Look for trouble

Hot heart, cold mind. Those are attributes of successful activists. They feel passionately about their cause. At the same time, to have any success, they must be coldly analytical. That means dealing with facts, especially facts that are uncomfortable and inconvenient. Here are the roles of research:

To map your environment. To make things happen, you need to know who and where the decision-makers are, and what's important to them. You need to know your access routes. You need to know who opposes you, who competes with you, who can collaborate with you, the costs of coalition. Map these connections.

To develop an answer. What's the most effective change you can make? Research your issue's history. Understand what's worked and what hasn't. Are there analogous issues? What can you learn from their advocates? Is your issue understood and defined correctly? Are the terms exhausted or out of date? Do they look forward or backward?

To understand your audiences. What language do people use when they talk about your issue? Do they feel it's urgent or believe it has little to do with them? What values — like fairness — are bound up with your issue? What emotions, like grief or fear or hope? What calculations of self-interest or tribal advantage? What stories surround it?

To make the most of your assets. Where are you strongest and your opponent weakest? What is the most efficient way to channel your message to key audiences — not only through media, but also through more trusted personal networks? What skills do staff and volunteers already have? Are they deployed rewardingly? How much money have people put in?

To measure your progress. How can you tell if you're moving closer to your goal? What metrics make real sense to measure change? How can these be communicated to others? At what point would you decide to change your approach, message or analysis? (Hint: Challenge your strategy all along. Organize a "red team" to anticipate what opponents will do.)

Polling and message testing are costly. Sometimes, you can take advantage of the research your opponents have done: reverse engineer their campaign and see what you can learn. But to win, you need to define the issue to your advantage. Don't play catch-up. Don't play defense. Always go looking for trouble.