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How to Use Community Organizing Tools to Power Innovation

For a time after college, I lived in Wise County, Virginia, and worked as a community organizer for the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, a local grassroots group fighting to stop mountaintop removal coal mining and improve the health and economy of Central Appalachia. Years later, I had finished grad school with a degree in public policy and was exploring opportunities in local government. I ended up in my current position in large part because my department specifically sought someone with community organizing experience to manage stakeholder relationships throughout the product development life cycle.

While many here may not identify as activists, anyone who has been tasked with digitizing a government function, for example, can attest to the fact that our jobs require driving change as well, just change of a different nature. The following are community organizing tools that carry over into the government technology space and have helped me be a more effective innovator:

Mutual Listening Sessions

Do you ever feel like you must have missed some sort of department-wide communication, or like your colleagues share discordant views in regards to mission and vision? Do you sometimes wonder what Debbie who sits by the conference room does all day, and wish you could ask her, but you’ve missed the socially appropriate window and figure you’ll just never know? Communication is hard. Mutual listening sessions offer amnesty for ignorance and respite from traditional reporting structures by creating opportunities to forge horizontal bonds across divisions or teams.

In a mutual listening session, people pair up to give each partner equal time to respond to any variation of the following prompt: What is/are the goal(s) or deliverable(s) of your project and what are you doing to achieve them? It’s as simple as that– the format should be loose and conversational. One of the goals of a mutual listening session is for participants to practice being able to communicate the work they’re doing in a clear and concise way. But unlike an elevator pitch, the speaker is encouraged to give attention to the obstacles in their work, letting the discussion eddy around the “hitches” that they might otherwise gloss over.

The role of the listener is to bring out the practical details of the speaker’s work, not to critique but to use in-depth questioning to dig deeper into how something will be implemented or measured. At minimum, this is an opportunity for both to learn something about the other person’s work; at best, it’s an opportunity for each to gain a perspective on their work outside of their own patterned thinking, which in itself is a driver of innovation.

Ladder of Mobilization

The ladder of mobilization is a tool that has been used by activists to direct their resources most efficiently to affect public opinion. It’s a stakeholder analysis framework, like the Mendelow matrix, with which you categorize constituencies along a continuum of support for your cause. For political or social movements, the following categories could be used as the “rungs” of the ladder:

  • Organizers
  • Activists
  • Supporters
  • Constituents
  • Bystanders
  • Antagonists

We obviously want to move people up the ladder, but which people and which rung? There might be a tactic, such as blockading an intersection in protest, that inspires some supporters to become activists, but possibly more bystanders to become antagonists. The ladder of mobilization helps organizers perform (non-financial) cost-benefit analyses of their available tactics.

In order to apply the ladder of mobilization to the continuum of readiness to adopt new technology you might need a new “rung” nomenclature, from Low Adopters to Policymakers, but the concept is the same: where do your stakeholders fit on the ladder and which rung(s) do you focus on mobilizing in order to drive adoption?


No seasoned organizer underestimates the power of food to engender goodwill. Victories should be celebrated and accomplishments fed….with donuts, preferably. People want to be recognized for the work they do, and celebrating our successes together is an opportunity to recognize each other, as well as the fact that success is a group effort.

What tools do you use to spur innovation at your organization? Tell us in the comments!

Susanna Ronalds-Hannon is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Catherine Andrews

The mutual listening sessions are a particularly brilliant tactic. All three of these approaches could honestly be used in any workplace setting. So commonsense, but so under-used!