Strategic Inquiry: A Wise Starting Point Starts with Listening


By Sean Moore

Not all wisdom is ancient.

But surely, one of the wisest, and most useful, pearls of advice I’ve encountered in my working life comes from the Roman statesman Cicero, more than 2000 years ago.

If you’re interested, as I am, in the dynamics and principles of persuasion in both public affairs as well as everyday life, you can’t do much better than:

“If you wish to persuade me, think my thoughts, feel my feelings and speak my words.”

Taken literally by some to mean: tell people what they want to hear; I believe that’s the wrong interpretation and an unhelpful one

Rather, I hear Cicero telling us that the key to successful effort at persuasion is to make sure you understand who you are talking with – and where they are coming from on the issues – before you set about dazzling them with your ideas, propositions, arguments, “evidence” and “data.”

Indeed, after more than four decades in public-policy advocacy, I’ve come to the conclusion that listening – not talking, pitching, tweeting, robo-calling, demanding or whining – yes, listening, really listening, is the key to successful advocacy. Not a guarantee of success, mind you – but nevertheless an important, indeed absolutely necessary, first step.

On March 30, 2016, I’ll be presenting this subject at a Plan Institute event in Burnaby BC; suggesting to participants the whys and hows of at least one technique to operationalize Cicero’s instruction. I call it “Strategic Inquiry.”

Simply put, Strategic Inquiry (or SI) is a process to gauge and assess as quickly and efficiently as possible the essentials of the political and public-policy environment surrounding the issue of concern to you. It can be – and usually is – a public policy issue in your community. The issue may involve decisions by one or more levels of government as well as other stakeholders.

While the term Strategic Inquiry and some of the steps in the process suggested may be relatively new, the general concept is not. Generations of effective policy advocates in the civil society and corporate sectors as well as many government relations consultants, lobbyists and strategists have practiced it for years though not necessarily using the language.

Mind you, not all of them do. There remain individuals in both corporate suites as well as non-profit groups  – indeed lots of them – who never seem to think it’s that particularly important. “What is most important,” they often proclaim, “ is our members’ (or shareholders’) views, their sense of what the problem is and what needs to be done. Government just needs to listen!”

Few would debate the merits of paying attention to one’s members, employers or shareholders. But it’s seldom the key to being persuasive with a third party.

So the concept behind Strategic Inquiry is simply that gaining insight into how the targets of one’s advocacy view the issue at hand (and perhaps their view of the proponent organization and the people representing it before decision-makers) is too important to ignore.

But how to gain those insights?  How to identify the best people to talk with? What questions to ask?: Where to begin? How to get people to talk with you?

The challenge is to better understand what are usually – in the minds of decision-makers – complex problems, with varied implications and multiple stakeholders.

The simple approach is to ask for advice. Strategic Inquiry is not, at this point, about advocating, lobbying or pitching. It’s about learning, exploring, understanding and searching. It’s about having the humility – and the smarts – to ask for advice of  the people involved in your issue.

You may already have a general sense of what you want others (governments, corporations, associations, civil society groups, communities) to do and that can be one of the things you want others to react to as part of an Strategic Inquiry exercise. But more importantly, it is to gain an understanding of where others are coming from; what their goals or aspirations are; what relevant challenges and opportunities they see; what language and constructs do they use?

Having these understandings is vital for many reasons, not the least of which is helping you and your organization to ultimately devise an “ask” that has the optimal chance of gaining traction among both other stakeholders and decision-makers.

But there are other reasons why Strategic Inquiry – or some similar intelligence-gathering initiative – is important.

For example, it is a handy and straightforward method of establishing and sustaining key relationships, an essential lubricant in the mechanics of politics and public policy whether one is dealing with City Hall, the provincial or national governments. It’s about getting to know certain people and having them get to know you and your organization.

Effective advocacy is most often managed as a result of some key personal building blocks:

 Key Contacts: Any organization or individual that is serious about effecting policy change needs to be able to gain insights into what is happening within the decision-making government or organization; they need to make and maintain contact with “people in low places” e.g. who write the briefing notes for decision-makers, who have a broad understanding of the dynamics around your issue.  Half a dozen “key contacts”, for example in government, would include ministerial assistants, mid-level bureaucrats, certain members of the legislator and perhaps policy advisors in the Premier’s ‘ Prime Minister’s Office.

Sponsors and Champions: Quite apart from Key Contacts, vital to most successful advocacy initiatives is being able to identify, recruit and maintain the involvement of “sponsors” or “champions” inside government  (or the organization you’re trying to influence.) The ideal “champion” for your issue would be, for example, the Minister responsible for deciding on your issue. But failing that home-run, there are others within a government that can be valuable sponsors – senior department officials, key legislators, a policy aide in the Premier’s Office. Strategic Inquiry often help you identity potential champions

Grass-Tops Allies:  It’s not just people in government that should be part of a relationship management plan or an Strategic Inquiry process. Gaining insights and advice from policy advocates in civil society organizations or business organizations can be helpful as well. It is important to know the difference between “grass roots” advocacy and “grass-tops” advocacy.

Our approach to Strategic Inquiry follows the advice of another of my personal heroes in advocacy, the legendary Saul Alinsky one of whose mantras was:

“If you wish to communicate effectively with people, you must communicate within their experience.”

Helping activists to learn at least one way of doing that will be a core objective of my workshop in Burnaby this week. For others outside the Metro Vancouver area, please see my Advocacy School website for more information on a Strategic Inquiry workshop near you:

Click here to register for An Evening with Sean Moore