John Graham calls the following advice his "Coach's Corner" – more can be found in his books and educational products. Some of the following advice comes from Giraffe Heroes - the change agents honored by the Giraffe Heroes Project for sticking their necks out for the common good (these people know what they're doing!) Some of it comes from his fifteen years as a negotiator and problem-solver for the US Foreign Service. Most of it comes from his subsequent three decades as a citizen activist, and writer, speaker, blogger and coach on the subject of creating change. The Coach's Corner series starts below. Your comments are welcome after each piece.


Why get involved in trying to solve problems in your community or beyond? Why spend all that time and perhaps risk criticism, conflict and failure?

Good questions.

The organization I work with—the Giraffe Heroes Project—honors people who stick their necks out for the common good. These “Giraffe Heroes” are men and women, young and old, from every ethnic and economic background, tackling every kind of public problem you can think...


Some time ago I went back for a reunion to the high school in Tacoma I graduated from. Nearly all my classmates were leading comfortable lives in business or the professions. They talked about their houses and their investments and how well their kids were doing in college. To be blunt, I was bored to death. Except by one man. I’ll call him Tom. He’d been the "slow one" in our class, the butt of jokes. But for 30 years he’d been directing a...


You’ve found a problem you care enough about to get involved. Maybe it’s local or maybe it’s global, but whatever it is, you’re ready to get to work. Now what?

The first step is to do your homework. Yes that sounds boring—but I can’t tell you how many well-intentioned people I’ve seen fail because they jumped into action on their issue before learning enough to guide their steps wisely. You don’t need to become an expert at this point,...


Choosing the problem you want to work on answers the question “What do I care about?” “Violence in my kid’s school” and “Global warming” are examples of problems.

But problems are often broad and diffuse--great for inspiring action but not so great for providing detailed guidance. So after you’ve done basic research on the problem, the next step is to create a specific projectthat helps solve it--something you can plan and implement...


A vision is a mental picture of the result you want to achieve---a picture so clear and strong it will help make that result real. A vision is not a vague wish or dream or hope. It’s a picture of the real results of real efforts. It comes from the future and informs and energizes the present. Visioning is the most powerful tool I’ve witnessed in over twenty years of helping organizations and individuals get the results they want.



In the last Coach’s Corner (#5), I said that a vision is a mental picture of the result you want to achieve--a picture so clear and strong it will help make that result real. I explained why a vision is important and then listed the qualities a vision needs to succeed.

In this article, you’ll learn how to guide a group in creating and communicating a vision for its project. The instructions assume one group all working on the same...


You’ve got an issue, defined a project and created a vision for its success. You’re ready to act. No, not yet. Being a successful agent for change is about more than making the right moves. It’s also about making the moves right.

Public problem solving works best when people deliberate with respect, integrity, and concern for the common good. But that conduct is not what we usually see in the public arena—at any level—and it’s not the...


Coach’s Corner #7 made the point that successful citizen activism often depends on individual people and/or small groups sticking their necks out to trust when no one else seems ready to take that risk. But how do you do that, especially if the people you’re up against are difficult?

Competence builds trust because it sets a standard. Both your allies and your opponents recognize your skills and experience; this makes miscalculations...


Most of the public problems that cry for solutions today are complex and time-consuming. While change efforts are usually started by one or a few motivated people, long-term progress usually requires more than that. And it isn’t just the additional help that’s important. Given the power of the forces any citizen activist may confront, it’s simply too easy for one person to be marginalized. If you’re pursuing a cause by yourself, sooner or...


Nobody wants more structure on a team than is necessary. If overdone, it stifles both energy and creativity. But the need for structure grows with the size and complexity of the work. It’s crucial, early on, for the team to reach agreement on the five elements listed below:

• choosing leadership

• internal communications

• external communications

• decision making

• record keeping

The agreement doesn’t have...


The most important and most difficult aspect of managing a team is dealing with the people on it.

Focus first on relationships. How people get along can be crucial to the success of any team effort, especially if the task you’ve taken on includes stress-producing conflicts or obstacles. The minimum goal is to create working relationships good enough to promote open discussion and ready cooperation.

If all the members of your group...


On a team, match the right people with the right tasks. What people volunteer to do will often be a good guide, although of course it’s also important to make sure that each person has the skills and experience needed to do the job. Matching new people with more experienced people on the team both ensures the quality of the work and provides on-the-job training.

It’s useful for team members early on to talk to the whole team about what...


This essay and the next are addressed to a team of activists. The information here, however, works equally well if you are on your own.

I’m assuming that you’ve identified a problem and created a project. You’ve formed a vision of the results you want. Now what?

Visions are about what you want. What’s still missing is how to get it. A vision that remains only a concept can do more harm than good, by raising expectations that will...


Budgets. If your project requires money, then the funding goal in your action plan must be based on a budget, as in estimated expenses matched against estimated sources of cash income. Here’s a stunner: unless you’re the federal government, the cash income must equal or exceed the expenses. A budget should also list items given to you (in-kind contributions).

All foundations and many major donors will ask to see a budget before they...


Sticking your neck out as an active citizen is no video game---if things get tough, you can’t just press the reset button and start over. Taking a risk for the common good always means daring to act in the face of the unknown and always includes the possibility of hurt or loss. Reactions from peers can be cruel, and conflicts with people who like things the way they are can get nasty, especially if those people are in positions of authority....


There are smart ways and not-so-smart ways to take risks. Smart is better.

Lower the Risks by Getting Better Information about Them

You may find out that some perceived risks aren’t risks at all, or are less significant than you first thought. People were afraid of eclipses when they thought eclipses were caused by an angry god. The risks disappeared when people learned that eclipses were predictable effects of the orbits of the...


Finding common ground with other people does not mean finding absolute agreement. Common ground is shareable ground whose boundaries are marked by a range of actions that all can live with. You and your neighbor may not vote for the same political candidate, for example, but your shared belief in elections, free speech, and the democratic process is common ground.

Negotiating is a rational process for resolving differences and for...


In Coach’s Corner #17 we began looking at some general principles for negotiating and resolving conflicts, including:

1. Winning at the Expense of Others Is a Poor Solution

2. Look below the Waterline.

Next up:

3.You’re in Charge of Your Emotions, No Matter What the Provocation

An out-of-control reaction increases your provokers’ control over you---and may cause a similar response in them, sending all of you over...

resolve conflict2.jpg

In Coach’s Corner #17 and #18, we discussed these general principles:

1. Winning at the Expense of Others Is a Poor Solution

2. Look below the Waterline.

3. Building Trust Is Often the Key to Success

Next up:

4.You’re in Charge of Your Emotions, No Matter What the Provocation

An out-of-control reaction increases your provokers’ control over you---and may cause a similar response in them, sending all of you...