Variety and Selection

wetlands and stream
Wetlands and Stream

Any system that generates variation and then has that variation culled through some selection method is an evolutionary system.

Both our change targets and ourselves operate in evolutionary environments. It is a platitude to say that all human organizations spend a lot of time trying to reduce variation of all kinds in every part of their structure, effectively to avoid change. Change is viewed as, at best, an unavoidable consequence of festering problems, and even when change is seen as necessary, there are elaborate ongoing fairly thoughtless internal processes that continue to try eliminating variation, even when that might help support a needed change. We all seem to do this on general principle.

Also, most human frameworks for thinking about the evolution of change include selection as the important part of the evolutionary process. Humans have deep commitments to the idea of progress and that outcomes of processes are more important than the processes themselves. That is one reason why we view our species as the pinnacle of evolution, even though we clearly aren’t. This view is so deeply held that it sounds ridiculous to claim that variation is more important than selection. But it is.

I suppose that such focus on the outcomes of our specific acts supported the social goal of the survival of families, tribes, and other social groupings. But, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb pointed out in Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto) it is the constant process of generating variety that allows biological evolution to roll along despite the historic elimination of every single species that evolves.

We should think of selection as an automatic unavoidable afterthought, a result of the limitations of physical reality. The real story is the relentless generation of difference and novelty and all the ways such variation occurs and increases.

As our tools of biological discovery have expanded so dramatically in the last couple of decades, we have discovered just how relentless the creation of variation is in our own bodies. Epigenetics, discoveries like “jumping genes”, and each of our unique gut biota point to a biological system that views variety as the indispensable basis of global biological continuation.

Well, I would argue that the same is true in our advocacy of self-determination by people with disabilities. Advocacy based change needs to spend more time focusing on the general creation of variety in the larger environment in which we struggle, and we need to get much better at living with and supporting change both in our advocacy organizations and in that larger environment as an accepted part of our everyday work. We often don’t look beyond the current advocacy goal, and we tend to neglect our scanning of the larger environment beyond what is necessary for our current goal.

The  only way to get better at change is to practice it. The anxiety we have over unpredictability is best overcome by getting used to the idea that change is expectable.

Next Post: “Practicing” Change

Novelty as a Change Tool

Page of novelty ads from an old comic book
Novelties as Change Tools

Every attempt to advocate for change in a target is an attempt to introduce novelty into that target system. Because we give such deference to plans and measurable objectives, we tend to restrict our view of the usefulness of novelty to whatever might be a part of our current plan.

But the ability of “newness” to support change goes far beyond the direct connection we impose on our change plans between our goals and our change activities.  An environment or atmosphere of potential change can drive our initiatives to greater scope and overall impact. That is, the environment can do a great deal of our work for us, if we will include it in our change plans.

Novelty has more impact if the target sees it disturbing the current system from multiple directions. A novelty seems more inevitable if it is supported from, for example, different levels of government, in many different media, from many different sources, and from many different stakeholder groups.

It is worth your effort to support such broad-based evidence of support for the change you want. While you can’t orchestrate such converging evidence of the potential for a change, you can make the most of what convergence there is by using social media, and you can provoke evidence of the importance of the change for which you are advocating by letting a broad audience of potential stakeholders know of the importance of your change work. The community of people out there who might seem too distant to support your initiative can, in fact, support it by making it a part of the larger environment that connects our disability community.

You might have noted that I didn’t use the term “innovation” to describe this effect of novelty on change. There is nothing wrong with the word (is there a collection of 10 letter profanities?), but it is deeply tied to ideas of control by the innovating organization, and it tends to view the audience (recipients) of the innovation as too passive to be a useful concept in our empowering and prideful change advocacy.

Next time I’m going to try to expand the potential use of novelty by tying it to some very basic concepts of how evolutionary systems do their stuff. After all, our many efforts to change the world around us are directed toward, and make us part of, a very large and dynamic evolutionary system.

Next Post: Variety and Selection


Two Strategies for Changing Systems

road split in two with two traffic signs
Two Paths to Travel

Organizations tend to travel two paths as they age. In fact, they typically have one foot in each path. These are the paths of Efficiency and Innovation. This two-path aging process is typical of advocacy organizations as well as targets. The two paths have very different implications for much of the decision-making that goes on in the organization, and we need to approach targets somewhat differently depending on how much the target invests in each of the two paths.

The Path of Efficiency

This path tries to accomplish organizational outcomes with the least amount of effort and cost possible. The upside of this path is the preservation of what are always scarce resources. The downside is that each step on this path makes the organization more brittle and less able to respond effectively to novel disturbance or threat. Brittle systems are efficient precisely because they simply do not change. If the distress from the disturbance is too great, brittle systems break.

It is typical, and only partially avoidable that systems become more brittle as they age. Once the brittleness is part of the organization fabric, actual efficiency takes a secondary place in the scheme of organizational management.

The Path of Innovation

This path tries to accomplish organizational outcomes with a workflow that is different in assumptions from the one currently being used. A typical reason for walking the path of innovation is that the mission of the organization has degraded over time, and a new way of organizing mission outcome effort is needed to change it. Other reasons for innovation include important changes in the organization ecosystem, new laws that affect the mission outcomes, changes in the culture of the staff as a result of simple changes in staffing, funding issues, and similar disturbances in the Force.

It is typical, and only partially avoidable that systems become less innovative as they age. Partly, this is because as any system ages, more resources must be put into maintenance and repair ( to maintain and repair efficiency, as it were). Innovation becomes more difficult largely because innovation demands slack in the system for it to be successful. Slack tends to reduce when repair and maintenance expand.

How Path Choices by a Target Affect Change Strategy

In Summary: Brittle systems need to be stressed and Innovative systems need to be nudged in a better direction.

In both cases, your targets need to experience novel disturbances. That means that your advocacy group or organization has to be good at innovating in your change tactics.

The use of innovative tactics is generally the introduction of novelty into the target, forcing the target to address that novelty one way or another. Novelty needs its own post.

Next Post: Novelty as a Change Tool


Aging Systems

Diagram of the adaptive cycle; includes visual description of adaptive phases, preparing for change, navigating change, building resilience in the transformed system
Adaptive Cycle

Everything changes, right? We have trouble remembering that even though we know it’s true. We tend to get stuck with our immediate experience, like having a picture of an old friend we haven’t seen in years. Even though we know the friend will be older when we meet, it is still a shock when we finally do meet.

A corollary to this is that complex systems not only change, they also age. Systems age in a way that supports their dissolution and recreation in another form. As you can see in the diagram, the adaptive cycle is a cycle, that never repeats itself, but covers much the same change territory.

When we implement a change strategy, we are interacting with a target (a complex system) that is aging more or less according to the diagram above.  We often organize our change strategies in a way that minimizes the impact of the ongoing (and largely unseen) changes on the outcome we seek. We do this, for example, by using the standard individual advocacy framework of threatening a potential system change in the target in order to secure a specific change for the person we are representing. Another example is the use of a lawsuit to effect systems change. A lawsuit is a way to frame what has been going on in the past to secure an advocacy outcome. A lawsuit usually assumes that the target will remain more or less the same for the duration of the change effort.

Sometimes, the always operating process of the adaptive cycle carries the target to a place that reframes the impact of our change strategy. This change might actually improve the advocacy outcome or (more likely) undermine our outcome. But since we don’t pay much attention to the process of aging through the adaptive cycle, we see the impact of aging as largely accidental (unpredictable), and outside our change plan.

If we could have some insight into how our target would evolve in its adaptive cycle, we might be able to both improve our advocacy outcomes and implement longer and deeper change plans.

But it is hard to do that precisely because we get stuck with our first impression, at least until we get surprised by the changes that have taken place in the target as we try to change it.

There is another way in which first impressions undermine our ability to see the process of a complex system adapting over time. Our advocacy groups and organizations are also complex systems, and they are also following some path in the adaptive cycle, passing along some place in the process of aging. And we also keep our first impressions of our change organizations until we are surprised by perceiving a change we didn’t know was going on.

To help expand our ideas of how the interaction of our complex change organizations and our targets produce different itineraries on the adaptive cycle, in my next post I will discuss two large scale processes that affect (more or less) all complex systems over time.

These are the journey to efficiency and the journey to innovation.

Next Post: Two Strategies for Changing Complex Systems