Tacit Knowledge and Change Agentry

We know more than we can tell.
– Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension

image: public domain via pixabay

image: public domain via pixabay

Tacit knowledge is the kind of knowledge that is difficult to convey to another person either verbally, or in writing. It can also be critically important in the process of affecting social change.

Common examples of tacit knowledge include things such as emotional intelligence, how to speak a language that you’ve learned through immersion over a lifetime, and humor (we all laugh at things that we can’t explain why we find them funny). There are some people who argue (I am not one of them) that leadership itself is a skill that primarily leverages tacit knowledge, gained only from experience.

This intelligence that people often refer to as intuition, is more than a mere hunch. It is the result of subconsciously connecting many bits and pieces of knowledge that we’ve collected over a lifetime. Think about a chess player who makes a rapid succession of moves. Despite the pace of the game, the moves are as calculated as they are situational.

Tacit knowledge is not always correct. It is just as likely as explicit knowledge, to get caught in the trap characterized by that Mark Twain quote, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” The deep roots of superstition, racism, and all sorts of other human failings lie in the faulty assumptions of tacit knowledge.

Take the so-called “golden rule,” for example: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It doesn’t take training to practice. Its inward orientation suggests that it is based on self-constructed, tacit knowledge. Its biblical origins might even suggest to some that it is some sort of universal truth. The problem is that this “truth” has an inherent bias.  The more generous, and effective strategy for human interaction seems to lie in what is known as the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others, as others would have done unto themselves.” In other words, treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way you want to be treated.

Despite its imperfections, tacit knowledge can be crucial to organizing and motivating people to advocate for change. It is expressed in the wisdom of elders. It is the source of the confidence that people place in a community’s opinion leaders, people who have gained the trust of many people, and whose opinion on an issue serves as a sort of seal of approval for like-minded residents.

The transfer of tacit knowledge is so situational, that there is no easy method to measure, or make use of it. This reality is why distributed networks of grassroots activists are more effective than centralized, networks that look like corporate organizational charts.

Capacity inventories and appreciative inquiry interviews, like those that we use in asset-based community development, can go a long way toward uncovering forgotten or hidden assets. It is often, however, easier to discover skills and talents, than it is to discover what people know. Tacit knowledge often reveals itself over the course of the development of personal relationships. Recognizing when uncommon knowledge is being shared is an important skill.

This Versus That


When I first started this site most of my posts were brief comparisons of concepts or ideas of interest to leaders of social change. Even though I have moved beyond those initial examples, many of them continue to be popular with readers of this site. For those of you who might be new to the site, here are nine of the posts of that type, that people consistently seem to find useful. As always, thank you for visiting this site.

Excellence vs. Perfection

Traditional vs. Creative Leadership

Problem Solving vs. Appreciative Inquiry

Risk-Averse vs. Risk-Taking

Leaders vs. Managers

Authority vs. Power

Quality of Life vs. Standard of Living

Traditional vs. Collaborative Leadership

Working Together: Coordinating, Cooperating, Or Collaborating

Vision is Personal

Creating change is inescapably tied to a shared vision. People can’t keep their eyes on the prize, if they don’t know what the prize is. A common notion of what the future should look like, however, is not enough.

Visionary concepts can be abstract (“We see a world where everybody . . .”). Change is social and shared, but above all else, change is personal. The key to a vision being a motivator for action, is for each individual to see themselves in that future.

One of the reasons why I am an advocate for Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), is that at its core, ABCD mobilizes people based on what they care about the most, and how their personal talents can best contribute to positive change. A group, a community, a movement, is made up of individuals with both broader common interests, and specific self-interest. Don’t just rally around the abstract and the generalized. Ask people to put themselves in the future being created.

The power of “why don’t we?”

I wrote a previous post, “When You’re Ready to Move from Talk to Action.” It focused on troubleshooting the implementation of strategies, campaigns, or projects. There is, of course, a point in time prior to the carrying out of plans, when a conscious decision is made to move from theory to the actual work of creating change.

My primary interest is how to better understand leadership around social change. I do recognize, however, that a considerable amount of the writing on topics in both leadership, and change comes out of the worlds of organizational development and organizational leadership. Some of it is universally useful.

I recently came across an image (below) in a blog post by Simon Terry, a consultant in the field of organizational development and leadership, which reminded me that regardless of the scale of change, organizational, or societal, some underlying questions remain the same. Regardless of the change you seek, the question that is going to get things done is: “why don’t we?”

Image: Simon Terry

Image: Simon Terry

The question of how to make that transformation straddles the planning, and the implementation stages. How implies a plan exists. “Why don’t we . . .” implies that there is action to take.

People who want to maintain the status quo:

  • Why don’t we . . . study this a little further?
  • Why don’t we . . . cover up the fact that this problem exists?
  • Why don’t we . . . just have a cooling off period of an indeterminate time to let complaints and questions blow over?

People who want to create change:

  • Why don’t we start working today to implement our plan for more effective, fair, and sustainable solutions?

Don’t wait for some mythical time when all risk will be mitigated. When you have a plan, work to make it happen.

Social Change and Patience

“Patience is the art of concealing your impatience.”
– Guy Kawasaki


“What do we want?” (Insert your desired change here.) When do we want it? NOW. The universal call and response of protest is not an ode to patience.

The saying, “patience is a virtue” comes from a poem written in the 1300s, by William Langland, titled, Piers Plowman. Life was pretty horrible for a lot of people in the 1300s. I’m sure that the small, privileged, affluent class in countries throughout the world were keen on perpetuating myths that reinforced their own position when they said, “patience is a virtue,” or its twin sibling, “good things come to those who wait.”

I admit that there are times during a heated struggle, when taking a little time out for strategic reflection is necessary. There are also times when cooling down is the expedient thing to do. These should, however, be seen as equivalent to resting in the corner for a minute, between rounds of a boxing match. Patience must go hand-in-hand with perseverance.

Perseverance is the key to affecting change. Think about who is being served by patience. Who is patronizing you by suggesting that you should tolerate injustice and suffering? Perseverance implies commitment and determination.

“Why aren’t you doing anything?”

“Oh, I’m just being patient.”

Declarations in favor of patience might simply be serving as excuses for fear, or laziness. Where is the virtue in that? Fear may be rational and justified, but it doesn’t have to be an excuse for a lack of commitment, hiding behind a veil of patience. Change is not possible without risk, and risk-free virtue is of little value.

The courage to act before things get unbearable

“Hate is not the opposite of love; apathy is.”
– Rollo May

I have been thinking about motivation. Specifically, I have been thinking about what motivates people to ultimately act with others to create social change. It is a big question, and admittedly, this post contains more questions than answers.

It shouldn’t have to take tragic events to provide a breaking point, or a tipping point. It seems as though even when we have a long-held vision for something different, we will very often be satisfied to simply whine and moan about the state of things, and do nothing about it. Why?

I am not interested in using this space to review the volumes of literature out there on human motivation. This isn’t an academic exercise.

The worst excuse

Speaking of academic exercises, if you’re looking for yet another excuse to put off acting, just look to those who claim a need to wait for exhaustive research in ortime for changeder to ‘have all the facts.’ Sometimes having all the facts is impossible. Sometimes, the facts change daily. I have written before about needs assessment as a barrier to change.


The key to this question of motivation to real commitment seems to center around courage. At the personal level, activists from oppressed groups can be faced with a wide variety of very real physical threats, or risks to their livelihoods. Would-be activists from a privileged group can face retaliation for threatening the power structure upon which their privilege is built. The consequences of courage are relative on an individual basis, but are nonetheless real.

The personal resolve, followed by the collective determination to push beyond fear is common to all movements. The coordinated efforts of the courageous is where leadership and organizing are important. You can’t mitigate all the risk. Change is fundamentally a risky endeavor. Effective leaders can, however, anticipate the support systems that may need to be set in motion to soften the blow of real hardships sustained by change agents.

It seems as though courage frequently manifests itself when an issue becomes personal. How can you get someone whose life has not been personally touched by an issue to find the courage to be a public champion for change? Does someone you know have to get shot in order for you to actively seek to end violence? Does your own water have to become undrinkable before you insist that access to clean drinking water be considered a human right?

Political will

Of course, once you’ve organized at the grassroots level, political will is a whole different beast. The shared values of a majority of people usually doesn’t stand a chance against the competing interests of the folks who finance political campaigns. The politician’s notion of courage becomes distorted. It isn’t simply about doing what’s right when presented with opposing options. Sadly, saying “no” to billionaires is the most courageous thing many politicians can imagine.

Lobbyists and other people of influence and affluence are not the only barrier to political will. People vote against their self-interest all the time. How will we appeal to citizens to align their values with their political voice?

C. S. Lewis said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” We need to help each other find courage every day. If we amass enough of it, then perhaps we can commit to act before the testing point has forced us into finding a solution via unnecessary tragedy.

Classism is an Obstacle in Social Change Activism

Classism is differential treatment based on social class or perceived social class. Classism is the systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups. It’s the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class.

Not long ago, I attended for the second time, a meeting that was part of an ongoing comprehensive community initiative dedicated to improving a variety of quality of life indicators in the city where I live. You may be familiar with the process. An open, public visioning event is held. Priorities are set. Planning committees develop indicators to measure success. Projects and programs are implemented. It is a well-intentioned effort.

Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of the approximately 150 people in the convention center space for this meeting, were people I like to refer as professional meeting goers. Most of those who were not in this category, were college or high school students. The professionals in the room were people whose jobs led them there. They were employed in philanthropy, social services, education, or healthcare. They were haves, whose job it was to help the have nots of the community.

Though the group was not completely homogeneous, or lacking in other types of diversity, it was clearly not an effort that sought to amplify the voices of the poor or marginalized folks in the community. Nobody was talking about real grassroots community organizing as a strategy to meet the goals expressed in their vision for a healthier, more vibrant community.

The unemployed were not in conversations about workforce development. Low income residents were not identified as assets in gaining a richer understanding of issues challenging the community. Service providers and “experts” were defining and deciding strategies. That’s a problem.

Here are a few things you can do to avoid perpetuating classism in your efforts to create change:

  • Personally invite low income people to participate from the beginning of your efforts. It isn’t enough to simply say that the public is invited.
  • Take a look at the processes that you use for things such as communication, scheduling, and direct action. Is there a privileged class bias built in? Are you including guidance from those on the margins? Are you providing opportunities for collaborative leadership?
  • As you plan, are you creating ‘safe spaces’ where everyone feels as though they can speak in confidence, and in complete honesty?

We have to be deliberate in reaching out to, and including people on the margins of the community.  They provide perspectives that people in more privileged classes cannot know. The forgotten, and seemingly invisible people among us have insights and understanding that will inform more effective change strategies. But, we will never tap into that unique knowledge and wisdom unless we extend an invitation to join us.

Balancing Charitable Maintenance with Actions that Achieve Real Social Change

We are frequently challenged by issues that divide our time, resources, and energy between short-term maintenance of symptoms, and strategic organizing around a real solutions to deeper social problems. For example, soup kitchens and food shelves do not solve the problem of persistent malnutrition. They are critically important, and potentially life-saving maintenance strategies, but they do not begin to get to the core of the issue of poverty.

The temporary solution, and the permanent solution have a complex relationship. The temporary fix frequently has a charity approach. The implementation of this approach often occurs without an eye to broader social change. For instance, if you are motivated by the Bible, and Matthew 26:11 says ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ then you may simply feel that it is your Christian duty to be charitable to a permanent class of needy poor people. Further complicating matters is the fact that the short-term charity is a quick exchange that makes the benefactors feel good about themselves. The complex unraveling of causes and options that could lead to a more permanent solution, just seems like hard work – because it is.people-875379_640

The permanent solution requires a commitment to the belief that the so-called “needy” have paths out of poverty. Identifying and navigating those paths requires political will, and investment in low income people’s abilities to be productive, gainfully employed residents of the community.

So what does all of this have to do with leadership? Let’s return to the example of hunger.

Who is actively working on the issue of hunger in your community? Was your immediate response organizations that are involved solely in hunger relief? Probably. People need to eat every day. Hunger, as a phenomenon, is a daily concern. Hunger, as a social issue, however, requires a simultaneous focus on increasing the wealth of individuals and families who have less money than other people in our communities.

Leaders engage in strategic planning. They need to know who is already participating in related work, and whose intellectual, relational, natural, and financial assets have yet to be leveraged to achieve their common goal.

Malnutrition, hunger, and related concerns are all most effectively addressed when we see them as community development, workforce development, and economic development issues. It’s simple, people with more money overall, have more money to spend on food. So by all means, feed people. Treat them with dignity, and recognize their humanity. Your efforts, however, must also be complemented by plans to increase the wealth of those same people as part of a sustainable solution to the challenges to seek to overcome.

When Does Getting Credit Matter?

“In life you must often choose between getting a job done or getting credit for it.”
– Leo Szilard, physicist


Under what circumstances does it matter that you (individually, or your organized group) get credit during a process of creating change? When does that recognition help? When might it become a barrier to building support?

In an earlier post on evaluation, I mentioned the idea that it is often important to focus on contribution, rather than attribution. This a similar idea. Small, often very brave acts that complement, or build upon other small acts, all lead to the ultimate success of an effort to create change. When you are trying to give a variety of stakeholders a sense of ownership of an idea, or a goal, following just one “leader” can be disastrous (especially if that leader is self-proclaimed).

Generally speaking, building the level of trust that is necessary to accomplish increasingly greater goals, requires frequent recognition of everyone’s contributions. This one of the secret’s to effective leadership – the strategic leveraging of many peoples’ strengths in a manner that creates collaborative leadership.

I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating – it is relatively easy to organize people in opposition to something. It is much more difficult, however, to organize them to create the unfavorable thing’s replacement. Separate, independent stakeholders acting to get rid of an unjust, or unfair policy or program, should have a specific, fairly detailed replacement for the problematic policy or program in mind as they deliver their case for support of change.

Consider cases throughout history where people have taken to the streets to protest oppressive regimes, only to find that the overthrown despot has simply been replaced by another tyrant. Those demanding change have greater leverage if their outrage is not simply considered generalized opposition. If they can say that their collective indignation is united in its support for specific changes, then acknowledgement for their specific role as change agents is important, because they were not simply anti-status quo; they were advocating a very explicit change.

Getting credit is less important when people are organizing, and creating coalitions. It becomes considerably more important when the prospect of change becomes inevitable, and people are expecting the vision created from their shared values. When you can say, “here is the change we’ve been demanding,” it is far more powerful than saying, “the bad thing is gone, maybe the next thing will be better.”

A quick note about movements

We may repeat the awful revolutionary history of the 20th century because of the vulnerability of social movements to demagoguery.
– Todd Gitlin

There are many NGOs, nonprofit organizations, foundations, and other organizations with paid staff, that are seriously interested in promoting various types of social change, or policy change. The political will to make that change happen usually requires a movement; one that becomes so broad, and so deep,that the imagined change seems inevitable.

If the only people at the table talking about how changes must occur are people being paid to be at that table, then there is not what I would describe as a movement. The ONLY way to tell if you are really involved in a movement is when there are people around that table who are there not because they are getting paid to do so, but who are there because they are so passionate about the issue in question, that it is a moral imperative for them to be there. Not acting is not an option for them.

Leadership for change is about organizing, and supporting those people. French historian, Fernand Braudel once said,”History may be divided into three movements: what moves rapidly, what moves slowly and what appears not to move at all.” Leaders must recognize that people always want rapid change, but that persevering through change’s often slow process is what will occupy most of their time. The people who will get you through those slow, often agonizingly frustrating times, are the people for whom acting on their values is not a choice.

Learning from Small Numbers

I am not a big fan of inferential statistics. In the USA, where I live, I believe that the widespread reporting of survey results is the second greatest contributor to the deterioration of democracy (the infusion of obscene amounts of money into the political process being #1). People hear or read that candidate A, or ballot question Y, has a double-digit lead in opinion polls, and little by little they begin to disengage from the process. The inferential statistic is treated like a big data pronouncement of a political inevitability.

There are times, however, when small bits of data representing a full data set, can serve as reminders that you need to check your own assumptions on a periodic basis. Take this website for example. My experience in writing about the concepts and ideas explored here is limited to my perspective as an American. This site’s analytics regarding the country of origin of its visitors, provide a good case for small, but complete sets of numbers.

In 2015, non-U.S. readers compromised 30% of the visitors to this site. So far in 2016, 59% of my readers have been from outside the United States of America. The U.K, Romania, and Brazil, are obviously very different places. They are also three countries with a high representation in my readership. Unless all of these readers are simply interested in analyzing leadership, and change agentry in the U.S., my paying attention to the universality of the strategies that I recommend is probably a good idea.

I am well aware that leading social change is tied intimately to the realities of local culture, and to place-based historical context. If you are a non-U.S. reader of these pages, please feel welcome to share your realities, along with your wisdom, and your questions, in the comments of this blog.

Change Happens at the Center

We tend to think of change as something that happens at the margins. That’s why people use phrases like “the leading edge,” or “pushing the envelope.” If we are deliberately acting to make social change, however, that change happens at the center. Experienced community organizers know this. It’s why they spend time with people in the middle. Let me illustrate how this works.

us vs themTake any issue; polarizing or mundane. We are led to believe that there are two sides: for and against; us and them; red state blue state; you get the picture. Painting this less complex picture is easier for both zealous advocates, and lazy reporters. It makes for good drama. When it comes to change, you will rarely get the people deeply rooted in the “them” side to flip 180 degrees to the “us” side (or vice-versa).

twoWe know for a fact that this is not a complete picture. There are many people who are, in fact, neutral. They may simply be unaware of an issue. They may be conflicted and ambivalent,  or they could just be apathetic.

threeThere are also individuals who are passive in their support for us, and people who passively support them. The people in this category fall in a continuum of varying levels of commitment as well.

fourThe key to creating the change that you want to happen, is to spend less time where there is little return on the investment of your time — hurling verbal bombs at the folks who will never change their minds. What you want to focus on is moving people over just one position on the chart, beginning with the people who passively support your cause. The smallest of things can move pieces of the middle.

People’s personal experience guides their opinions. Their experience also defines their self-interest. If you understand this , and organize around this principle, eventually, a tipping point of sorts makes the movement toward change unstoppable.