"it's like being caught in a whirlpool" participant musing on creating change, from the 2014 Power to Persuade symposium

The 2014 Power to Persuade Symposium was held in Melbourne on the 16th of September.  One of our afternoon sessions, ‘Practical Strategies for Implementation’ focussed on a participatory workshop process, where the symposium attendees were asked to reflect on their work. This article summarises the key themes that arose from this workshop process.

What was great about this afternoon workshop was that we were able to use a process that could synthesise the thoughts and feelings of the group, develop it into a framework, and then use this in a way that will directly contribute to the strategic direction of the Power to Persuade initiative.

This framework has two names. Formally, it is known as ‘The Policy Whirlpool’.  But informally, Lauren Siegmann is calling it ‘Beyond Thunderdome’.


This article is divided into three parts:

Part one: methodology. Describes how we synthesised the information we gathered from the participants. If you are not so interested in the methodology, skip to part two.

Part two: key themes. This section describes the key themes generated in the workshop process.

Part three: future planning. I am currently planning (with others) the Power to Persuade strategy for 2015. The framework that is outlined in part two is going to be invaluable to the strategic development process. This section outlines how I might use this framework to develop the Power to Persuade strategy.


Workshop participants worked at tables in groups of approximately ten. The participants were comprised of staff from a range of community organisations, government, and academia. A cursory scan of the attendance list revealed that participants represented a range of duties and responsibilities in their work and occupied various levels of the workforce food chain.

Each table had a dedicated facilitator who had been briefed about the workshop process. The purpose of the facilitator was to guide the group discussion and then record significant elements of the conversation on a series of post-it notes.

Participants were first asked to write a story that talked about a time they implemented something new and different in their work.  They then shared their stories with the other participants at their table.

The facilitator then lead the table in a group discussion, using the following questions as prompts:

  • What are the common similarities and differences in the stories?
  • What worked and what did not work in each story?
  • What surprised you?
  • What do you still want to know?

The workshop process was designed by Jen Lumsden.

The post-it notes were then collected from each table and it was my role to code the post-it notes and try to tell the story of the workshop through this process. I had about 200 post-it notes and about 45 minutes to code the work and try to make it meaningful.

Below is a photo of me coding the post-it notes on the day.  The orange screen you are looking at is made of parachute silk, and then sprayed with repositioning spray (a spray on glue that is like the glue found on post-it notes). This helps the post-it notes to stay attached on the screen, and allows them to be repositioned while I code.

Hard at work on the wall.

Hard at work on the wall.

The post-it notes in this picture represent about a third of the total post-it notes I coded on the day.

After performing a magician’s trick of making coherent story from these notes in 45 minutes, I then presented my findings to the group. By the time it was my turn to present the findings, it was the end of the day and I was the final speaker. People found what I had to say interesting, but they also wanted to go home.


Below I have developed a summary diagram that I believe best summarises the responses of participants from the workshop. I had the misfortune of having watched the original Mad Max movie the day before I developed this diagram, and so my first thoughts when I finished the diagram were “this looks like an octagon…maybe ‘Beyond Thunderdome’ would be a good name for this?” (I think a lot of seasoned policy makers may find the title ‘Beyond Thunderdome’ appealing.)

The real name of the diagram is ‘The Policy Whirlpool’.

The Policy Whirlpool

Summary of The Policy Whirlpool

In this framework, we start from a place of values.  We use our values to order the world around us, they are our framework for arranging and placing meaning and importance on the actions of others.

We desire that the world align with our values. When the way the world works does not align with our values, we seek to change the world.

People and groups adopt a range of strategies when they seek to change their environment. From a policy perspective, it is the role of the change advocate to be an intermediary between KnowledgeRelationships, and Communication to achieve the desired change.  One post-it note said that this intermediary role felt ‘like being caught in a whirlpool’, which I thought was an apt metaphor.


What we know and what we value are interrelated.

One participant wrote ‘working out what we value is easy, communicating it is hard’.  This diagram assumes that we work out our values after a period of knowledge construction, that is, empirical observation of the world around us. We do this from the moment we are born, and the way we construct knowledge differs for all of us. Our favoured forms of knowledge construction are influenced by our values.  The circle of life.

You will find it unsurprising when I tell you that most workshop participants wrote values that largely centred on themes of fairness and equity; the belief that people should have access to the same opportunities.


It’s not enough to know something, you have to get others to KNOW the same things as you. This is challenging if you don’t share the same values.

The diagram posits that you use knowledge as a tool to persuade others to share the same values as you and in this way contribute to social change. Knowledge can also be used as a tool to check your assumptions about the way the world works.

If another person shares the same values as you, then you can make a direct appeal to their values. If they don’t share the same values, you need to engage in some knowledge construction to try to persuade them that your view of the world is empirically sound.

To do this, you have to be pretty savvy about the way you construct knowledge. Workshop participants noted that you need to engage in variety of knowledge construction activities, because every person has a different understanding of what constitutes evidence. Relying on one form of evidence will result in only effectively reaching part of your audience, the more forms of knowledge you draw on, the larger the audience who will find your argument compelling. It involves having a sophisticated understanding of who needs to know what, how they prefer to know it, and when is the right time for them to know it. You need to draw on your relationships and develop your communication skills to do this effectively.


Relationships are powerful tools and if you have the right ones you can become an unstoppable force. It is hard sometimes to know what is more important, knowledge or relationships. I say this because I have seen some people with some seemingly low levels of knowledge step into some fairly influential roles and create significant change.

Relationships are important because they are the catalyst that can cause your values and your knowledge to become influential. Workshop participants noted the importance of relationships at multiple levels, from the community-level right up to Government. They also noted the importance of partnerships and collaborations. Although, they noted that some organisations sometimes struggle with collaborations in an environment where resources are strained and organisations are competing with each other for financial resources and the ear of the public.

How you choose your relationships will depend on what you value, what change you want to see effected, and influencing the people who can make that change happen.


Communication is the art of taking your values, knowledge, and relationships, and combining these in such a way as to get other groups of people to come on your journey. One workshop participant noted that effective communication is one of the most challenging aspects of the entire endeavour.

The following themes emerged from the post-it notes:

  • The need to capture a range of voices at all levels of the community
  • Using simple messages
  • The balance using emotion and passion versus the desire to be rational and objective
  • Using effective tools to persuade the right people

The whirlpool

To create change you need to use good communication to be an intermediary between competing values, knowledge and relationships.

In this model, we suppose that if you successfully combine values, knowledge, relationships and glue them together with good communication, you will achieve change.  One workshop participant wrote that this process often ‘felt like being caught in a whirlpool’.

Workshop participants wrote that you need commitment, enthusiasm, and discipline to be a successful intermediary. You also need to be realistic about how much change you alone can effect in the context of managing a range of competing agendas.


As stated in the previous paragraph, people noted that significant change takes time. There is a temptation to focus on small, quick surface change, versus longer-term structural change.

The desire for organisations to demonstrate change has a significant impact on knowledge construction. As an evaluator, I often feel the pressure to be able to demonstrate that a particular change was attributable to a particular intervention. And I feel the pressure to do this quickly. In the context of intense competition for limited funding, this is entirely understandable.  But it can also lead to a lot of shoddy knowledge construction, and it puts us back.

Change never happens as the result of one intervention. It is a range of interventions over time, that causes change.  This is why robust relationships, and a respectful attitude to knowledge, are so important.


So what now? I am currently (at the time of writing) in the middle of planning the strategic development process for Power to Persuade, and I intend to draw on this framework. Although the strategic planning process has not yet been approved or finalised, I thought some readers might find it interesting to see my thoughts about how the policy whirlpool framework could be operationalised.

I have recently been reading a great book with the somewhat sober title ‘Health Program Planning, An Educational And Ecological Approach.’[1]  This book has given me some great ideas about how to use the policy whirlpool  framework to plan a strategic development process.

I am going to paraphrase some of their thoughts around planning for health program intervention and adapt it for a social change program.

In my adaptation, the role of a program is to connect the knowledge and beliefs of an organisation with the perceived needs of the public.  A political assessment can help you to identify resources and feasibility of ideas.

Organisational assessmentThe perceived change that needs to happen.

Social assessmentThe public’s perception of that change

Political assessmentThe feasibility of the change

A good program will achieve synthesis of these three assessments in the following ways:

  • Participatory research brings organisation assessment and the social assessment closer together.
  • Public campaigns pull the organisations assessment in line with the social assessment.
  • Advocacy pulls the political assessment in line with the organisational assessment.
  • Community mobilisation pulls the political assessment in line with the social assessment

What I want to do with the strategic planning process is to combine this planning approach with the policy whirlpool. In the end, we will be able to plan a program that incorporate all the elements in the table below.


 ResearchPublic campaignsAdvocacyCommunity mobilisation





We work out how we want to generate knowledgeWe tell people about what we know.We use our knowledge to make a case for change.We use community knowledge to strengthen and validate our messages.










We work out who can help us and who we need to tell our message to.We use different forms of knowledge for different audiences.We change our message according to the audience and who we want to influence.We use our community relationships to bring their message to people of influ

We work out who can help us and who we need to tell our message to.We use different forms of knowledge for different audiences.We change our message according to the audience and who we want to influence.We use our community relationships to bring their message to people of influence.





So, that’s it in a nutshell. I don’t think there is anything revolutionary or life-changing here. The epistemological arguments in particular have been raging for millennia, with no end in sight.

But the process for me has been an interesting exercise in the importance of using a holistic (or, ecological) approach to strategy development, and an attempt to think about how to create change in a way that respects our beautifully diverse and unpredictable society. I hope the simplicity of the models I presented have maybe given you some ideas about how you can plan your programs.

Many times I have participated in workshops, and have wondered if any of the information we willingly handed over to the workshop organisers ever got used in any meaningful sense.  So if anyone is reading this who came to the symposium, I hope it feels good to know we are using the knowledge generated on the day to help make Power to Persuade even better in the future.

If you have any comments on the model, any suggestions for improvement, or just want to ask me anything, you can contact me:

Via email – lauren@stringtheory.net.au

Via twitter - @itsstringtheory

Or comment below!

[1] Authors: Lawrence. W. Green. Marshall. W, Kreuter. Fourth edition, published in 2005.