(P5): Creating Possibility Spaces

An ocean tidal pool as an example of a possibility space.

Possibility Spaces are generated by Governing Constraints-not directly, as in a machine, but by, as it were, increasing the likelihood of interaction among what is within the possibility space. The Tidal Pool in the image is a sort of perfect example of the possibility space concept. The life generated in, and adapted to, a tidal pool is uniquely resilient to change, and elegantly adaptive in its response to change because of the exposure to constantly shifting disturbances. Such resilience is the promise of the concept of the “possibility space”.

Possibility spaces are entities that allow the creation of new enabling relationships and the destabilizing of existing relationships:

American Racism: American Racism began (well before there was an America) as an economic machine that generated vast profits for those who could create and maintain the enslavement of human beings and their exploitation for personal gain. But the evolution and expansion of its successful implementation also provided a space for antiracist initiatives. The important thing to grasp from this is that all possibility spaces have within them the possibility of change if we are willing to build enabling relationships that reflect human values and destabilize the ones that don’t. Such resistance doesn’t dissolve the possibility space, but it does force it to evolve and makes it less resilient.

Only a new possibility space can “replace” the existing one. And governing constraints are viciously resilient. Thus, resistance is not a strategy, however necessary it might be to resist. Resistance does force the existing possibility space to age. But, creating a new possibility space is tough.

Jazz: Wynton Marsalis describes the underlying dynamic of improvisational jazz as the abstraction of a melody line, a chord structure, and a rhythm to create an improvisation(s) that asks, “How might these components of a musical entity have played out differently in real-time?” This is an excellent description of a possibility space. This general frame provides a neat way to envision any possibility space as a force for creative and positive advocacy.

The Unavoidable Exhaustion of a Possibility Space: As a possibility space ages, the old enabling relationships (the ones that justified the creation of the governing constraint) become increasingly narrow and the existing relationships become increasingly brittle making small collapses more likely, and resistance more productive.

Assumptions that Weaken Possibility Spaces: When we assume that a system is a machine, we undermine the “possibilities” in the Possibility Space of our advocacy work. The systems we are trying to change commonly operate with the aphorism, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras”. This assumption is also very common in healthcare, and I believe it accounts for a fair number of misdiagnoses and medical mistakes. The reasoning of the aphorism is that the problem you face right now is more likely to be common than uncommon. That sounds reasonable.  But it is based on the idea that the problem space is a set of discrete machine parts. You identify the right part and then replace it.

We don’t actually make a kind of probabilistic judgment that there is a higher likelihood of horses than zebras. We pick horses as the problem and ignore any other possibility until we have completely failed with the horse “hypothesis”. This behavior is reinforced by systems of care or supports that are designed to reduce cost first and use fail-first and cost-based step methodologies as the core of our decision-making. Evidence-based frameworks, treatment protocols, and the euphemism, “Standard of Care”, are all conceptually related to the hoofbeat aphorism. These mindsets guarantee mistakes.

These issues affect our advocacy approaches as well. We become more predictable when we use the same techniques repeatedly to solve advocacy issues. Our targets adapt at various levels (local policies, hearing decisions, court cases, efforts to weaken laws, etc.). Our Advocacy Possibility Space shrinks over time, requiring more resources and more energy to accomplish less valued outcomes.

At the same time, if we use our creativity in pulling together advocacy actions, we can reasonably assume that the system will see horses rather than our advocacy zebra. This can be a real advantage. But it points out that one of our advantages as advocates is the use of novel interaction to destabilize a weak constraint in our target. Novel intentions and valued outcomes create their own possibility spaces and provide us with a new way of looking at the current Advocacy Possibility Space.

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Part 5: Strategic Heuristics

Complex image. See link below image for description and explanation.

Image From  Panarchy: a scale-linking perspective of systemic transformation

Unlike tactical heuristics, Strategic Heuristics aren’t procedures or techniques in the usual sense of that word. Strategic Heuristics are ways of thinking about the context that frames your advocacy initiative. Like tactical heuristics, Strategic Heuristics require practice, but more in the form of reflection, dialogue, debriefing, and similar approaches that try to learn meta-lessons from the planning and results of advocacy action.

The heuristics I’ll explore here include:

  • Creating Advocacy Possibility Spaces.
  • How apparent Constraints create points of Leverage.
  • How the Mindset of Flows produces better advocacy strategies than the Mindset of Things.
  • Using Disability Rights as a Strategic Heuristic.
  • The Recovery Model as a Framework for Community Change
  • Scaffolding
  • Symbiogenesis

There are many other strategic heuristics that you will discover through active advocacy action, reflection, dialogue, and so on.

The image in this slide depicts the nested nature of the Adaptive Cycle and the Aging of every CAS. It is worth reading although it is very abstract. Every advocacy effort that we undertake is embedded in systems above and includes systems within. Because of this, we do not make mechanical plans for measurable outcomes but develop and evolve a strategy that teaches us how to move on.

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(P4): Advocacy Cycles

A small boy walking down a two-track with a small stream of water. He is dragging a stick through the water.

Everything operates in cycles. If you understand the cycles of the system you are trying to change, you can make use of that for improving the effectiveness of advocacy tactics.

A basic cycle of those systems we seek to change is the balancing of exploration and exploitation in seeking valued system outcomes. A simple abstract example will illustrate what this means.

Predators must find food (exploration)  and they must eat it (exploitation). Finding food uses calories, which increases the urgency of the exploitation side of the cycle. Eating food does not by itself help the predator to find more food. So the animal must balance the amount of time spent looking for food with the necessity of eating it. You can think of this as an example of a strategy for dealing with the uncertainty of the future and the scarcity of resources.

Because all kinds of complex adaptive systems face this same environmental demand, their system flow is a cycle. What is important to the system varies depending on where they are in this cycle. In bureaucracies, over time and aging, exploration is entirely reduced to acquiring funding, and exploitation is reduced to internal competition over the control of funding.

For an advocacy example, State Rehabilitation Services Agencies commonly experience high demand for their supports despite chronically low funding. One impact of this is that available support monies fall off more quickly during a fiscal year than the passage of time would suggest they should. So, it’s easier to get expensive supports in the first quarter and much harder to get them in the last quarter of the agency’s fiscal year. There are many variations of this kind of insight:

  • Pushing for a summer hearing in a special education case. The district may have to pay overtime for witnesses from their district to testify in the hearing.
  • Policy change advocacy in the weeks leading up to funding decisions for the supports system. Systems try to avoid scandal when their funding is at stake.
  • Kicking the system when it’s down (say, from a political fight)
  • Etc.

We don’t tend to think of such opportunities as a part of a larger cycle, but they are.

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(P4): Nucleation

A stylized gray-blue picture of how ice crystals form from many particles.

Nucleation is a general term that I use to describe a specific repeated tactic where localized advocacy initiatives are used to maximize global response to the initiative. I know that sounds like a mouthful, so let me explain.

Nucleation is a general term for how, for example, ice crystals grow around dust particles in the air. When there is more than one particle, there are more places for ice crystals to begin to grow.

A nucleation tactic starts an advocacy initiative in several separate locations in a coordinated way without letting the local targets know that there are multiple initiatives. Because bureaucracies have limited resources, their response to advocacy initiatives is to match their resistance to the initiative to the perceived threat level to the local system. This threat is perceived as less significant if it is local and not regional or statewide.

Such an approach allows an advocacy network to test tactics and makes it more likely that one of the initiatives will succeed. That success can serve as a template or a learning opportunity for a broader less local advocacy effort. Advocates often use this kind of technique intuitively. But a nucleation tactic can be well-planned for a bigger advocacy initiative.

Nucleation can be done over time as well. For example, nucleation was used in many locations throughout Michigan over a period of several years to learn how to break classrooms segregated by disability to increase inclusion. The learnings from each attempt were shared among advocates to increase the effectiveness of each new attempt.

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(P4): Multiple Advocacy Initiatives

A fictional print of a huge squid attacking a 19th century sailing boat

“Release the Kraken!!”

One of the operational possibilities that modern technology and rights laws support is the use of multiple advocacy initiatives to increase the destabilization that is necessary for successful advocacy negotiation.

The systems that we use advocacy to change have a superficial and abstract appreciation of how their environment can destabilize them. They tend to try to manage weak constraints individually, by stabilizing each one of them separately. Naïve advocacy also tries to destabilize the weak constraints individually. This is a tactical advocacy failure.

For example, filing a complaint is typically done using a single set of regulations or rules (for example, special education laws, regulations, and rules). Even when a complaint covers violations of both Federal and State special education laws, the approach tends to be narrow and focused on a single remedy.

But, the use of, say, Section 504 as an additional complaint about the violation of civil rights, or the use of state civil rights laws where they are applicable, can add a remarkable complexity to the necessary response by the system. Using multiple complaint systems based on different statues and partially overlapping conceptual frameworks of what civil rights mean places a difficult burden on the system trying to re-establish stability in the weak constraint as quickly and cheaply as possible.

My observation is that if these multiple frameworks are used in sequence to poke the system from different directions over a relatively short period of time, the system tends to perceive that advocacy threat as far more powerful and unmanageable than the threat from a single framework where the system has long experience in responding to the advocacy issue raised. This is a misperception on the system’s part, but a useful one to advocates.

Also, if an advocacy issue (say, a failure of supports provision) has a public face and general application to a reasonable number of students, it is worth considering making the advocacy case public to increase pressure for a negotiated outcome and to let other students with similar issues know that it is possible to resolve them.

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(P4): The OODA Loop

Complex Diagram of the OODA Loop. See description through link below diagram.

OODA Loop Diagram Long Description

The OODA loop (see picture above) was created by John Boyd to help explain why some fighter pilots were much better than others in aerial dogfights. His basic premise was that you could win if you made good decisions faster than the other pilot. This was oversimplified over time to mean just faster decisions, without the part about better decisions.

The most important part of the OODA loop for advocates is the “Orient” phase. Successful use of the Orient Phase requires not especially the observation of where the opponent is, but rather a deep understanding of how your opponent thinks about reality. What does your opponent value? What risks are paramount in their thinking? After all, you want to know where your opponent is going. As Wayne Gretzky said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been”.

For example, in an advocacy negotiation over, say, a complex support for a student, the Orienting Framework of a typical ISD or special education administrator focuses on cost, required program resource commitment (including staff, skills, general availability), precedent (will hundreds of other students/families request the same service if we support this student?), and the political consequences of agreement to the requested support from other staff, other parts of the education system, and the general public.

While it might seem as though these concerns are matter-of-fact, they are not. Underlying all of them is the decision-making rationale AND fear-driven concern for personal and system liability if things go sideways for some reason. Because the fear of such liability is never entirely rational (we can’t know the future), the Orienting Framework is sensitive to surprise, regardless of its source.

The use of the OODA Loop as a tactic in disability rights advocacy is often about producing novel challenges to the system as it is now and as it thinks/feels now. Thus, a successful challenge to a system with a novel destabilization requires that you have a clear understanding of how your target thinks and feels.

These challenges don’t have to be radical or revolutionary. They must, however,  be initiatives that the system hasn’t run into before.

Often, there also need to be several destabilizations. A bad habit of naïve advocates is to create a destabilization (say, a complaint) and then sit around waiting for a response. Delay (because it requires nothing but avoiding action) is always available as a default response for the system you are challenging, and it is used as much as possible by that system.

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(P4): Record-Keeping

An ancient written text not in English

Record-keeping is the great unsung heuristic of effective advocates. It is unsung because it seems tedious and time-consuming and seldom drives change by itself.

In the bad old days, record-keeping was incredibly tedious. For example, imagine what it took to transcribe a recording of a meeting before digital frameworks were available to support such tasks.

For example:

  • Using a live transcribe app on a phone to record a meeting and generate a correctable text.
  • Spoken note recording.
  • Composite resource documents so that related information can be reviewed in one place or document by a simple email invitation.
  • Notification when emails are read and by who.
  • Easy encryption.
  • Easy sharing of info and events in an advocacy network through apps like Slack.
  • Social Media as an adjunct to advocacy work.

It is also far easier to collaborate and organize around advocacy information, initiatives, and events through separate personal, support groups, targets, and public venues.

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(P4): Tactical Heuristics

Typical Military Tactic Maneuvers: frontal attack; break through attempt; contra flanking including extended wing contra flanking and mobile force contra flanking; successful break through including stabilizing flanks and rear operation; Hammer and anvil including unyielding front anvil and mobile hammer; Flank counterattack; decoy and destruction; Break through with advance and Counterattack.

ngd-Excuse the typos in the image. I couldn’t find another image that communicated the same stuff….

Here are some guides to making tactical decisions when you are advocating. There are many more out there and you will discover them through your advocating experience as well as the experience of others:

  • Record-Keeping: Deep record keeping has always been an advantage that advocates could have over the systems. The data that advocates develop tend to be useful for advocacy-if you have a record of it. But we often don’t make use of it effectively. This is especially unforgivable with modern digital record-keeping tools easily available.
  • The OODA loop: The OODA loop is a famous model created for pilots involved in dogfights. But its uses go well beyond this original inspiration.
  • Multiple Advocacy Initiatives: Advocacy Targets often interpret multiple advocacy initiatives as far more threatening and anxiety-provoking than single initiatives, even when multiple initiatives require almost no additional effort.
  • Nucleation: Several low-profile similar advocacy initiatives can be used to produce system change without triggering significant counter-responses.
  • Cycles as exploitable weak constraints: Everything in a CAS operates in cycles. We typically don’t pay attention to this, even though there are real exploitable opportunities if we take the time to observe and learn.

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Part 4: Advocacy Heuristics

A complex image. See Text from Image and Notes link below the image.

Text from Image and Notes

What is a Heuristic?

As a tool for disability rights advocacy, a heuristic is a framework of meaning that provides a way of developing an advocacy tactic, strategy, or organization. At its simplest, a heuristic is a rule-of-thumb, that allows us to make decisions about what to do more easily. Mostly heuristics are used to develop tactics, but they can be used at any level of decision-making and for any advocacy purpose. Heuristics represent a distillation of someone’s experience and reflection on what worked in the past.

Even a very capable heuristic guarantees nothing. Heuristics have their own built-in bias and using them automatically prevents you from noticing that bias. Remember that heuristics are initiators of reflection, discussion, and collaboration to reach a decision for action that respects the current reality and the current context, not ways to save time and thought.

So, remember that you, too, come to advocacy work with an existing set of heuristics and their biases. Capable advocacy should always be an opportunity to question, explore, and reframe the automatic responses we all have living in our world of failed social justice.

I would also note that it is common for advocacy organizations to use heuristics more and more automatically as they age.

The image is from Scott Page who has done a lot of work in the usefulness and challenges of diversity as a framework for problem-solving. His work is noted in the text through the link under the image.

The complement of this view of diversity and advocacy (kind of the other side of the coin) is detecting weak constraints in the problem by deliberately avoiding the homogenization that arises in groups. This way of respecting the lived experience of persons is called distributed ethnography (DE). DE is a complement because diversity in groups helps with both problem-solving and detection of weak constraints if approached properly. These ideas are explored more completely through links in the “Text from Image and Notes”.

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(P3): System Aging and Our Organizations

A model of how corporations age. See long description link below the image for details

Long Description of Image

There are patterns in the aging of our advocacy organizations. Because these patterns arise out of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), they are not mechanically or programmatically determined. They arise out of the interacting possibility spaces created by the governing constraints that allow the creation of the CAS in the first place. These governing constraints are Mission, Reproduction, and Hierarchy.

So, there is no rigid development pattern in advocacy organizations. Instead, there are a series of choices about enabling relationships in the complex possibility space that create the actual pattern of the organization that arises. What follows are some observations I’ve made about these patterns during the last half-century of my personal development as an advocate and the many organizations to which I have belonged.

Early Patterns

When an advocacy or social support organization is first created, it usually prizes Mission over Reproduction and Hierarchy. Partly this is because small new organizations don’t have much money, the people who are in the organization generally got into the work they do because of the way they value that Mission and the non-mission skills they have are relatively unformed compared to their understanding of the importance of the Mission. The effect of this reality is, in many ways, to set up the organization for a difficult transition that accompanies the successful growth and expansion of Mission impact.

Transition to the Two Missions Framework

There is a transformation of the organization as it tries to create the infrastructure that is necessary to sustain the work. Creating this infrastructure can be thought of as creating a new governing constraint called Reproduction. This Reproduction infrastructure includes a Board, improved methods for getting program income. a system of accounting and monitoring the use of the funds, community relationships, etc. It is typical that building this infrastructure produces mistakes. Boards crash and burn, the bookkeeper that was handling the limited funds is discovered to have embezzled some of the limited money, lack of HR experience produces very poor management decisions about the people who work at the organization, etc. The punishment (however that plays out) of these errors either destroys the organization or shifts it to a model of Two Missions (Mission as Purpose and Mission as Reproduction). If the punishments are severe enough, but the organization survives, there is a tendency for the surviving managers to value the financial/social (Reproduction) Mission over the original purpose. This causes an organization-specific development (i.e., aging) process focused on managing the relationship and value of both Mission and Reproduction.

Long Term Paths for Two Missions Organizations

Once an organization has transitioned to the realities of the Two Missions, there are many paths that the organization can follow as it struggles to manage the relationship between the sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting demands of these two governing constraints.  It is common to try to use Hierarchy to manage these challenges.

As a Governing Constraint, Hierarchy never exists separate from the Two Missions. But, management beliefs about hierarchy themselves constitute a governing constraint that defines the possibility space for the management view of the quality of solutions to organization problems.

Management view of the level of control necessary to solve management problems is often set in concrete, narrowing the range of “acceptable” ways to solve problems, which in turn guarantees poor problem-solving. Under ordinary circumstances, some public failure of the organization (embezzlement, reputation failure, or similar organizational system issue) must occur, and it is not unusual for the existing governance structures, like the Board and the senior managers to turn over before there is any major change in the Governing constraint of Hierarchy.

The usual choice to resolve this problem is to increase the control offered through Hierarchy. This choice is made out of fear, not because it genuinely offers integration of Mission and Reproduction, and increasing control often starts the organization down a path of technocratic zombism, where the original Mission no longer has any meaning.

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