Evolving Toward the Abyss: How We Blunder into Inauthentic Purpose

I’ve discussed why well-intentioned systems begin to embrace a financially/politically driven purpose rather than the value-driven purpose of The Mission. I think it is helpful to understand how such an embrace creeps up on a system and changes every aspect of its evolution.

In an earlier post, I gave a short overview of the kinds of changes that take place in the first few years after support and advocacy systems are formed. Below is a more nuanced and much expanded version of the long term:

Phase One:

  • Initially, Board, managers and staff are recruited from a community that already has a purpose related to The Mission.
  • Keeping the door open seems tedious and unrewarding, and is often thought to be unconnected to The Mission, or even destructive of it (irony abounds in this evolutionary process).
  • Financial disaster, Board and Staff turnover, small time embezzlement, and other results of not having adequate financial controls produce relentless anxiety in managers and board, who are, after all, legally/politically responsible.
  • They shift their priorities to financial or political incentives that seem to offer more stability.
  • The system settles into a pattern where most time and resources at the managerial and board level is focused on money and marketing.

Phase Two:

  • The focus on money and marketing often produces real growth in available resources of all kinds. Salaries increase, reputation in the larger community (whatever that community might be) becomes noticeably improved, the ability to recruit Board members with enough standing that they can help with keeping the doors open, and operational improvements in managing funding, become part of the ongoing evolution  of the system.
  • New staff join the organization because of a combination of commitment to the Mission and the perks of effective financial/political sophistication. These twin motivations shift to favor perks over time.
  • Managers shift their priorities to accommodate the stability and comfort  of effective financial/political sophistication, and The Mission gradually becomes more abstract in managerial/governance work (losing its depth, becoming a meme).
  • Managerial initiatives become targeted to “efficiency” using the ridiculous assumption that you can do the same thing for less money if you just punish people enough. This results in everyone gaming the constraints (eventually including those who came up with the indicators that are now being gamed). In effect, the constraints no longer focus on the Mission, but on various indicators of control (control/power is not Mission-Critical except for managers who no longer think much about The Mission), wealth, and reputation (again, not Mission-critical).
  • People who are part of the system begin to appropriate its resources for themselves because there are more resources and the efforts to produce efficiency result in the actual Mission-Critical Tasks having less and less meaning or connection with the indicators. They become viewed as part of the exploitable system.
  • This cannibalization of The Mission begins to produce more and more behavior that is either clearly exploitation or of such poor quality that the people whose lives depend on The Mission increasingly call out the system.
  • The system responds, not with changes in  its operations, but more sophisticated marketing.
  • The overall result of Phase Two is to make the system more and more brittle (i.e., unable to robustly change in response to crisis). The system response to crisis instead becomes various methods of avoidance, like public relations and lawyers.

Phase Three:

  • At some point, as the twin forces of increasing resources and dwindling connection between resource use and The Mission become generally obvious, the system will begin to attract Board Members, Managers, and Staff who are willing to use the functional versions of the Dark Triad model to enhance their control and rewards without having to pay any attention to The Mission, if they think they can get away with it. This includes the possibilities of direct exploitation of those who are supposed to benefit from The Mission, as in sexual or financial predation.
  • It is at this point that I view the system as a zombie. The system has become a gangster syndicate even if no violence is involved, and the vast majority of people in the system aren’t participants in Dark Triad behavior. The zombie system is much harder to break down than the Mission-Critical one ever was. For example, look at city corruption and ask yourself if the kickback amounts go down when the city has a financial decline.
  • Any stress that effectively threatens the rewards or power that benefit system members will cause its collapse. After all, if you remove money, reputation, and power, there will be nothing left of the system, its Mission having faded into oblivion a long time ago.

These phases are not some script or program. Rather, they are a scaffold to help you grasp why good missions eventually disappear. The reality is that any human organized system (start-up, corporation, public agency, non-profit, soviet style bureaucracy, western public bureaucracy) that values money, reputation, and/or power will follow the contours of this evolution, though the details will change, and the kind of functional Dark Triad tactics that are successful will differ. This does not mean that we can’t do anything to preserve The Mission. It means that we can’t count on system evolution to protect that Mission. (Later, I’ll post on mission-supportive actions.)

See the Wikipedia article on Zugzwang for more insight into the drivers of this kind of malignant evolution.

Next: An Example about Dark Triad Corruption of the Authenticity of The Mission

 

How the Dark Triad Corrupts Support and Advocacy Systems

The dark triad of Machiavellianism, Psychopathy, and Narcissism arise in complex adaptive systems (and our specimen support and advocacy organizations) as threads of meaning in the evolution of the system. They are not separate paths, but can express themselves varyingly, and perhaps are best seen as a coherent interactive bundle of meaning that shifts in impact with change in the context.

They can be consciously fostered by leadership and governance ideologies, or can operate as system attractors without seeming to have any coherent conscious awareness.

I will use a meme as a placeholder for the meaning of each thread:

  • Machiavellianism: The meme is “gaslighting”. This thread is the use of strategic deceit to secure advantage for the system.
  • Psychopathy: The meme is “hyperrational self-interest”. This thread is the ignoring (to the point of obliviousness) of the consequences for people, animals, plants, and artifacts of actions to achieve system advantage.
  • Narcissism: The meme is “arrogant self-interest”. This thread sees the meaning of the contextual incentives narrowly in terms of the system’s advantage.

As you can see, these threads are deeply connected to one another. While there may be value in parsing the distinctions between them for the diagnosis of personality disorders, it makes more sense here to view them as available interactive heuristics that the support and advocacy organizations (or any complex adaptive system) may use to privilege system advantage over The Mission. This use of these tools is a dramatic step in the corruption of any organization and often entirely unnoticed until its impact is deeply embedded in the dynamic of the system. In effect, the system being considered no longer has a meaningful Mission.

I tend to imagine systems drifting (purposely or otherwise) into the realm of dark triad decision-making as zombies. In fact, the mythos of zombies in the arts and media is vivified (if that is the word) by corruption as its core characteristic. Instead of brains, the single-minded driver of such organizations is system advantage.

This overview needs to be fleshed out (those zombie tropes just keep surfacing) through a specimen example of the path followed in the Dark Triad evolution of the system, and system examples of how the Dark Triad corrodes the ability of a system to authentically pursue its Mission.

Next: Evolving toward the Abyss: How We Blunder into Inauthentic Purpose

 

The Dark Triad of Evolving Bureaucratic Systems

In addition to what I described as the typical bureaucratization of support and advocacy systems in my last post, there is a darker path that any system development can take in a facilitating context. We can understand this path by using a metaphor borrowed from a social media trope about personality characteristics called the Dark Triad:

  • Machiavellianism
  • Psychopathy
  • Narcissism

We aren’t going to view these as part of some continuum of personality disorders. Instead, we will look at them as corrupting forces driven by larger socio-political environments that aren’t necessarily connected to the personalities of people in the system. Rather, the forces are incentive-driven contexts for decision-making by actors in the system, actors who wouldn’t qualify under the criteria of the DSM as persons with these disorders.

In a word, the forces create “functional” versions of the disorders, guiding and enforcing decisions that mimic the kinds of decisions persons with these disorders might make. Because these are not medical concepts, but enabling and governing constraints in systems, we will use simple abstractions to define them. We don’t need to meet the DSM criteria to understand how such decision-making affects the evolution of support and advocacy organizations.

Next: How the Dark Triad Corrupts Support and Advocacy Systems

The Corruption of System Purpose

As many people have noted, the purpose of a complex adaptive system is what it does (its dynamic process of evolution), not what it says it does (its marketing). Over time, what a system does changes in many ways.

All support and rights systems have two missions:

  • Why the system was created (usually called The Mission).
  • Survival (keeping the “doors open”, if that metaphor still means something during a pandemic).

The evolution of the system over the near-term tracks the evolving relationship between these two forces:

  • In the early part of that evolution, especially in small nonprofits, there is a hard learning curve about why you have to pay attention to money when you become part of the organization because of that attractive advocacy mission. The “shock of funding realities” causes the system to be shy of making financial mistakes and gradually erodes the place of The Mission as the foremost force in system evolution.
  • Ways of buffering the system begin to be developed, largely driven by this anxiety about resources. Resources, that might have been used for mission-critical activities, are used (or invested) in protection of the system from dissolution. For a benign example, the creation of a reserve, to deal with the reality of slow funders and grant based support, is a common way to buffer the system.
  • Because it is the managers of the system who are anxious about being blamed for financial failures, keeping the doors open gradually replaces The Mission as the field within which managers create their plans and cognitive/emotional priorities.
  • Along with this dominance of focus on resources, there is inevitably some external cycle of funding gain and loss which creates pressure to have ongoing administrative controls to preserve funds by reducing the cost of The Mission. The usual rubric for this is “efficiency”. Thus, the expansion of administrative/managerial control over the priorities of The Mission gradually leads to expanding the scope and detail of administrative actions as a proportion of the total activities of the system. In other words, bureaucracy expands over time, and is justified by the highest priority of being “efficient”.  This is interesting moral choice since bureaucracy keeps expanding and costing more as this process evolves. In and of itself, bureaucracy contributes nothing to the direct fulfillment of The Mission. The justification for this expansion is always the protection of The Mission as the outward marketing face of the system’s self- protection.
  • It is important to note that the resources used to preserve the system are taken directly from funds that could have been used for The Mission. This process of removing resources from direct support of The Mission to preservation of the system is an example of the  classic “moral hazard” found as part of economic activity. In this case, the risk taken by the managers is to The Mission. As time goes on, all governance aspects of the system face this moral hazard. Though not universal, it is common for the management and governance processes of the system to stop thinking about the Mission and assume that their decisions are automatically supportive of The Mission.
  • I call this process corrupting. This is not simple criminal or moral corruption, like bribery or embezzlement. The corrupting force is in the head of every person who makes decisions about the use of resources, which is everyone, including employees. How far the corruption evolves is unique to the system dynamic over time, and is fractal.
  • Fractal simply means that all decisions regardless of level in the system support or impede the corruption. Notably, this includes decisions made for political gain.
  • There need not be a high level of corruption for this evolution to profoundly affect the system. My observation of small nonprofits over the last half-century, suggests to me that a level of 5% in corrupt transactions means that all transactions in the system are tainted, even though the 95% are not corrupt, or not done by people who are behaving corruptly. Typically, if both explicit and implicit bureaucracy are included, the minimum of such corruption can be estimated at 15%.
  • Note that there is no simple, easy solution to this corruption process. Instead, reflection on the impact of financial bureaucratization on The Mission must be embraced as the highest priority for governance and management. It almost never is. Even when it is embraced, bureaucracy is tuned to prevent meaningful impact by such reform.

The reality of corruption of Purpose has powerful lessons for the practice of advocacy, as I suspect most readers already know. But there is another layer to this corruption that evolves in large systems of support for people with disabilities and we need to understand how it evolves to truly understand the implications for our advocacy in the face of such corruption.

Next Time: The Dark Triad of System Evolution

Long Term Advocacy Engagement and SOF Affordances

The power of advocacy arises from engaging the anomalies in the SOF’s evolution. These anomalies are affordances for effective change. Anomalies means weak signals from the SOF that are not in alignment with its stated purpose or mission. Anomalies are not just hypocrisy about mission values.  They are programs, funding sources, political connections-anything in the SOF ecosystem that doesn’t support its mission. There are always a large number of anomalies in any complex adaptive system, including our advocacy organizations. If we wish to make use of them, we have to be able to perceive them.

The nature of weak signals makes them easy to ignore if they make us uncomfortable, or if recognizing them requires us to make unpleasant or difficult changes.  Also, we are taught almost from birth, to believe that strong signals, and only strong signals, are worth our time or effort. (Note that common signals are viewed as strong whether they are or not.) Strong signals are viewed the way they are because there is an assumption that the power of a signal to, say, punish or force change, is related to its strength.

There is just enough truth to this assumption that we believe we can safely ignore weak signals. We can’t-at least if we want to have an impact on our common future.

The other problem with focusing on the processes associated with strong signals in an SOF is that they are the ones best defended. If we try to use strong signals and those internal processes that support the reproduction and expansion of the SOF that those signals represent, the system will have no trouble mobilizing resources to oppose our change efforts.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t confront the underlying processes of an oppressive or discriminatory SOF. I’m saying that changing those core processes will require a long term effort and a lot of resources.

We can also think of going after weak processes by identifying them in weak signals as a way to force the SOF to use resources to counter our change work that the SOF would prefer to use in support of its core strong processes. The tendency for the SOF will be to try to minimize the use of these core resources which will, in turn, slow an effective response to our advocacy. In fact, there are advocacy techniques which disguise the real potential impact of our advocacy to exploit this SOF tendency.

In the context of our engagement with an SOF over the long term is the potential for corruption of the SOF purpose and, frankly, for the corruption of our advocacy purpose.  We need to understand how this corruption works in order to not lose the thread of our advocacy purpose.

Next: Corruption of System Purpose

Complex Adaptive Engagement and Advocacy

If our change vehicles are to be complex adaptive systems engaged over the long term with those complex adaptive systems we call “Wicked Problems”, we need to understand how the evolution of this engagement is driven.

The deepest driver for advocacy in our community is the web of meaning we share that sees an individual as unique, and the purpose of advocacy as support for the realization of life’s possibilities through personal autonomy and membership in a supportive community. The old school label for such an intuition is “personalism”, which has a long secular, religious, and philosophical history, and has been recreated in every generation by some community for its members. Our disability community is the latest, and, I believe, has gone the deepest in making the personalist vision practical.

Person-centered planning is an expression of this, as are support concepts like intervenors and personal assistance. Even a technologically focused conceptual framework like assistive technology is only meaningful in the context of a personalist perspective.

On the other hand, the deepest driver in the evolution of wicked problems and the vast majority of support organizations that are the Systems of Focus (SOF) for our advocacy, is the authority and responsibility they have for the resources within them.  This way of thinking about resources leads SOF to prioritize preservation and expansion of resources as their purpose, not the publicly stated mission.

Remember that the purpose of a system is what it does, not what it says it does. When we are advocating for the use of these resources on behalf of ourselves, others, or a community, we understand that use to be in service of personalist outcomes. When a system is engaged with us during our advocacy, it views the engagement as a negotiation about the distribution of the SOFs rightfully held resources (all types). Our advocacy is viewed as an unwarranted disruption of their  control and disposition of those resources.

Thus the conflicts that arise from advocacy.

If we activate an advocacy community through organizing, we build the possibility of long term-engagement, and at least some possibility of a renegotiation of our advocacy as part of normal reality, instead of a one-off intrusion by advocates into areas where we have no role. This change in how we and the SOF engage is less an epiphany than a change in ritual or a habit or a state of mind that makes the engagement easier to carry out, but does not change the fundamental purposes in our mutual engagement.

When such engagement becomes typical, we can invest our advocacy with more sophistication, understanding our SOF more deeply in its complexity and drive for the control of its resources.

Next: Long Term Advocacy Engagement and SOF Affordances

Third Order Advocacy: Organizing

Although Organizing to support advocacy has a long history of framing advocacy efforts, the easy availability of organizing models (and their diversity) undermines their usefulness.

The Midwest Model (see the Midwest Academy website), for example, assumes that an organized advocacy effort can identify an individual or a role capable of changing the current situation to an outcome valued by the organized advocacy effort. There certainly are many solutions that can be achieved through such an operational approach, and organizing needs to be a catalyst for operational success.

But, as we are starting to understand, many of the foundational problems that we face in the disability community, and intersectionally, across the full range of marginalized identities, are “wicked”. They arise through the ongoing and constantly evolving process of complex adaptive systems.

Wicked Problems don’t have authorities in them  that can change any specific issue to what we want.

Because wicked problems are complex and adaptive, there are a very large number of theories that can be generated to explain any such problem we might face. Furthermore, we will not be able to engage the wicked problem without SOME theory. But, there is no “correct” theory of the wicked problem. There are only different ways to engage the wicked problem system, each of which will cause some change in the Wicked System and adaptation by the System without necessarily resolving the issue.

This means that, while we might use a Midwest Model operational plan to engage with a specific issue, we will need to have a sustainable organizing vehicle for the long term if we expect to produce more systemic change.

Which is to say, that our organizing effort must become a complex adaptive system, and  we want it to be adaptive in its engagement with our chosen wicked problem.

Most organization work is driven by tactical (FOA) or operational (SOA) frameworks. Though necessary, such causal planning models are not sufficient to engagement with wicked problems. How we bundle our tactical, operational, and organizing efforts to impact wicked problems is the subject of the next post.

Next: Complex Adaptive Engagement Over the Long Term…

 

 

The Basic Practice of Second Order Advocacy (SOA)

Second Order Advocacy takes the tactics of First Order Advocacy and turns them into an Advocacy Operation. You can understand an Advocacy Operation as a coordinated web of FOA Tactics.

A System of Focus (SOF) has weak relationships with far more than just the legal/rights community that we typically use in a basic advocacy effort.

Remember that the basic tactic in advocacy is to disrupt a weak relationship. If your disruption is effective, the SOF still has to expend resources and time to rebalance it.

Some other kinds of weak processes to consider for disruption:

  • Local elections that affect the funding of the SOF.
  • Disrupting a part of the SOF that isn’t the focus of your advocacy (i.e., going after regular education disability discrimination when you are trying to change special education policy).
  • Making more work for the boss of the point person you are advocating with.
  • Getting your issue into the press.
  • Forcing the SOF to follow “all the rules”. This works best if you segment the multiple complaints, so that they seem to pop up without notice.
  • Filing complaints with multiple organizations, using related but different rights frameworks.
  • Pressuring local officials or allies for help.

By combining various efforts to disrupt over a period of time, you can create an operational campaign. This is especially effective if you can overlap the threads of disruption so that individual threads don’t get resolved before a new thread develops.

Next Time: Third Order Advocacy-Community Organizing

Second Order Advocacy (SOA)

We use First Order Advocacy (FOA) to destabilize and disrupt a weak process of the SOF related to disability education legal requirements with which the SOF must comply in order to legitimately use funding (and many other resources like staff, equipment, marketing, etc.). The SOF needs to effectively support these strong processes to reproduce itself successfully. Successful reproduction of the strong processes is necessary to assure the benefits of being part of the SOF, whatever they might be.

The legal requirements of special education are not the only type of weak processes the SOF must accommodate. The resources that the SOF might use to counter a legal disruption are not the same kind of resources the SOF would need to counter a disruption not based in special education law or Section 504.

Remember that the SOF countering a disruption doesn’t somehow restore the resources lost in doing so. There is no simple way to put the resources back into their “best” use in support of strong processes of reproduction. If the conflict (or conflicts) continues for a long time, there will be a more or less permanent redistribution of the available resources that were used.

For example, in the early years of special education advocacy, SOF tried first to negotiate with advocates using bureaucratic methods such as obfuscation, then hired attorneys for specific disruptions, then had a permanent legal presence through retainers, and now mostly hire counsel that have specific special education law expertise, as well as maintaining the retained resources. Each of these steps makes the resources involved unavailable for other purposes. They become the price of doing business and allowing some level of accommodation with the unavoidable presence and actions of advocates.

Once committed to the accommodation of a particular stakeholder, the resources are no longer “fungible”. The SOF will have much greater difficulty shifting significant parts of the resources to any other purpose, even if there is a real need by the strong processes of the SOF to do so.

Second Order Advocacy (SOA) takes these realities into account. Effective advocacy becomes premised on the idea that all stakeholder relationships that are part of a weak process accommodation with the SOF are potential sites of disruption.

Next Post: The Basic Practice of SOA

What the SOF Is, and How We Engage It

The System of Focus (SOF) might seem to be an easy concept to use, but it isn’t. Because “Everything is connected”, we choose the system we focus on, and that focus doesn’t eliminate all those connections.

The System of Focus is a real system in our current understanding of Systems. That is, the SOF is a Complex Adaptive System (CAS). It behaves as it does because the relationships between its parts drive the state of the system as a whole. It is not a machine, and it can’t be changed the way we change a machine (changing parts one at a time). The apparent stability of a SOF is an illusion, and the stability is only maintained by active reproduction by the SOF.

A Simple Model

We can conveniently view the SOF as two circles, an inner one that contains all the strong processes that reproduce the system, and an outer one, consisting of the relationships the SOF has with its stakeholders in the real world. Strong processes reproduce the SOF, weak processes make small demands on the SOF.

The ordinary way the SOF deals with the stakeholders who are making weak demands on it is by negotiating an efficient predictable relationship with each stakeholder. The weak processes that are important here are the ones the SOF can’t just ignore, the ones the SOF must accommodate. These can be funders, political actors, and, of course, laws, regulations, policies imposed from the outside, and direct constituencies that it does not employ (like parents and students in an education system).

These Weak Processes, once accommodated, can be ignored, even though there is a small continuing resource cost to the SOF to accomplish this.

Enter the Advocate. Using the laws that allow access by our advocacy community to the resources available to the SOF, we disrupt the low cost, easily ignored relationship that the SOF has under ordinary circumstances with its stakeholders. Suddenly, our demand is requiring attention, time, and resources from the SOF that won’t be available to be used for some unpredictable period to reproduce the strong processes of the SOF. The way this is done by the advocate is to use the simple abstract script described in the last post:

  • Disrupt the ordinary process of the System of Focus (SOF) by challenging some part of its typical behavior.
  • Threaten to cause a bigger and less controlled change in the SOF if the advocacy demands aren’t met.
  • The SOF chooses to make a smaller adaptation to avoid a bigger, uncontrolled one.

This script operates in all First Order Advocacy, using anything from a simple verbal complaint to a federal class action lawsuit. Regardless of the scope of the disruption, the leverage for change is the same.

I will expand this model to show how we might also expand the impact of our advocacy with an SOF. I call this expanded model Second Order Advocacy.

Next Post: Second Order Advocacy