You may believe it or not. But I believe that “Is it true?” is the key to success. However, you have to understand how to use those few words wisely…
On 8th June 2011 Swiss parliament decided to phase out nuclear power. Four weeks later it struck me. This was probably the consequence of a strategy that a former work mate and I had created back in 1992 – 19 years earlier! A master piece of long-term strategic planning? Maybe. Maybe it would have happened anyway. But certainly we did ask ourselves the right question in 1992, again and again and again. Or better: he asked me…
In 1991 I had started to work as a (anti-) Nuclear Campaigner for Greenpeace Switzerland. My job then was to prevent unlimited operating licenses for two of Switzerland’s oldest nuclear power plants, Mühleberg and Beznau II. My work mate in this campaign was Berni. His job was to prevent final repositories for nuclear waste. Our office was very narrow and we had to sit back to back, as it was not possible to position our desks in the centre of the room. We were facing the walls. Berni had started his job two years earlier. He became my coach and trainer for the next two years. I learned from him most of what I know about campaigning today, when I design strategies, create ideas and manage campaigns or change-projects for clients.
Our situation was tough. Management didn’t have a favour for the (anti-) nuclear campaign, so we had to be successful in order to prove that our budget was justified. But our budget was always too small… Tough situations are when you learn most. We had to be very creative. We permanently came up with new ideas of what we could do in order to achieve the next goal. But how do you prevent (over-) activism and promote strategic action in such a situation?
I would be sitting at my desk, come up with an idea and tell Berni about it. Then I would hear him say from behind my back “Explain to me, why you think this will help you to achieve your goals.” I would cringe… I hated that question. A voice in my head would say to me that it limited me in my creativity. (Though I knew that wasn’t true.) But I also knew that our management would ask the same question. And if I wouldn’t be able to answer it, campaign or action proposals would not be approved. So Berni became my rehearsal audience. I didn’t convince him, no chance with the management. But that wasn’t all. The next question would be even more annoying. He would ask “Is it true – do you truly believe this will help you achieve your goal? – Explain.” This could go on for many rounds.
That simple question forced me to go through every single step of the process on the way to the achievement of a certain goal. Much more annoying, I had to critically ask myself if I was really believing that this idea would help us. And I had to strip everything that might have made the idea look shiny but wasn’t really necessary. The result of this process would be a plan for an activity that was reduced to the max but would still most likely help us to achieve the related goal – effectiveness and efficiency in one.
Every move we made and every action we took had gone through the process of answering that short question. And we were successful. We prevented all unlimited operating licenses and to this day there is still no final repository for nuclear waste, at least n0t in Switzerland.
However, that little, nasty question doesn’t only help when you are making concrete action plans. It also helps you to develop mid- and long-term strategies.
In 1992 we had the crazy idea to design an anti-nuclear campaign strategy for the following 20 years. Two years earlier the Swiss had voted – during a referendum – on a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants (NPP). This moratorium lasted until the year 2000. We were sure that at some point somewhere in the world another nuclear core meltdown would happen. Then we realised that this could be the trigger for a phase-out of nuclear power in Switzerland. If – and only then – one condition would be met. We had to make sure that at this point in time there would be no new NPP under construction. We had to extend the moratorium under any circumstances.
The first, obvious thought was that we needed to win another referendum before the current moratorium would be ending. But then there was this question… “Is it true?” – And then it struck us: No, there was another way to extend the moratorium, an easier one that would guarantee us at least 2 or 3 years. All we needed to do was to get a referendum approved by the end of the year 2000, which means we would only have to have collect 100’000 signatures until then. After having all signatures collected it usually takes 2 or 3 years until the vote takes place. No electricity company would make plans to build a new NPP while there was a referendum on a moratorium pending. (As a small detail I should mention that we decided to get another 100’000 signatures for a phase-out referendum, too. The purpose of this one was to increase the chances of the moratorium referendum. When two referendums get voted upon at the same time, the moderate one has better chances. And we knew that the electricity companies knew that, too.)
Berni left Greenpeace in 1993, I left in 1997. But our successors managed to launch both referendums and get all the signatures, so that in the year 2000 the moratorium was automatically extended as we had planned in 1992. The votes took place in 2003. Both referendums failed (due to a really bad campaign).
However, when the anticipated nuclear core-meltdown happened, in Fukushima, March 2011, Swiss nuclear industry got hit in the middle of their preparations for the construction of 3 new NPPs. The parliament decided to phase out. Had the plans for new NPPs been 3 years further into the process, a lot more investments would have been made and it would have been a lot more difficult to reach such a broad support for a phase-out decision across all political parties. But they weren’t, thanks to our strategy.