How to influence a group of selfish agents? Lessons from sheepdogs

3 September 2014

I found this very interesting article on the BBC News app and right away thought it would be relevant to think tanks. The story is about the rules (2) that sheepdogs follow to successfully shepherd sheep.

The rules are:

  1. Bring them together
  2. Push them forward

There ought to be a third one (between 1 and 2), I think: position yourself in the right place (a la Archimedes).

How is this useful for think tanks?

Well, think tanks often find themselves trying to influence different people and groups in the same way but do so through entirely different strategies and tactics.

Last week’s posts on audience segmentation suggest that think tanks should develop different strategies for different audiences. This is perfectly sensible and, really, one should expect of any decent communications strategy.

But, maybe, there is an alternative. Instead of trying to influence different audiences independently, we could try a three-step approach:

  1. First, let’s try to influence them to come together. Think tanks in Chile in the 1980s did this. Instead of trying to influence each actor of the  opposition independently, Chilean think tanks brought them together through meetings, events, and other activities.
  2. Second, develop your arguments to appeal to them as a group as well as to their own (selfish) interests. in other words: why is this important to each one; and why stating together is good to every one.
  3. Finally, influence them as a group. Rather than trying to get each one to adopt a different behaviour, hoping that, in the aggregate, they will add up to the desired outcome, why not try to get them all to adopt the same behaviour together?

A very useful tool to identify your key audience, decide what to do with them and monitor your influence have a look at the Alignment, Interest, and Influence Matrix.