How to Move from Vision to Action

My coaching work begins with a client consultation that moves from vision to practical next steps, often in as little as an hour.  How does that work exactly?

Here are the steps:

1: Clarify Your Vision

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 8.14.41 PMIf you are a social change visionary, you have a picture of a more just, equitable, sustainable, and compassionate future that you want to create.  Your vision is your personal motivation to go out and change the world.  It is also a north star that guides you in the later steps of the process.

Your vision is the picture of the future that stokes an enduring fire in your heart.

If you are unsure of your vision, try these steps to clarify it.

2: Map a Path from Your Vision to Now

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 8.14.46 PMThe next step is to design a path that links your vision to now.  This roadmap is a series of causally-linked outcomes called a theory of change.

Your roadmap will not be set it stone.  It will change as your implement it.  Its purpose is to show you that your vision is possible.

To create the roadmap we’ll start with your vision and work backwards, moving through a series of causally outcomes until we get to the present.  That first outcome – the one right after now – becomes the first goal you’ll take action to achieve.

If this sounds confusing, don’t worry.  Believe it or not, you probably already know all the elements of your theory of change.  You just need to think about how they are connected.  Think of theory of change as a story about how your vision might happen.

To start, try to tell that story in five steps.  What will happen right before your vision is realized?  And before that? And before that?  Keep on asking that question until you get to now.

3: Act, Reflect, Repeat

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 8.14.51 PMNow you have a goal to work towards, so you can make a plan of action to achieve it.  But it won’t be a complex or longterm plan.

In the ten years that I’ve been working with change-makers, I’ve learned that making longterm plans is often a waste of time.  There is a lot we still don’t know.

For this reason, I take a page from Lean Startup strategy and focus on identifying short-term actions that maximize learning.

First identity actions you’ll take within the next week.  Then, at the end of the week, reflect on the results of those actions.  Did you get the result you wanted and expected?  If yes, how can you build on it?  If no, how can you use the feedback information you gained to act more effectively next time?

And then you act again.

This is the process for changing the world.  It starts with a big inspiring vision and ends with ongoing action to make that vision a reality.

Do you have a question about the above? Then come ask me in my free office hours:

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 7.59.28 PM

Note: cross-posted, with minimal edits, from

How Not to Be an Asshole in 4 Easy Steps

At base, a socially just world is one in which no one is an asshole to anyone else.

Not being an asshole is also the basis for creating safe space and is the foundation of all activism, social justice, and advocacy work.  It’s also the foundation of being a decent human being.

Still, the fundamental tenets of not-being-an-asshole are unclear to many people. Here they are:

1. Don’t be an asshole.

2. Being an asshole means:

  1. Treating any individual’s physical and emotional wellbeing as less important than your own.
  2. Saying or doing things that disrespect that person by demeaning or insulting them.
  3. Not apologizing when you are called out for demeaning or insulting behavior.
  4. Not changing your problematic behavior when you are made aware of it.

3. Not being an asshole means:

  1. Treating every individual’s physical and emotional wellbeing with the same care as you would your own.
  2. Saying and doing things that affirm their value and show them you care about them.
  3. Apologizing when you are called out for not acting in a caring and kind way.
  4. Changing your behavior so you are kind and caring to all people.

4. This includes not being an asshole to people…

  1. Of other races and ethnicities;
  2. Of other nationalities or immigration statuses;
  3. Of other genders (including cis, trans, bigender, agender…);
  4. Who love differently than you (including queer, gay, lesbian, have lots of sex, are asexual…);
  5. Who have a different religion than you;
  6. Who are poorer than you;
  7. Who has less or different education from you;
  8. Who have a less prestigious or different job than you;
  9. Who are younger or older than you (no ageism…);
  10. Whose bodies are different from yours (no ableism, fat-shaming, transphobia…);
  11. Whose brains work differently than yours (no mental illness shaming, accommodate intellectual disabilities and neurodiversity);
  12. Any other kind of person. Seriously. It’s not that hard.

Thanks for your time and attention!

Derailment: A Field Guide

Why Does Derailment Matter?

Derailment is important because it’s a weapon against social change.

People who support social change need to know how to identify it and how to combat it.

What Is Derailment?

Derailment “diverts a discussion about one issue into a discussion of another issue”*.  It is a tactic of misdirection that deflects attention away from complaints about the abuse and wrongdoing of those in power and towards a different topic that does not challenge those interests.

Why Do People Derail?

People derail for the following 4 reasons:

1) Feel Accused

Description: These derailers believe that the topic of discussion is a personal indictment of their own wrongdoing.  This sense of being accused may be real or imagined.

Example: A man might derail a discussion about sexual harassment if he believes he himself is being accused of sexual harassment.

2) Material Interests

Description: In this case, the change implicit in the critique would reduce the power or wealth of the derailer.  Even if an individual or group is never explicitly accused of wrongdoing, they might suffer from reduced position or resources if change to the abusive or unjust situation occurs.

Example: A firm that builds drilling equipment for the oil industry might seek to derail legislation about climate change.  Even though these manufacturers are rarely accused of wrongdoing in the climate change debate, their livelihoods would be harmed if limitations on drilling occurred.

3) Worldview Challenged

Description: In this case, the topic is forcing the derailer to make an uncomfortable reevaluation of their worldview.   Rather than make this reevaluation, the person defends their worldview by derailing the conversation.

Example: A white person might derail a discussion of police violence against people of color because they wish to continue believing that police are a force for law, order, and moral uprightness.

4) Agents of the Above

Description: The derailer in this case is acting on behalf of groups or individuals who fall into the above three categories.

Example: We don’t know Megyn Kelly’s personal feelings about Black Lives Matter, but when she brought up black-on-black violence in her interview with Cornel West last week (image above), she was furthering the conservative agenda of her employer, Fox News, by derailing critique of racist policing.

What Are the Types of Derailment?

Graphically, all derailed topics look sometime like this before they are derailed:

  1. There are two parties: A and B
  2. A has more power than B
  3. A has committed some abuse or wrongdoing against B

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 8.03.03 PM

There are seven ways to derail this type of topic, each of which seeks to undermine or modify some element of this model.  They are:

  1. Rationalist Derailments
  2. Minimization Derailments
  3. Victim-Blaming Derailments
  4. Table-Turning Derailments
  5. Ad Hominem Derailments
  6. Narcissistic Derailments
  7. See No Evil Derailments

Learn them so you can identify them when you see and hear them.  Then call them out for what they are: efforts to silence criticism of the status quo, protect those in power, and divert attention away from change.  (See an alternative list here.)


1) Rationalist Derailments

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 11.13.07 AM

Description: These derailments seek to identify a flaw in the logic or evidentiary basis of the challenging topic.  These types of arguments are particularly popular with men and conventionally-educated people, since they are taught they are more logical than other groups.  It is also common among people who do not think they are not prejudiced, because they are attacking the argument rather than the speaker or group making the complaint.

Example: “All murders/homicides are terrible. But if we run the numbers….”*

2) Minimization Derailments

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 11.14.59 AM

Description: This form or derailment also seeks to blunt or undermine the argument itself.  Unlike the rationalist derailer, however, the minimizing derailer attacks the argument by minimizing its importance.

There are a number of tactics minimizers use.  They may claim that the wrongdoing or abuse was “just a joke” and not a serious threat.

Another common tactic is to play Oppression Olympics and minimize the suffering of (B) compared to a group that is even worse off.  This is the tactic my own father used when I tried to talk to him about the rights of sweatshop workers overseas.  “Would you prefer they were starving subsistence farmers?” he asked.  “At least they have jobs.”  Counter to his line of argument, the existence of a graver wrongdoing does not negate the presence of a lesser one.

Examples: “It’s just a joke.”  “Why are you making such a big deal of it?”  “These people are actually lucky. [X Group] has it much worse.”


3) Victim-Blaming Derailments

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 11.26.42 AM

Description: This derailment is ingenious and extremely popular, even though it makes very little sense.  In this common derailment, the derailer suggests that the victim of oppression, rather than the oppressor, is responsible for the victim’s suffering.

When this derailment is used, it often means that the derailer cannot deny that some suffering occurred (poverty, murder, unwanted sexual intercourse).  Since they cannot deny the suffering, instead claim that the injured party (B) injured themselves or incited the more powerful party (A) to injure them.  This argument of this derailment is “stop hitting yourself,” and is just as ridiculous.

Examples: Blaming the poor for their poverty, blaming black people for being the victims of violence (black-on-black crime derailment), blaming rape survivors for being raped.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 7.28.10 PM

A special sub-type of the victim-blaming derailment is the Victim-Perpetuating Derailment

Description: Here the derailer acknowledges that party (A) did at some time abuse or engage in wrongdoing toward (B).  However, at this point (B) is guilty of perpetuating or even augmenting that wrongdoing.  The derailer is arguing that the speaker is creating the injustice by pointing out its existence.

In fact, the exact opposite is true.  Ignoring injustice perpetuates it.  Speaking about it is the first step towards remedy.  This is  precisely why the discussion is being derailed.  Derailment aims explicitly to silence those who speak about injustice in order to prevent remedies that will change the status quo.

Example: “Stop talking about racism!  That just perpetuates racism.”


4) Table-Turning Derailments

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 6.54.55 PM

Description:  If you thought the Victim-Blaming Derailment was crazy, this one’s even nuttier.  In the table-turning derailment, the person being accused of oppressive behavior claims that, actually, they are the victims.

This derailment diverts the original discussion by completely flipping the dynamics.  The abuser has become the abused.  Their narrative becomes privileged.  The victim becomes the abuser.  Their narrative is sidelined and undermined.  It’s so crazy it might just work (and it does).

Examples: The reverse racism argument that white people are the true victims of racism, meninist claims that women are actually oppressing men.


5) Ad Hominem Derailments

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 6.47.45 PM

Description: Ad hominem means “to the man.”  It refers to personal attacks.  This derailment is popular because it is the laziest and easiest derailment.  The derailer doesn’t need to make any critique of the argument or the context.  They just need to find some defect in the person making the argument and point it out.  The laziest of these derailments is to make a criticism of the person’s appearance, which doesn’t require that the derailer even think about the person, but only look at them.

The slightly more sophisticated derailer will criticize the speaker’s character.   This derailment works because people will often not believe a claim made by someone who has been identified as flawed.  For example, the speaker may be called overly-sensitive or angry.  The implication is that the content of the critique is driven by emotion rather than fact.

Counter to this logic, anger is actually not connected to the validity of an argument.  In fact, if I am arguing about a serious injustice that is being minimized or ignored, that’s a completely valid reason to be angry.

Example: “Danny–You’re a total loser,” “he is just so pathetic and easy (stupid),” “I’d look her right in that fat, ugly face” (Donald Trump tweets and comments.)


6) Narcissistic Derailments

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 7.10.55 PM

Description: These derailments are in a way the most innocent kind.  The derailer may not even realize they are derailing.  The derailer simply shifts the conversation to themselves.  I’ve called them Narcissistic Derailments and their spirit is well-expressed in this awesome tweet:

This is a very common type of derailment for an ally to engage in unconsciously.   Allies (C) are generally people whose power is between the person or group accused of wrongdoing (A) and the group doing the accusing (B).  If allies keep the focus on the group with less power, their allyship is helpful.  If they turn the attention on themselves, they divert attention away from the group making the claim and do them harm.

We are all naturally interested in ourselves and will see any issue from the perspective of our own experience.  However, as allies we need to police these reactions and keep the focus on the groups were have allied ourselves with.  This time it is really not about us.

Example: “I hear what you’re saying about the problems of [marginalized group].  As a member of [less marginalized group], I have similar problems. Let me tell you about them.”


7) See No Evil Derailment

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 7.22.06 PMDescription: This is the most dangerous type of derailment, since by appearance it is the most benign.   Even sophisticated public figures like Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton have made the mistake of committing this type of derailment.

So why are these comments, which seem to embrace the values of equality and fair treatment, really so horribly damaging?  It is because this derailment erases the abuse and wrongdoing, pretends it does not exist.  If an injustice is not acknowledged it can never be righted.

Example: #AllLivesMatter, “I don’t even see race, I’m colorblind”

How to Fight Derailment?

Of course, derailments are rarely used individually out in the wild.  For example, what about this combo move?

Black Person: “I get stressed every time I see a police car in my rearview.  Driving is just too much.”

White Person: “Why are you so upset, Bro?  The cops pull me over sometimes and nothing bad ever happens. ”     

This is indeed a powerful derailer.  Let us unpack the many derailments he has deployed in so few words:

  • “Why are you getting so emotional?”: Ad Hominem attack (focusing on the individual’s emotional state, not the content of what they are saying), which also sets up a Rationalism attack by implying that the person is speaking from their heart, not their head.
  • “The cops pull me over sometimes…”: A classic usage of Narcissistic derailment.  Dude, we are not talking about your interactions with police.  We are talking about this black person’s experience with the police.
  • “…and nothing bad ever happens”: And here the Rationalist derailment appears.  The derailer is using the evidence that they have never had trouble with the police as evidence that the back person hasn’t either.  At this point, the conversation has been derailed to the extent that evidence of a white person’s experience is seen as valid evidence for disproving a black person’s experience.  It’s ridiculous and infuriating.

Here’s how the black person could respond.  With a Rationalist derailment, using statistics, facts, figures can be an effective rebuttal.

Black Person: “Well, Dude, if I appear emotional it’s because this is a frigging terrifying situation.  Also, we’re not talking about your experience.  We’re talking about my experience. Black people are being killed by police at more than twice the rate of white and Hispanic or Latino people in the US.  If you don’t believe me, check out this article in The Guardian.  Also, never ever question my experience of my own life again.”

And then the moment of truth comes.

If this Dude is merely ignorant, then he should apologize immediately.  If he doesn’t apologize, or even gets defensive, you know you are not dealing with a friend, but rather a narcissistic and irrational racist who would rather attack a friend than question even the smallest part of his worldview or try to empathize with an experience not his own.  Kick him to the curb.  At least you provided a teaching moment, even if Dude was unable to appreciate it.

What are your strategies for combatting derailment?  Tell me in the comments.

original image:

Choose Your Own Activism Adventure (With Cake)

An activism campaign is like a Choose Your Own Adventure where you know the social change goal you want to achieve, have control over your own actions, but have no control over how the external world will respond.  How can you make the best decisions possible, given this uncertainty?  You use the tools of theory of change, strategy, tactics, and tasks.

Together, these nested elements will help you analyze your context, choose a path, choose actions to move along that path, take those actions, and reflect on the effects to take more effective action.

Components of an Activism Campaign

What are these activism campaign components?  How do they fit together?

  • A theory of change is a series of causal steps between the present and a future goal.
  • The theory of change will imply a number of strategies to achieve that goal, each of which will take a different path through the causal steps.
  • Each strategy will be implemented through a number of tactics, actions meant to cause the changes laid out in the theory of change.
  • To carry out each tactic, practical work is needed.  This practical work is a task.

The relationship between these four pieces is illustrated in the diagram below.  As you move from theory of change to tasks, the elements become smaller and more concrete.

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 3.33.52 PM

Social change is really complex, as you know.  To move through this process for a real social issue, such as prison reform, institutionalized racism, gun violence, climate change, or transgender rights would take many many blog posts to explain.

The purpose of this post is to explain these steps so you can quickly see how they fit together.  For this reason, we are going to choose a much simpler goal to achieve: creating an emergency wedding cake.

A Delicious Example


fancy professional cake

Here’s the set-up.  You’ve been helping your friend plan her/his/their wedding in San Diego.  You arrive in town at 8am from your home town of Portland, the day before the wedding .  At 10am the baker (an old friend from college) calls you to say they are stuck in the Cleveland airport due to a snow storm.  Their flight has been delayed until after the wedding.  There’s no way they are going to be able to get to San Diego in time to make the cake.

Here is your theory of change on wedding cake creation.  (See more theory of change visualizations here.)

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 4.51.49 PM


The theory of change shows many paths to your cake (goal).  In fact, theories of change are known for being twisty and complex, because they are supposed to take into account the complex context in which you are trying to achieve your goal.  This theory of change illustrates five possible paths to achieve your goal.

Identifying Strategies

What are these five paths exactly?  Do we know them by a different name?  Yes, we do.  Each path is a strategy.  Let’s describe them:

  1. Big $$$ Strategy: This is the simplest strategy, though also the most expensive (as is common in life).  You find a local pastry chef and pay them as much money as they require in order to make a wedding cake on really short notice.  You end up with a beautiful and expensive cake.
  2. Some $$ Strategy: Now we are beginning to negotiate our requirements based on available resources, as also happens in real life.  For slightly less money you can hire someone with some baking skill (maybe a caterer instead of a pastry chef).  They will provide you with a competent – though not super fancy – cake at a reasonable price.
  3. Know-a-Chef Strategy: It is possible that you could get the pastry chef to do the cake without paying a lot of money if you have some relationship to them and can ask them as a personal favor.
  4. Aunt Cheryl Strategy: Another relationship strategy, this one likely even cheaper.  You ask a family member with baking experience (Aunt Cheryl) to make the cake.
  5. DIY Strategy: If all else fails, you could always make the cake yourself.  You have no skill as a baker, but you can follow a recipe.  This would also be relatively cheap because you only need to pay for ingredients.  But it could also come out horribly wrong, because you really don’t know what the fuck you are doing.

So, these are your pathways through the theory of change.  These are your strategies.  Which one will you choose?

The criteria you want to use to pick your strategy is one that offers maximum benefit with minimum cost.  You most beneficial outcome is the “fancy cake” and your lowest cost is to get that fancy cake at low or no coast through a personal connection to a pastry chef.  That’s strategy #3.

Identifying Tactics

What tactics will you use to carry out this strategy?  How will you identify a local pastry chefs with a personal connection to you?  (You don’t know any as of now.)  Here are some tactics you could use:

  1. Contact All Guests: “Is There a Pastry Chef in Attendance?”
    • Benefit: Wide coverage quickly, it’s possible (but unlikely) that one is a pastry chef
    • Cost: Everyone freaks out because there is no cake. Also, it’s unlikely that one is a pastry chef (ie, you’d be wasting your time).
  2. Contact the Original Pastry Chef
    • Benefit: You already know her and trust her skill.  She probably feels super guilty about being stuck in Cleveland and not being able to show up.  There is a decent possibility she will know people in her profession in San Diego.
    • Cost: Worst case scenario, you pay full price to this local pastry chef, but you may not have to if our Cleveland connection can get you a discount.
  3. Contact the Venue
    • Benefit: The wedding is being hosted in a venue that often hosts weddings.  These staff at the venue are sure to know local pastry chefs.
    • Cost: This isn’t a very close connection. The pastry chef is likely to charge you full price.
  4. Contact Locals for a Referral
    • Benefit: You are not from San Diego, but it’s likely that someone in the wedding party is local and knows someone who got married recently who could give you a referral.
    • Cost: Again, this isn’t a very close connection. The pastry chef is likely to charge you full price.

You decide to go with tactic #2 since the potential benefit is highest (a fancy cake at low cost) and the risk is negligible.

Tasks: Doing the Work

Implementing a strategy means doing tasks.  As you move from theory of change to strategy to tactics to tasks, the element get increasingly simple and increasingly obvious.   This is because by making choices you are removing options.  Less options mean easier choices.   You already chose a strategy and a first tactic.  Now you just need to decide how to implement it.  You need to contact the baker.  How will you do it?  Email is an option, but since time is of the essence, why don’t you call?

Your Tasks:

  1. Go back through your recent calls and find the number of the pastry chef.
  2. Call her and and ask her to contact a replacement in San Diego.

That’s pretty easy.

You call the original pastry chef in Cleveland and ask her if she knows any great pastry chefs in Sean Diego.

Congratulations, she does! (See how this is like Choose Your Own Adventure?)

Now you can ask her (guilt her) into calling that chef on your behalf.

She will.  Yay!

Unfortunately, the one pastry chef she knows is already baking for another wedding and can’t take on your job.

Changing Tactics

When a tactic doesn’t give you the outcome you want, you will need to move on to another tactic.   In activism, it is almost guaranteed that your first tactic will not result in achievement of your goal.  So don’t be discouraged if a tactic doesn’t work.  Expect it.  Evaluate why it it didn’t work, and move one on to another tactical option.

Among the tactics above, only contacting all the wedding guests seems like an obviously bad idea.  Contacting local wedding guests or contacting the venue to get a referral to a local professional pastry chef could both be good options.

Often the best tactic is not obvious.   When you are unsure which tactic to choose, add another criterion for evaluation.  The current criteria are Benefit and Cost.  You could also add Time and Financial Resources.  Getting a referral from a guest may be less expensive than getting a referral from a venue, but it will almost certainly take more time.   Since the staff of the venue work with caterers all the time, they could probably hook you up with multiple chefs quickly, but you’d also probably pay a high price for that convenience.  Is time or money a bigger constraint for you?

Changing Strategies

Let’s say that you contact multiple local pastry chefs through different avenues of referral and they are either not available or way too expensive.  You are not going to get a pastry chef to make that cake.  Time to try a different cake strategy.


cute little homemade cake

When a tactic doesn’t provide the effect you want, you change tactics.  When a series of tactics don’t achieve the effect you want, it’s time to change strategies.  Changing strategies means that you decide to achieve your goal using a different path.  Though changing strategies can be time-consuming, you need to be honest with yourself if your current strategy isn’t working.

Because you know that you can’t bake, you decide to ask other guests that you personally if any of them have baking skill.  A few do and you help them.  You choose a simple but yummy design.  It’s not fancy, but everyone thinks it’s cute.  It tastes good too.   Although your campaign didn’t go as expected, you still achieved your goal through analysis, action, and reflection.

A Collective Adventure

As you can see, designing an activism campaign requires a lot of skills:

  • You need to be creative and observant to develop a theory of change.
  • You need to be analytical to look at the many paths through the theory of change and pick the one that offers the most benefits with the fewest costs as your strategy.
  • You need to be creative again when you are deciding which tactics will allow you to carry out that strategy.
  • You will need a number of skills to carry out your tactics, ranging from poster-makers to live-tweeters to bridge aerialists.
  • You need to be hardworking and well-organized to ensure all the tasks necessary to carry out a tactic are accomplished.
  • You need to be cool-headed and unsentimental when evaluating whether or not a tactic or strategy is working.  If it isn’t, you need to make a change.

Who has all these skills?  No one does, obviously.  That is why activism campaigns are carried out by teams.  Now you have some idea of what an activism campaign entails.  The next step is getting others involved.  The adventure is yours.

photos: Flickr/Wicked Little Cake Company; Flickr/Thomas Hawk

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.