What a Strategy Is and Isn’t


Matching Needs and Opportunities

A strategy is not a plan like the one we make for a funding proposal. That is an operational plan and includes measurable outcomes and a (usually) cynically specific set of steps for reaching those outcomes.

A strategy is a framework for thinking about two realities we can’t avoid in our advocacy work:

  • The future is always unpredictable
  • We only have limited resources (people, technology, energy, money, spirit)

If the future was predictable and we had more resources than we could ever use in 100 years, we could create an operational plan and achieve our goals every time.  All we would have to do is get good at writing logic models.

But the reality isn’t set up that way.  Because of the mismatch between how we are required to plan and reality, we often scale back the outcomes in our operational plans to make sure we reach them so that we can continue to get funding or praise or organization and personal stature. Avoiding failure is more important than depth of impact.

This is a reasonable response to a system and a society that believes change can reliably be produced like candy bars in a factory. So, once you have the right technique (the right change plan), you can crank change out forever.

A strategy allows you to create variability in the face of the unexpected. Operational plans suppress variability in the name of predictable outcomes. However useful predictable outcomes are in seeking funding, variability is the way you survive over the long term.

The best example of using variability to keep playing the game you want to play is evolution.

Evolution isn’t about creating the perfect organism, though we tend to interpret it that way because of our basic human narcissism. Evolution is about generating variability so that no matter what happens, life will continue.

The hummingbird and the flower have evolved to match one another so that need and opportunity become a single integrated process. The results of this evolutionary matching (the outcomes of the plan as it were) aren’t in the organism, they are the relationship between organism and environment.  This relationship (an outcome in the larger strategy of evolution) is a complex system that ages over time. Every complex system (including our advocacy and the targets of our advocacy) is the expression of a kind of operational plan, the same kind that we often confuse with a strategy.

So, evolution is a strategy and each expression of its framework is an operational plan. All operational plans eventually collapse. But the evolutionary strategy continues.

So, how do we build a strategy?


Change in an Aging System

Two fish vowls, each with water and a single goldfish, with the goldfish in the left bowl leaping out and trying to reach the bowl on the right
Leap Of Faith

I am going to talk about two very different examples of how complex systems age and then draw some lessons for our disability community advocacy efforts. First, I’ll talk about system aging as a general process.

Introduction to System Aging

If you think of a system as a bunch of connections between islands of activity, system aging is the way the connections between the islands grow and change over time, as well as the way the islands of activity change because of those connections.

The general rule is that making a new connection will be driven by your immediate needs and opportunities. Maybe you forge a connection with a farmer so you can have a regular supply of vegetables.  Once the connection is forged, it gradually becomes a constraint. If you decide you don’t like the farmer anymore because of her politics, or the farmer dies, it isn’t easy to break the existing connection and make a new one with someone else who can provide you with vegetables.

You make new connections because there is a match between your needs and some opportunity, a fast process. But changing those connections once they are there is a slower, more resource-intensive process, and may not be possible at all.

Over time, aging systems accumulate constraints that are very hard or dangerous to eliminate. In early growth, there always seem to be ways to get around these self-imposed constraints. Over time, the sheer number of constraints makes it harder and eventually impossible to reverse or efficiently alter a connection. The constraints also become so complex that you can’t predict what will happen if you change just one, much less the whole system. This is the reason behind “unintended consequences”.

Large numbers of hard-to-change constraints are what I mean when I describe a system as brittle. When a brittle system is disturbed (say by advocacy), it is hard to tell how the system will change. Because of this, the specific breakdown of a system is always unpredictable, even though we know that all complex systems will break down eventually.

Aging of the Car System

Cars have changed a lot since the end of the 19th century, and there are endless lessons about how complex systems age in the large very complex car system (vehicles, manufacturing, unions, corporations, roads, fossil fuel, and other power systems, financing, government regulation, automation, safety, culture-driven choices, music, art, etc.).

For example, we are caught in a never-ending process of maintenance and repair of the roads over which we drive. I suspect it would be much easier and cheaper to “fix” our interstate road system if we could just get the entire road system to disappear all at once so that we could start over from scratch. Because such a change isn’t possible, we have to put up with the constant and unpredictable aspects of maintaining the roads in a permanently less usable state than they were when the system was originally built. Short-term amazing, long-term permanent pain-in-the-ass.

Today our cars are as complex as they have ever been. There are many ways to look at how our cars got here, but I think of it as the “car system” trying to change all the pain points of using cars over time without getting rid of the fundamental “driver” of the car system, the internal combustion engine that uses fossil fuels.

We are now closer to having commonly available transportation that doesn’t require that engine (electric cars). Once the cost of a basic electric car drops toward $20,000, the simplicity and ease of maintenance of this future car model ( estimated to last one million miles) will drive the old internal combustion version out of existence except for collectors. This collapse of every aspect of our current car system will happen at least as fast as the one that replaced animals with engines (mostly in one generation). The impact will be vast and largely unpredictable in detail, even though we know it’s coming.

Aging of the Legal System

When I was a full-time disability rights advocate, I came to understand how our legal system grows more complex over time. It is an important question to ask how such a manifestly over-complex system could be simplified, and the answer, unfortunately, is that it can’t.

Because the parts of the very complex legal system (say for example lawyers) make continual personal connections with the law during their training and in their practice, it becomes increasingly difficult for those parts (lawyers) to change those connections even if it would be a good idea for them to do so. Only laws that no one uses or supports can be eliminated. If there is any significant group of legal system members that don’t want a law to go away, it is just about impossible to get rid of it. Instead, old laws are replaced by ones that are almost inevitably more complex (have more connections) than what they are replacing. The trend is both clear and apparently uncontrollable.

I think that in many areas, the law has already become so complex that the best practitioners in those areas largely ignore the actual complexity in their day-to-day work unless there is some opportunity for short term profit (not just money). In other words, large chunks of the law are simply deprecated or excluded from use over time, and the complexity of legal specialization is always increasing. See plea bargaining for a clear example.

Currently, unlike the car system, there is not a legal system replacement, though there are some seeds of a replacement. The legal system will become less and less functional and more and more incapable over time, just like the freeway system, as each part seeks its own profit in the short-term without thought to any meaningful simplification. Not unlike the progression of dementia when there is no effective treatment.

Advocacy in an Aging System

One of the hardest lessons I have learned as an advocate and activist in the disability community over almost half a century is that every victory in our cause eventually becomes a constraint on the realization of our most cherished values. Our progress in disability rights is not a series of single achievements building on one another, but a set of gradually aging cycles, where each cycle actively interferes with the creation and realization of the next.

Although our victories don’t seem to become real very quickly to us, they do in comparison with the slower process that makes the victories more complex and increasingly time and resource intensive to use. Special Education, as a system of rights, is a great example of this process from its creation in the mid-70’s to its almost mummy-like status now. This trend of requiring increasing resources (time, money, training, people, spirit) to get something useful out of what was once a genuine victory is the heart of why we must come to grips with the reality of system aging.

If we keep doing what we have been doing, we will get less and less of what we are already getting. Eventually, we will get nothing meaningful from what was once a victory.

We need something new to guide our advocacy for the future. We need a strategy.

How Complex Systems Grow and Age


All is Growing and Aging Around Us

Like people, all complex systems grow and age. After all, we are complex systems ourselves; it should be no surprise when there are some similarities in the way all complex systems grow and age.

As we advocate for ourselves and our community, we tend to focus on the immediate issue that is blocking our efforts to build choice and autonomy. All these blocking issues are important targets for resistance, but the sheer number of these issues tends to distract us from the larger and slower changes that are taking place in our society.

Not paying attention to the way our society as a whole is evolving and aging means that we face more and more complex, difficult, and unexpected issues that block our rights agenda over time. Even as we win over these barriers, if we do nothing to change our relationship with the larger context, we find our victories undermined, or later reversed, and novel threats that never occurred before raise their heads, creating targets needing resistance we hadn’t imagined as possibilities.

So, even with all the demands on our time and energy, we need to use some of our time and energy for understanding the larger and slower changes that will affect our ability to advocate well.

There is a pattern to how complex systems begin, grow, peak, and break down. I will use a forest as a model for how this happens because we all have experience with the changes that take place over time in forests.

Let’s assume there has been a forest fire, and that the land where the forest used to be is now ashes and burnt trunks. All the large animals that survived have left the immediate area and the future for this forest is fairly open.

  1. Since the land is more or less empty of competition, pioneers will begin to use what’s left, including weeds, insects, and some animals that maybe haven’t been seen in this forest for a very long time. Pioneers can more readily use the nutrients that are left after the fire and they tend to grow, reproduce, and die faster than most plants, insects, and animals. For example, maybe they can make better use of sunlight, which was hidden by the large trees before the fire.
  2. One of the things that pioneers do is gradually alter the existing nutrients so that plants, insects, and animals that can’t live in the empty landscape right after the fire can now use the “waste” products of the pioneers’ activities. Over time, new living things gradually take over the land, slowly making it harder for the pioneers to compete well. This process of replacing the pioneers goes on for a long time and has many layers. As each successful set of plants, insects, and animals comes to live in the area, they out-compete to some extent what was successful before.  This process allows the new species to tap into the growing complexity of the forest resources, making the forest more complex and creating more places for living things to grow and thrive. A well-developed example of this phase would be a tropical jungle where there are a huge number of species and places for species to live.
  3. At some point, the ability of the complex system to keep growing and conserving more resources and becoming more complex passes a peak. When this happens the complex system begins to undermine its own ability to continue growing by the very same activities that up to this point have helped it grow. Instead of becoming more flexibly complex, the system becomes more brittle. Like all of us as we grow older, the forest becomes less able to rebound from disturbance or disease. This brittleness means that the forest can be broken down more easily and since the brittleness slowly increases, it is only a matter of time before some disturbances cause a significant breakdown.
  4. This breakdown is called a release (that is, a release of resources from where they were stored). The release in a complex system can involve many different processes. The more brittle the system, the more kinds of disturbances can trigger such a breakdown. I used a forest fire as the disturbance that caused the release in this example, but there are lots of changes that can produce it. The release eventually results in the beginning of a new cycle, a new forest, that will be similar to, but also different from the one that existed before the fire.

The four phases can be thought of as a cycle:

  • Pioneering
  • Growth and Conservation
  • Old Age
  • Release

This cycle (called an Adaptive Cycle) applies to more than forests. For our work in making our disability community advocacy more effective, it applies to the larger social context in which we advocate.

And right now, the larger society (the context) that we seek to change is past the peak in its adaptive cycle. The most important implication of this reality is that the context for our advocacy will become less supportive of our traditional advocacy efforts over time. This will happen, not because of any particular trend or political ideology that we can somehow correct, but because our society is aging. Things that were once easy will slowly become more difficult. And, what we think of as the causes of this more difficult struggle for choice and autonomy are actually effects of this larger slow process of change. I will try to give more detail about how this occurs in a later post.

The impact of this reality is that our ordinary way of choosing and pursuing advocacy goals is gradually becoming less and less effective and requiring more of our declining resources for these smaller successes.

The Resilience Alliance


A Reset


How You Reset Sandalwood Trees

You might have noticed that my posts in this blog haven’t been showing up as regularly as they had in the past.  I haven’t been happy with the way that recent posts have turned out. I think I was beginning to wander into the tall weeds and lose the path of what I was trying to do with this blog. A presentation I did this last week told me that there was a way to get back on course. So this post will hopefully be the first step on that new path.

Since the 1970’s, I have tried to do three things:

  • Understand how complex systems (from individual people to natural systems and societies) change, evolve, and age.
  • Understand how to effectively disturb those complex systems so they support expanding autonomy and choice for our disability community
  • Develop this understanding into concepts and tools that advocates in our disability community can use to follow their own path and their community’s path to autonomy and free choice in their lives.

This last is the most difficult. People don’t have the time or interest for pursuing these areas of understanding, but we all have a stake in changing our world so it becomes a tool for fulfilling our lives and not a constantly expanding barrier to our growth and the realization of our dreams. I want to try to set the stage for how we might change our common future without making the framework of that “How” so complicated. That is what I will try to do in the posts that follow.

We all have grown up with a very simple model of how to solve problems. We see the problem as that which is bothering us or preventing us from realizing our goals, and we assume that the problem has a simple cause. Our solution is to change that simple cause in the most straightforward way.

This is solving problems as though they were breakdowns in a machine. We identify the broken part, remove it, and replace it with a new part. But most of the barriers to living full lives that we face are not broken parts in a machine.  They are barriers that the system keeps recreating over and over again because they serve some purpose in the larger system. They preserve an organization’s power or they free up resources that the powerful can use for their own purposes, for example.

But, a lot of the time, the preservation of these barriers to our choice and autonomy are done out of mere convenience. It is easier to stop us from what we could become than it is to support us. This convenience, which is such a barrier to the change we need, is also an expression of how the larger system works. Some things are convenient and some things aren’t and this represents a pattern in how that large system works and the outcomes it supports.

And, such barriers also are also examples of how the system in which we live develops, ages, and, finally, breaks down. But that aging is so slow, we really don’t notice it until the aging begins to interfere more and more with our daily lives. Still, we try to treat these large scale system problems like aging as though they were no more than broken parts in the machinery of our lives, fixable in the same way that we would fix a car or a lawn mower.

The problem with treating these barriers in the same way we would repair our car is like tossing a small pebble into a large river. There is no question that the pebble will cause some ripples in the river, but the ripples disappear quickly. The impact of the pebble is lost in the larger process of the river.

And so, we keep tossing pebbles into rivers and become frustrated when even our successful efforts seem to break down over time, either with reversal of our gains or new attacks on our autonomy and choice.

We need to approach these issues in a different way, understanding that we live our lives within something much larger that is constantly affecting our efforts to change. We can fight that larger process or we can use it. But we can’t pretend or act like it doesn’t exist.

That is what I hope to describe in the following posts.