British Army 1st Mechanized Brigade on Operation HERRICK 18, Afghanistan (Crown Copyright, 2013)

Former British Officer on Secrets of Influence

Insights on Behavioural Change from Global Influence

Global Influence is a British company specialising in audience analysis, strategic communication and behavioural change founded by Sven Hughes. Warfare.Today is privileged to bring you an insight into their work with an article from Global Influence’s Director of Operations, James Monckton, a former Captain in the British Army.

How Understanding Influence Influenced My Life

Captain (rtd.) James Monckton, Director of Operations, Global Influence

About four years into my army career, I made the unusual move from the infantry – where I had served on the ground in Afghanistan – to psychological operations, information operations, and influence operations. It was when I was serving abroad in this latter capacity that I learnt my most important lesson to date: that the wide application and true power of ‘influence’ is underestimated by almost everyone.

For the purpose of this article, I am going to make two fundamental assumptions. Firstly, that you want to influence a situation, person or community. Secondly, that you want to change or maintain a particular target audience’s behaviour or opinion. (For brevity, I will just refer to behavioural change, but the same approach can also be used to change opinions).

With that said, here is the method for making the pen mightier than the SA80.

Lessons on Influence

Properly identify a desired end state from the beginning, and work backwards. Firstly, identify whether you are trying to effect behavioural maintenance or behavioural change. From that, you can identify the exact role that influence needs to play throughout your campaign. Ensure that the end state you identify is actually aligned to the effect that you want to have. People often rush to this conclusion and consequently fail to identify the most appropriate strategy from the outset. You need to keep your desired end state front of mind in order to ascertain whether your campaign is working effectively. The world of influence can often become blurred and confusing. By having a previously identified desired end state, you can more easily maintain purpose and strategic direction.

Plan for catastrophic success. While I was serving abroad, I spoke to an American General in an Operations Room that I was visiting. He told me, “You Brits are phenomenal at planning for the worst [with mitigation measures and contingency plans] but you never plan for catastrophic success. Where is your f***ing optimism?” What he meant was we needed to improve our exploit capability, and start to capitalise on all of our successes, no matter how small. We are brilliant at planning for the worst and hoping for the best. But timeliness and agility are critical when it comes to strategic communications and influence. The more you can exploit catastrophic success – in a timely fashion – the more you can influence.

Understand the target audience and invest in listening. Thorough understanding of the situation and the key target audiences is the foundation on which influence is built. This understanding must include the identification of the present psychological levers, and how they can be manipulated to effect behavioural change. If you truly understand a given problem, you will discover the best ways to influence. To adapt an old saying from the army, ‘Time spent listening is seldom wasted’. The more you invest in listening, the more you will understand, and therefore the more you will be able to influence.

Peel back the onion. Identify who or what influences the key influencer. It is not sufficient to say that ‘Target A is behaving irrationally and is most likely being influenced by those around him / her’. We need to develop this more robustly. Who or what is actually and tangibly influencing the target? Once you have discovered this, work it back further. Who or what is influencing the key influences and influencers? Keep peeling back the layers until you have identified as many influencers and influences as possible. When it comes to your intervention campaign, this will provide you with significantly more access points, and increase the likelihood of campaign success and message propagation.

Dominate the narrative. By controlling and dominating the narrative, you are far more likely to achieve your desired effect. Take the dominating effect of Da’esh (or ISIS) propaganda as an example. Fighting against them, we were on the back foot from the beginning. Da’esh’s perceived strength was their dominance of the domestic media, mostly achieved through brutal implementation of fear campaigns. Additionally, they have been able to dominate the international media because we have inadvertently spread their message for them. Our proliferation of their messaging was one of the greatest providers of power and influence for Da’esh leadership. Even by labelling them as Da’esh or ISIS, we were legitimising their physical presence in the region (State of Iraq and Syria), and legitimising their religious foundations (Islamic). We need to learn from this. In the future, we must be far more considered in our media approach to extremist organisations, ensuring we do not inadvertently help extremist influence to spread internationally.

But perceived strength can also be a weakness. Da’esh’s perceived strength, and their reliance on media, could also be seen as a weakness to be exploited. Their major strengths were in dominating the airwaves, press, conversation, and in restricting internet access (any internet usage that was permitted was strictly monitored). If we are able to remove those strengths – for example, by dominating them ourselves, or using them against Da’esh by influencing the conversations and methods of transmission / radiation – then we could gain significant influence over their perceived dominance.

Truth, unifying narrative, and credibility in the intervention. Messages need at least a modicum of truth in order to truly resonate. A message does not always have to be true, but an element of truth makes for a far stronger campaign. People need to be able to anchor themselves to a verified and true piece of messaging during an intervention in order for the message to really seed, and therefore create genuine behavioural change.

Influence is measurable. One of the first things I encountered in the private sector, with reference to influence, is that the line between Measure of Effect (MoE) and Measure of Performance (MoP) is blurred beyond recognition. In the army, the two are very distinguishable. Too often people are providing clients with MoP without MoE – for example, measuring the reach of a tweet, the radiation of an article on Huffington Post, or the number of ‘likes’ on Facebook. These statistics only show performance, not effect.

In order to fully measure an intervention, the desired effect must be linked to some kind of behaviour change. Whenever we are influencing a person, a situation, a community or a client, we want them to either change their behaviour, or in some cases, maintain it. It makes sense, therefore, to directly measure these tangible effects of a message, rather than just its performance and spread.

Some assume that changes in an audience’s thinking and opinion can’t be measured, but in fact they can. Opinions can manifest themselves in the actions of the person or community – either subconsciously or consciously – or they can transfer into their everyday lexicon. Whether it’s in changes to their language when discussing key issues, or something more noticeable like wearing a seatbelt in the back seat of an Uber (perhaps indicating a change of opinion about car safety). These are the sorts of things we want to measure if we are standing in front of a client and saying, ‘Our influence campaign is working. It has affected the target audience in this specific way.’

The critical component for this is having an excellent baseline knowledge of the given target audience (community or individual), and therefore being able to compare their current behaviours to previous ones. This allows for an accurate measure of how effective a campaign has been.

Without a robust MoE system in place, you can never truly understand the success of your influence, nor be able to pivot and adapt accordingly to ensure your campaigns are resonating.

This list is by no means exhaustive. However, they are lessons that I have learned in the harshest of environments, and with the most significant of consequences. Lessons which have enabled me to influence change where change was previously thought impossible.

James Monckton served in the Coldstream Guards (2012-2017), including an assignment to the 77th Brigade where he specialised in countering violent extremism and strategic communication.

To find out more about their work visit Global Influence.

Image: A soldier with the British Army’s 1 Mechanized Brigade silhouetted against the setting Afghan sun. 1st Mechanized Brigade was the lead formation of British troops on Operation HERRICK 18 in Afghanistan (Crown Copyright, 2013).