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Campaigning as chess

In many ways and at many levels, campaigns resemble a game of chess: in their complexity, in the mutual dependence between ‘players’ – the impact of what one player does on the options available to the other – and in the dynamic between tactics (individual moves) and strategy (the overall approach to the game).


Campaigners do not need to be good at chess, but they can usefully reflect upon the attributes that make up a winning chess formula.


Analytical power

At any given point in a game of chess, there are multiple options of moves to play, but only a small number are serious possibilities. The best players see this quickly. They are able to limit the amount of time – a precious commodity in tournament chess, in which each player has a finite amount of time to make his or her moves – which they expend on exploration of different moves.


For campaigns too, the actual number of strategic options is usually small, given the constraints in which NGOs operate. NGOs need to ‘cut to the chase’ and rapidly form a clear view as to the extent of what is possible and the best strategy to employ.


Three attributes are essential to high-quality analysis:

  • knowing the balance of forces in play: what move to take at any given moment depends on close knowledge of your own and your opponent's strengths and weaknesses.


  • letting strategy drive tactics: every move brings risks, disadvantages as well as advantages. The balance of costs and benefits of any given move is not measurable in and of itself, but only in relation to an overall strategy: to be aggressive or defensive or counter-attacking – or to play for a draw.


  • learning from history: chess masters saturate themselves in analysis of thousands of previous games, including, but not only, those of their current opponent. NGOs too should learn from how a target has responded to previous campaigns and have a deep knowledge of campaign tactics and strategy to draw upon.


Strategic choices

Some chess champions tend to play in a conservative way, others more extravagantly. While they may feel more comfortable with a certain style of play – and accumulate expertise in particular styles – the best champions are able to employ different styles of play, even within a single game.


Likewise, NGOs may be best suited to a certain style of play – and are right to play to their strengths – but should also be able to move fluidly between a range of different approaches, both those that are predominantly ‘insider’ in approach and those that are more ‘outsider’.


Assessing success

It is not possible to measure a chess move in and of itself. It has to be assessed in relation to other possible moves. The question is not ‘was that a good move?’, but ‘was that a better move than any other move?’


When assessing a game as a whole, only a small number of moves are truly decisive. These moves represent the key moments in a game. Which moves are most decisive may not be obvious at first sight since their effects may come to the fore only later in the game or reveal themselves only after thorough analysis. What seems decisive at one point may turn out not to have been so. There is a lesson in knowing when judgements should be taken and in not being deceived by the potentially false signal of the immediate results of a move: being a pawn ahead may be irrelevant or even misleading as an indicator of the likely final outcome of a game.


Making an initial splash is not always a sign of a campaign being on the right track. A campaign may have been diverted towards the wrong target. The positive results from a single activity may cover over the seeds of a strategic setback. Or, conversely, a campaign may not have reached the point in which the value of its activities is visible or important.


Campaigns as a series of games, not a single encounter

Chess tournaments are not decided on a single game, but a series of games. Chess champions know the need to pace themselves, to be able to recover from defeats and to be sure to scrutinize each game for lessons to improve performance in successive encounters.


Campaign targets tend to understand better than NGOs that campaigns are a war not a single battle. The NGO sector is full of examples of political or corporate targets suffering early defeats or appearing to be on the back-foot, but re-grouping and finally outlasting their NGO opponents. This may be a matter of resources and the centrality of the issue subject of a campaign to the target’s core interests, but it is also a question of attitude, of being willing to learn from experience, to come back stronger following a setback and not to bask for too long in the sunshine of an initial victory. NGOs need to get better at seeing the long game, deepening their analysis and cultivating an attitude of permanent reflection and refinement of tactics and strategy.


[1] The metaphor is weaker in its suggestion that a campaign is a game of two players, potentially exacerbating the tendency to over-privilege the influence of NGOs on their targets, given the multiplicity of other factors and actors involved. In practice, an NGO engaged in a campaign plays several games at any one time, each designed to win a certain outcome from a particular primary or secondary target. But it overstretches the metaphor to conceive of a campaign as a dozen games of chess, not all involving the same NGO player, but each impacting on the others.

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