Action Plans for Social Change

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Creating change is a multifaceted endeavor. There are deeply rooted issues, diverse groups of stakeholders, and many moving parts. In fact, the thought of wrapping our collective arms around an enormous problem, and replacing it with something good seems too overwhelming for most people. The path to success for too many people appears to be unattainable. That is why it helps to have an action plan.

The popular, “Model for Managing Complex Change” credited to Dr. Mary Lippitt, and popularized by Dr. Timothy Knoster, suggests that there are six elements necessary to effectively create change. Those elements are: vision, consensus, skills, incentives, resources and an action plan. (You can see a good general overview of the model written by Sergio Caredda, here.) All of these elements are discussed to varying degrees elsewhere on this site. Right now, I want to focus on the idea of an action plan.

What is an Action Plan?

An action plan essentially answers the important who, what, when, where, and how questions around coordinated activities that bring you closer to your goals. The plan also addresses questions related to logistics, coordination, communication, and resources. If you’re looking for some pretty good “how to” instructions for community-centered action plans, I’d suggest the action plan section on the Community Tool Box website.

Action plans recognize and target specific problems. They implement strategies that must be informed by the people who are most adversely affected by the status quo, and they help to create the awareness, and the conditions for a readiness and willingness to change.

The most effective plans recognize that minds have to change before policies can change. Some of those minds are opposed to your vision, and some are undecided, or simply ambivalent (See the post, “Change Happens at the Center”). So do your homework because as Neil de Grasse Tyson writes, “How strongly you feel about an issue is not itself a measure of the strength of your argument.”


Scale is perhaps the most important consideration in planning actions intended to create social change. The smaller the scale, the easier it is to create a more detailed plan. For example, a plan to get a local council to remove discriminatory policies, is easier than creating a single plan to eliminate all institutionalized racism. The latter requires thousands of smaller plans with a shared vision. Social movements are comprised of countless small actions undertaken with a common goal in mind.

Contingency Plans

Good planning also recognizes that things don’t always happen exactly as they are planned. Just because one part of a plan didn’t go as expected, does not mean that all is lost. It is always useful to do some sort of scenario planning to create options where you might encounter unanticipated events. When you are assessing potential “if this, then that” situations, you are weighing the risks and rewards of certain actions. Consider the implications of individual points of breakdown in your plan. Making contingency planning part of your action plan can keep you moving forward.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” -– Abraham Lincoln