a scientist such as myself.


  3. Glad to finally have a chance to take a look at your blog, however briefly.

    You might be interested in “Playbook for Progressives” by Eric Mann (*lots* of problems with it, but also interesting movement history tidbits and food for thought).


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