Key ideas: Change as a chess match

This is one of a series of shorter interlinked articles expanding on more theoretical ideas about how we might go about ‘changing the world’. If you want an easier starting point – if the words below sound like irrelevant theoretical academic jargon – then start with the article ‘This isn’t going to be easy‘ instead and come back here later. These ideas are about things we need to remember if – in practical terms – we’re going to actually make a difference and not accidentally make things worse – but they take some getting used to.

So we know that what we’re engaged in is adaptive change. Or, to put it another way, we know we’re working to change “how things are done around here.” We know that this is going to be difficult.

So we’ve decided to call this ‘social change’ or ‘cultural change’ or ‘an adaptive challenge” or ‘a wicked problem.’ There are many words and phrases that attempt to capture the difficult nature of what we’re up against.

But putting the words aside for a moment here’s a simple idea that I find helpful, that reminds us why thinking about why all of this matters.

You can’t win a chess match by sticking to a simple step-by-step plan of exact moves, decided on before the game.

You could try. Perhaps for the first few moves your opponent would do exactly what you’d expect and success would look inevitable – but a good opponent (which is what we’re assuming here) is soon going to spot what you’re up to and do something to counter your progress. Importantly, a very good opponent will go further, actually turning your plan against you. One way or another sticking to the step by step plan you made at the beginning will lose you the game, and it will do so quickly.

I find this analogy helpful, but if you’re more bloodthirsty in nature you could just as well consider an analogy involving a battle or a war. There are numerous variations of the quote:

The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle…. no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force [source]

One way or another the message is clear. Social and cultural change, adaptive change, requires flexibility, changes of direction, imagination, constant tactical re-evaluation, and a detailed understanding of how any effort is being opposed, blocked or undermined.

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