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Thought Piece | Coalition Building for Collective Action: 3 Process Design Strategies

Chiara Rosselli, Executive Director, APROPOS Group

This piece is a repost of content originally published by On Think Tanks, the original is available here. Last month, I had the pleasure to be hosted in a session at the On Think Tanks Conference 2024 by Mario Picon and his Governance Action Hub.

We had a challenging conversation about how to build bridges between political and societal actors and how to mobilise coalitions for change. Specifically, we spoke about the challenge of mobilising efforts to tackle corruption and state-capture, and what APROPOS’ process and dialogue design expertise can contribute to the discussion.

The specific question I was asked to concentrate on was, How can we build bridges among different actors – from politicians, to governments, to the private sector – and mobilise coalitions for change?

There are three mutually reinforcing strategies that should be considered in order to address this challenge, which I’ll explore in this article.

1. Expand the realm of possibility

In bridge-building, we must begin by looking at the context we’re operating in and assume that we’re probably engaged in the act of creating something – whether a connection, an understanding or a relationship – where previously there was nothing.

As an act of creation, it requires the generation of something that’s new.

To begin this process, we must first deepen our understanding of the perspectives of others, seeking to better relate to the people we want to engage and collaborate with in the future.

It’s easy to make meaningful connections with people who think like us and who may have the same background and interests. These are people we have an easy time trusting, either because we believe we’re moved by similar values or visions of the world, or because we assumethat we understand the way they think.

However, building a shared understanding with people who hold very different identities from us – whose vision of the world is shaped by different experiences, incentives, interests and values – is exponentially harder. It poses a clear challenge, a gap of understanding, which needs to be addressed.

At APROPOS, we have 10 years of experience working with hundreds of politicians across different parties, countries and backgrounds, so we know that this gap can be filled with the oldest tool in the book: conversation.

We need to talk with people in order to understand them.

But that isn’t enough in itself.

Most approaches to bridge-building stop at the idea that to build understanding, it’s sufficient to just bring people together in a room and talk.

While being able to have a conversation is an important first step, it’s a common misconception that all conversations will lead to a better understanding. In fact, the opposite can also be true: the conversation can backfire, leading to a further re-entrenchment of differences.

This is where the role of design comes in – specifically, intentional dialogue design, which enables us to create spaces that can override what cognitive scientist, Daniel Kahnemann, called ‘System 1 thinking’.

This refers to the ‘fast decision-maker’ part of our brain, which relies heavily on heuristics, stereotypes and assumptions (cognitive biases) and encourages us to quickly jump to conclusions.

While it’s impossible to completely deactivate these biases, we can design spaces that help to bypass what we think we know about others. Spaces that allow us to uncover new, unexpected points of contact with people who are different from us, who we didn’t think we could possibly share anything with.

This is what I mean by expanding the realm of possibility, and it is the first necessary strategy for coalition-building.

2. The art of framing

The phenomenon of framing is best explained by George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant, in which he illustrates how the language and metaphors used to frame issues significantly influence how people perceive them.

In practice, for the purpose of coalition-building, this means making intentional decisions about how we want to talk about a specific issue.

If our objective is to build narrative common ground between political actors with different interests, it will require a framing that doesn’t re-entrench pre-existing positions but opens up the possibility of new, unexpected alliances.

The question we should ask ourselves when deploying this instrument is: How can I talk about the issue I’m trying to coalesce actors around without alienating any of them?

The answer can usually be provided by opening up an exploratory framing, which reveals shared blind-spots that different actors can investigate together. In this way, they can build shared ownership of a specific problem area.

Alternatively, deploying a completely novel and unexpected framing, which encourages all parties to consider the subject matter from a new viewpoint, can also be effective.

The next necessary step is to be able to mobilise a group from shared sense-making or dialogue to action.

When embarking on such a mission, it’s important to first accept that you’re trying to do something that is largely unnatural: encourage collaboration between actors who are moved by different and often incompatible incentive structures.

Collaboration – from the Latin ‘cum’ ‘laborare’, meaning to ‘work’ ‘with’ – is something that requires active effort. And the more the need for collaboration isn’t shared and urgent, the more unnatural it’ll be for the different actors to make the necessary effort to collaborate.

Therefore, you’ll need to make a larger investment into proactively designing opportunities for trust-building and facilitating collaboration into your engagement process.

3. Networks of service

This final strategy is born out of our direct experience in designing the Open European Dialogue – Europe’s first informal dialogue platform for elected politicians. It builds on a key feature of all collaborative spaces that rely on voluntary collaboration.

As highlighted by Professor Ezio Manzini, effective collaboration spaces possess a strong component of care and maintenance and are built on repeated interactions rather than one-off transactional exchanges.

Thus, networks of service can be designed to place particular emphasis on understanding the wants and needs of the people they need to mobilise in order to achieve impact – wants and needs that will likely be very different from our own priorities and desires.

By making these needs a priority, these networks encourage the active and repeated participation of their members by providing them with a valued service: something that they can’t get elsewhere.

It should also be noted that the stronger the misalignment of interests, the stronger the unique selling point of a network of service needs to be to retain its members’ attention.

Finally, and almost as a by-product, a network of service can then provide a functional space through which to foster mutual understanding between critical actors and to build trust capital among them. Only then can we attempt to mobilise a heterogeneous collective of actors towards the difficult work that is collaboration.

How can APROPOS help?

At APROPOS – Advancing Process in Politics, we’re developing Political Process Design as a methodological framework to help address political and policy-making challenges through improved design of dialogue and collaboration spaces and tools.

If you’re curious to know more about how process design can help achieve your coalition-building goals then get in touch – one of our process designers will be happy to talk with you about what design options can best support your organisation’s objectives.


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