This is the second article in a series on organization development and organizing by Rex Lai, MSOD*. The first was “The TAO of Organizing.” Translated literally, Tao means the way or the path. It aslo stands for Theoretical and Applied Organizing, the system Rex is explaining in these articles. In this discussion we focus on SHIH – the ideal position of potential force.

“Shih, a position of potential force—the position of a boulder perched precariously on a hilltop, say, or of a bowstring stretched taut. A tap on the boulder, the release of the bowstring, and potential force is violently unleashed…What matters is not following pre-ordained steps but placing yourself in shih and giving yourselves options.”
Robert Greene, 33 Strategies of War)

As we have seen (here), Theoretical and Applied Organizing keeps a campaign moving strategically, so that we are always positioning for better options. It is this spirit that builds capacity during a campaign. It leads us towards an improving position of potential force. This is the essence of SHIH.

TAO is a complementary–not competitive–framework that can be applied to any industry or strategy. It expands the range of potential capacities; building Shih. TAO can be used for design in the planning stages, or, in the midst of the campaign, it can be used as an evaluation and intervention device. It can be used to monitor planned design outcomes, allowing for adjustments or interventions. Finally, it can be utilized for a campaign debrief. Deconstruction of the parts and the whole of the campaign can be used to glean insights into what worked and what did not.

Let’s look again at the conceptual model of TAO, made up of Kurt Lewin’s Field Theory of Change; Richard Beckhard’s Change Equation; and Marshall Ganz’s “Breaking the Belief Barriers” emotive states. In doing so, we are visually summarising the Part One of this series.

Being able to see TAO as an integrated framework containing these three foundational theories is important. This represents the whole system—the total field of driving and restraining forces. It recalls the hanging mobile metaphor—how influencing one part of the campaign will have all kinds of consequences—both predictable and surprising.

Principles to guide practice

Any practical campaign model has these two components—principles and practice. The principles are the abstract vision; the practice is the concrete, grounded, ear-to-the-grindstone work. Principles inform practice and practice informs principles; they exist simultaneously together.

What follows next is a series of key principles that I have gleaned from the three foundational theories. These are not presented in sequential order. Each is nested and connected to another, and mutually reinforces the whole.


“Systems thinking” is a way of thinking about life, work, and the world based on the importance of relationships (interconnections). It recognizes the impact and interdependence of different levels of the human system:  IndividualSmall GroupOrganizationCommunity. Understanding the location of the cause of resistance will help us understand how to appropriately intervene. For example, if resistance is popping up in one department, the campaign response—or intervention—does not need to be addressed at company level. There needs to be a proportional response to any given situation.

Our focus should be on the Small Group as the unit of transformation. This may appear to contradict the idea of attending to all levels of the system, however, the small group is the bridge between the individual and the organization. Meaning-making and translation often happens at this level. The small group is the unit of ANALYSIS and INTERVENTION.

It may help to see the entire field as an interplay of different levels/forms of thinking and deciding. In any given workplace, a psychological field (Cognitive, Affective, Behavioral) is occupying a space on this continuum. The cognitive (rational) is important, but so is the Affective (emotional), in influencing motivation (Beliefs, Values, Narrative Framework) to drive Action (behavioral). To put it simply, while we need to win the argument, we also need to capture the passion and visions of the workplace. We need to win the hearts and minds of every employee.

With every action comes a reaction. Applying this law of physics to field theory reminds us of the hanging mobile metaphor. Parts and wholes are integrated as a dynamic system, and must be attended to simultaneously. When one arm of the mobile is acted on (intervention) then an opposite balancing reaction appears (resistance). This is to be EXPECTED and RESPECTED.

The YIN-YANG Principle

Driving and restraining forces are connected as polar opposites with mutually, interdependent forces of compression and tension. The synthesis of these forces creates a field that is in flux at any given moment.

Change is not about simple, direct causation and linear progression. Change is a field of complex causal and correlating forces.

The current state (disorganized and low-engagement) is held in place by a field of driving forces and restraining forces that have a sum total of zero (quasi-stationary equilibrium). Movement and change towards the desired state (organized and participatory engagement) happens when driving forces (D, V, F) are in greater proportion to the restraining forces (R).

Focus on resistance and restraining fields.

Focus on managing resistance calmly and spontaneously by becoming prepared. The old boy scout motto is “Be Prepared”. They practice, learn, practice survival techniques. Improvisational comedians make their performances seem graceful because they practice under certain groundrules. This is structured spontaneity. By taking the time to recognize, inquire, and understand resistance, organizers can effectively and quickly use misdirected energy to the campaign’s advantage.

The ALIGNMENT Principle

In the diagram above we have used the expression “Resonating Drives”. Resonance is rather like surround sound, where the energy conveyed is mutually reinforcing. This involves keeping driving forces in alignment between all levels of the human system: Individual, Small Group, Company, Community.

It also means that multiple-modalities need to be in sync with each other as well as Beliefs, Values, and Narrative, Affective, Cognitive, and Behavioral factors. When we strike a chord, everything is in resonance and harmony. The surest sign that Resonance is occurring is when the campaign message is fed back from the employees.


While we deliberatively design (planned change), the reactions we encounter may be either predictable or surprising. This requires us to emergently design (adaptive change), in order to manage the resistance we face. This is a key point — we are required to master two very different campaign design styles.

“Resonating Drives” represent the proactive, planned, and deliberative type of design thinking we need. This is where we are designing conversations and actions that speak to Marshall Ganz’s “AHUYS” (see Part One). We ask ourselves:

Are we designing themes, conversations and actions around what defines D, V, and F?

How are we taking the time to make sure there is Alignment?

Are all our activities being planned to reinforce each other and create Resonance?

“Managing Resistance” is the reactive, adaptive, and emergent type of design thinking we need. This where we need to observe, monitor, and analyze the forms of resistance that are manifested.

Is the resistance covert or overt?

Is it passive or active?

What is the source of energy?

Is it more appropriate to use yang energy (overcome, push) or yin energy (welcome in, pull, flip)?

It is important to note that in the absence of resistance, we are still practicing and being prepared! Structured practice allow us to be graceful and seemingly spontaneous in our reaction.

The SHIFT Principle

Empowered Shift is a tTransformation process that shifts the collective’s world view. It is nothing short of a paradigm shift, moving employees from being victims to being authors of their own story. It is an inverted shift in the location of cause and effect. Instead of seeing management as the fountains of causation and the impact on employees the inevitable effect (disempowering), the shift seeks to invert the relationship. What if employees were the cause and management was effect? This mindset then liberates and empowers possibilities. It is an internal transition that informs the external changes that employees will make. It is not easy to do and takes practice to master these conversations, but they happen all the time. They are accessible to all of us as long as we are open to authentically engaging.

AHUYS (Anger, Hope, Urgency, Yes You Can!, Solidarity) are the mutually interdependent and polar opposites of AFISI (Apathy, Fear, Inertia, Self-doubt, Isolation).

An “Empowered Shift” is comprised of the 5 conversations that facilitate the shift in thinking from AFISI to AHUYS, along with the ACTIONS that reinforce the shift.

For example, when an activity or action is taken, how is it carried out in such a way as to bring us out of Isolation and teach Solidarity?

While it may be relatively easy to get a union activist to take action – as opposed to coordinating collective activity for supporters that may not be as bold – the campaign needs to take the harder route, if it is to facilitate an empowered shift.

The FLOW Principle

The flow between Resonating Drives (ie the left side of our TAO conceptual model) and Managing Resistance (ie the right side) is a cyclical process. The graceful flow between Resonating Drives and Managing Resistance is the natural  yin-yang of successful organizing practice. As we discussed earlier, this requires a shift in approaches from a deliberative style to an emergent style of design. True grace and seamless flow between Drives and Resistance can be mastered through practice and reflection.

Polarity management is the shift of natural, misdirected energy (resistance as restraining field) towards its polar opposite (change as driving field). In martial arts, this can be observed in the form of the ju-jitsu flip. In using your opponent’s energy, direction, and weight, one transforms this energy into an improved position—or shih. Stay in the present state to build deep awareness in order to recognize and open up possibilities to be the polar opposite. Whether it is in the conversations we have or the collective actions we take, when we manage this polarity we are shifting the energy from Restraining fields to Driving fields.

When polarities are managed well we have:

Anger …………………… replacing ……………..… Apathy

Hope .…..………………. replacing …………..… Fear

Urgency .……………………. replacing .…………… Inertia

Yes You Can! …………… replacing ………….… Self-Doubt

Solidarity ………………… replacing ……….…… Isolation


We’ve covered the main design principles of TAO, and how they contribute to achieving Shih. These principles have to be ever-present in order for successful practice to occur. If we hold these principles to heart, they become the standard operating procedures for the organizing enterprise.

Next, we will go take deep dive into the 5 conversations to facilitate the Empowered Shift. Articles following that will focus on the process through which we deliberately design Resonating Drives and anchor it with anecdotes. We will end the series with how we practice to be able to emergently respond to Managing Resistance. Until then—onward and forward!

* About the author

Rex Lai, MSOD, is an organization/community development consultant who previously had more than 15 years experience working with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). He currently works in management and training capacities in the private, public, and not-for-profit sector, where his work focuses on helping organizations and communities discover their potential to make positive change. Rex is certified to administer and interpret the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®), and has developed expertise in campaign advocacy, community organizing, and political consulting.  He earned his B.S. in Civil/Environmental engineering from the University of Illinois, and received his Master of Science degree in Organization Development from American University/NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Sciences. His TAO system is registered as trademark pending.