Noted in brief – 10/18/2010

On Buildings, Balance and Advocacy Campaigns

My wife Molly works for a big-time international multidisciplinary buildings engineering firm.  Over the dinner table, I’ve learned a bit about how big buildings get designed and built.  Another frequent topic of dinner conversation in my house is the myriad challenges of designing and running truly effective environmental advocacy campaigns.   The other day, I had one of those “aha!” moments.

Buildings are really complicated.  They can’t be designed and built by just one person, or by a team of people with only one set of skills.  For example, on Molly’s current project, there’s a mechanical engineering team (they figure out the heating and air conditioning), an electrical engineering team (the do the lighting and electricity), and a structural engineering team (they make sure the building doesn’t fall down).  And that’s just the engineers!  There are also multiple teams on the construction side, the data center designers, and more.  Playing the role of designer & project manager are of course the architects.

Each of these disciplines sees the world very differently.  Each of them have different expertise, and each brings important knowledge and skills to the project.  Failure to incorporate any of these disciplines’ perspective would almost certainly lead to a failed project — a building that is too hot or too cold, doesn’t have reliable power, falls down, is ugly, doesn’t have the functions the owner needs, or goes wildly over cost.

As you might expect, these different teams often have wants and needs that conflict with the other teams.  The most beautiful building design might be impossible to cost-effectively heat or cool.  Electrical and mechanical teams can tussle over limited space in the service spaces.   Structural wants bigger, heavier beams while the project owner wants to keep cost down.

All of these differences of opinion have to be worked out, typically through ongoing “coordination” meetings.  In the best cases, potential conflicts are identified early in the process, before too much time and energy has been spent.  But since building design is always an iterative process, coordination is a continuous process, and as the building design evolves, it can become more and more stressful and high-stakes.

Let’s talk about advocacy campaigns.  As you may be starting to suspect, I think there are some parallels.  Advocacy campaigns are often big, complex, multi-year endeavors.  They have a clear goal, but the process can be very messy and filled with unexpected twists and turns.  Successful advocacy campaigns will involve people with many different forms of expertise: strategists, lobbyists, field organizers, communications, technology, policy experts, attorneys, fundraisers.  Each of these disciplines sees the world very differently, and advocates for different values.

So far, lots of parallels to that big building project, right?  But when I look around at the leadership circle of most of the advocacy campaigns I’ve been familiar with over the years, I don’t see that diversity of disciplines represented.  Mainly I tend to see lobbyists and/or policy experts.  Strategy, field organizing, communications, technology, or development are rarely represented at the leadership table, and if they are, they’re typically represented by junior staff who are lack status and power with respect to more senior lobbyists/policy experts.

Over time, this results in unbalanced campaigns, where critical expertise from all of the relevant disciplines is dominated by one or two limited perspectives.  Such campaigns may experience short-run success, but they quickly run into the limitations of their narrow leadership perspective.

Worse, I see a disturbing pattern wherein certain of these disciplines (e.g. communications, field organizing) are long-term under-resourced, which results in these disciplines never developing senior staff-level expertise, which makes it all the harder for these disciplines to credibly represent themselves and be taken seriously at the leadership table.   This further deepens the vicious cycle of unbalancing.

Have you been a part of an “unbalanced” campaign?  What was it like?  How do we create more balanced campaigns?

Noted in brief – 10/3/2010