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John Sumser, Principal Analyst at HRExaminer and CEO of TwoColorHat

I read widely. I try to keep a constant flow of material that I disagree with (or disagrees with me) running across my desk. Critical thinking depends on not drinking a steady flow of ‘your own champagne’ (or drinking your own bathwater, or eating your own dogfood). It depends on being willing to examine your own assumptions.

Very little has been demonized as intensely as Saul Alinsky‘s “Rules for Radicals“. The book is a guide to effective political organization for groups that don’t feel like they have it. Subtitled “A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals”, the text describes the process of accumulating and harnessing power.

One of the extremely conservative newsletters I read, sent around a list of Alinsky’s basic rules/principles. From what I can tell, there really isn’t a political slant to Alinsky’s theory. These things are true regardless of your political persuasion (like Machiavelli). Anyone who wants to use or harness power (In or out of organizations) ought to be familiar with the basic ideas. 

Think of them as basic political principles.

Much of the literature about HR refers to its constant feeling of powerlessness. Aching for a seat at the table, wanting to be more strategic, desiring a larger role in defining company direction, HR is often viewed as an overhead tax rather than a serious contributor.

The difference between effective players who drive the enterprise and ineffective players who wish they did might boil down to politics. In my view, politics is nothing more than the actual process of resource allocation. The object of people who accumulate power is to take a larger share of the available resources. Often, it also includes a very healthy desire to expand the pool of available resources. Unlike many, I’m pretty sure that politics is simply ‘what organizations do.’

With that in mind, I wanted to offer the list of Alinsky’s principles. They are worth a read, I promise. My take is that they provide some useful insight for people who want to make their HR Departments more effective. I hope you’ll give me some feedback on that.

Saul Alinsky’s 12 Rules for Radicals  

  1. Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.
    Power is derived from 2 main sources – money and people. “Have-Nots” must build power from flesh and blood. (These are two things of which there is a plentiful supply. Government and corporations always have a difficult time appealing to people, and usually do so almost exclusively with economic arguments.)
  2. Never go outside the expertise of your people.
    It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone. (Organizations under attack wonder why radicals don’t address the “real” issues. This is why. They avoid things with which they have no knowledge.)
  3. Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.
    Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty. (This happens all the time. Watch how many organizations under attack are blind-sided by seemingly irrelevant arguments that they are then forced to address.)
  4. Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.
    If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules. (This is a serious rule. The besieged entity’s very credibility and reputation is at stake, because if activists catch it lying or not living up to its commitments, they can continue to chip away at the damage.)
  5.  “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.
    There is no defense. It’s irrational. It’s infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions. (Pretty crude, rude and mean, huh? They want to create anger and fear.)
  6. A good tactic is one your people enjoy.
    They’ll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They’re doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones. (Radical activists, in this sense, are no different that any other human being. We all avoid “un-fun” activities, and but we revel at and enjoy the ones that work and bring results.) 
  7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.
    Don’t become old news. (Even radical activists get bored. So to keep them excited and involved, organizers are constantly coming up with new tactics.)
  8. Keep the pressure on. Never let up.
    Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new. (Attack, attack, attack from all sides, never giving the reeling organization a chance to rest, regroup, recover and re-strategize.)
  9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.
    Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist. (Perception is reality. Large organizations always prepare a worst-case scenario, something that may be furthest from the activists’ minds. The upshot is that the organization will expend enormous time and energy, creating in its own collective mind the direst of conclusions. The possibilities can easily poison the mind and result in demoralization.)
  10. If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.
    Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog. (Unions used this tactic. Peaceful [albeit loud] demonstrations during the heyday of unions in the early to mid-20th Century incurred management’s wrath, often in the form of violence that eventually brought public sympathy to their side.)
  11. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.”
    Never let the enemy score points because you’re caught without a solution to the problem. (Old saw: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Activist organizations have an agenda, and their strategy is to hold a place at the table, to be given a forum to wield their power. So, they have to have a compromise solution.)
  12. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
    Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions. (This is cruel, but very effective. Direct, personalized criticism and ridicule works.)