What if We're Wrong?

Such a scary question for most people -- and most organizations. We pay attention to crafting message, measuring outcomes and being strategic, but rarely do we create room for this basic question.

I'll always remember the only time I've heard it in an advocacy organization. Several staff members were gathered in the office of the Executive Director. It was a tough time when little good news came from Capitol Hill. We were trying to open a dialogue with members of Congress on a polarizing, high profile foreign policy matter. The approach was a gentle one designed to find common ground with legislators, including those who didn't typically share our point of view.

The Executive Director had received a letter from a longtime colleague in another organization criticizing our initiative. He found our approach overly cautious, wanting to see us take a stronger, more strident one. Sort of a "tough times call for tough action" message.

"Let's talk about this. What if we're wrong?"

I can't remember if those were the Executive Director's exact words, but that's close. We then carefully weighed the points our colleague raised. Were our assumptions wrong? Were we misreading the situation on Capitol Hill? Would we more successfully move members of Congress toward our position with a stronger message and more in-your-face tactics?

In the end, we didn't change our campaign, but the discussion was worthwhile. We reaffirmed why we'd chosen our strategy, and we clarified our message. Younger staff learned how campaigns from previous decades informed our executive director's decision, enriching our own knowledge about organizing for change. And we got the valuable message that we were allowed to make mistakes and change course.

That conversation prepared me for calls from people who were frustrated for the same reasons that colleague was. In each case, I was able to turn a doubter into a supporter ready to meet with their members of Congress.

In the end, our gentle approach worked, opening up conversations with members of Congress who never would have engaged with us if we'd had a strident message. We found congressional opinion to be more varied than we thought, sometimes for unexpected reasons. Little by little, we broke through the public posturing that had defined political debate on this issue, building congressional support for our ideas to address an international crisis.

Not only did asking "what if we're wrong?" not hurt our efforts, it helped us do our job better.