Six Reasons Tactical Thinking is Critical to Effective Action

Happy New Year from all of us at New Tactics in Human Rights! Since 1999, New Tactics in Human Rights has provided human rights activists with resources to become more strategic and effective in their actions; namely through the sharing of strategy, tactics and conversations. These resources have been developed from activists and organizations working on-the-ground throughout the world. As we enter into 2015, I wanted to take a step back and look at how the tactics provided on this site can be an asset and help to frame the way you or your organization approach the challenges you face. Plus, what good is a blog if you can’t do a New Year list!

The more we understand about tactics, the more flexibility we have to set new strategic directions. I am not arguing, then, that tactical thinking or training supersedes strategic thinking, but rather that tactical development enriches strategic thought. (Douglas A. Johnson, 2004)

Douglas A. Johnson, former Executive Director of the Center for Victims of Torture, in our book New Tactics in Human Rights, a Resource for Practitioners (2004) outlined six reasons why tactical thinking is critical to effective action:

1. What we know how to do influences what we think is possible to do; tactics help determine strategy

“When our thinking about how we act is narrowly defined, we restrict our views of what is possible to accomplish.”

2. Different tactics are effective against different targets

“We must learn to tailor our tactics to our targets, finding those that will have the fullest possible impact.”

3. Different tactics appeal to different constituencies

“If the human rights community responds by offering only one or two tactics to engage the public, we will appeal only to the narrow constituency to whom those tactics make sense.”

4. Tactical flexibility is the source of surprise

“As we repeat the same tactics, our adversaries learn to counter them and contain their impact…Creating surprise keeps the adversary off balance. This can lead to mistakes that undermine its position. It can also lead to learning, as the tactic’s target may gain new insight or come to understand the need for positive change.”

5. Tactics teach participants and observers how to engage in the world

Akin to musicians perfecting their craft... “As we practice, the muscles learn how move, giving the brain the opportunity to plan subtle variations and improvements. As we practice, it gets easier.”

6. Tactics are the training systems for engaging participants and allies in the organization’s work

“[Tactics] create opportunities for many citizens to be involved, to learn and to become more committed to the work of the organization or campaign. Involvement on a tactical level is an excellent training ground for younger or newer staff and volunteers.”

Explore our database of tactics or read more from New Tactics in Human Rights, a Resource for Practitioners.