Part 3: Advocacy

A poster listing many names of PWD killed by their parents or caregivers; entitled Mourn for the Dead and Fight Like Hell for the Living. From ASAN

Advocacy is the active representation of interests. You can advocate on behalf of another, on behalf of yourself, on behalf of a network, or an entire community. You can work as an individual, in a group, professionally, or as part of a larger movement.

Advocacy is a framework for change, and since change admits of no boundaries, neither does advocacy.  Advocacy is not an end in itself, no matter how necessary or relentless it might seem.

You must embrace a personally and genuinely valued purpose to truly advocate. Otherwise, advocacy becomes just another kind of inauthentic political gaming.

I chose advocacy as the metaphor for changing complex adaptive systems, because most people have some understanding of the concept and because using that concept makes it easier to remember that changing a complex adaptive system (CAS) is for a valued purpose, not simply a logic model for obtaining a grant.

While advocacy can be used by anyone, it is a creature of great diversity. The most basic frame for advocacy is to threaten a target with more change than the target would experience if it accepted your claim for change.  Most basic advocacy negotiation entails this kind of trade-off for the target.

The target of advocacy can be almost any system from an individual to large bureaucracies, local governments, global coalitions. The target you choose is the one you believe can make the community interests you value real.

The trade-offs that frame any advocacy negotiation can also, and usually are, extremely varied and complex, and revolve more around constraints that might be destabilized than, say, for example, the simple cost of the advocacy demand. The cost can always be “managed” but forced change in the basic operating framework of the target is typically viewed by target systems as an existential crisis of some importance, and something to be strongly resisted.

If I tell you that the negotiations in a special education disagreement are mostly around the dimensions of expense and precedent for the school district if they agree to your demands, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t also highly personalized dimensions in every education advocacy process, for example.

These personal issues in what seems to be a procedural or legal negotiation are important to advocates because of how the personal impacts the value of the advocacy outcome. For the target system, there is no more powerful constraint that must be managed than the relationship the system has with individuals to whom it provides services. Systems don’t like customizing anything for anyone who is entitled to disturb their peace.  If you can sustainably change the obligations that any system has to the uniqueness of those it serves, you are creating an entirely different system, and deeply altering the purpose and behavior of that system.

In effect, learning to use, create, exploit, and leverage constraints is the heart of advocacy toward any target system.

While achieving a valued advocacy result requires the use of tools, don’t make the mistake of assuming that the tool is somehow sacred because it helps you to achieve the result you want. There is no holy path to advocacy success. There is only the uncertain struggle to make complex adaptive systems change.

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(P2): A Cognitive Anchor for Understanding Constraints in Advocacy

The notes for the slide or post describe the components and interactions of this diagram. No shorter description would be effective.

The use of constraints in advocacy requires a different view of them than our day-to-day understanding. The above model is not a complete one for understanding constraints, but it has the advantage of being concrete and simple.

The basic idea is that the strongest constraints are the ones that a target system wishes to protect most carefully. I have put them well inside the “boundary” of the system to imply that. The System Boundary is “Active” because it is always interacting with the weak constraints that stabilize its overall activity.

The weak constraints are on the boundary. Even though they are weak, they are still integrated with the target system to some extent. The target prefers to keep these weak constraints unable to materially affect the target’s activity even though they can’t simply eliminate the weak constraint interaction with the target system. So, the target system “manages” weak constraints to keep them predictable and less able to affect the Strong Constraints.

The simplest way to think of the role of weak constraints in “ordinary reality” is to view their individual constraint activity as a roughly repeating cycle. The target system manages these weak constraints by managing what it believes is the specific weak constraint cycle. The goal of management of weak constraints is to minimize the costs of management by reducing the effects of the weak constraint on the target system.

Being real constraints, the weak constraints are not entirely predictable. As advocates, we can also intentionally change the activity of one or more weak constraints to destabilize the target system in ways the target can’t anticipate. This successful destabilizing requires the target to respond in ways outside its normal routine, creating a leverage point for advocacy. We use this leverage point to coordinate and enable our effort to change the target in the same way we use our knee, for example, to pivot for a shot in a pickup basketball game or use our hands to alter the coordination of knitting needles to produce a particular knot.

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(P2): A Weak Constraint as a Potential Insurgency

A painting of a medieval revolt. Many people and soldiers fighting one another.

Mostly, CAS (Complex Adaptive Systems) view both internally generated and externally driven encounters as disturbances or perturbations. For purposes of understanding how you can advocate for change in a CAS, I prefer to think of these triggers as insurgencies.

An adjacent possible is something you can do readily from where you are right now. Some insurgencies keep resurfacing, an indication of an adjacent possible.

There are always more adjacent possibles than you know. They are often weak constraints, and we tend to pick one, stick with it as our preferred novel change target, and fail to see the other possibilities lurking close by. Our ability to survey the possibilities of the uncertain world around us is encumbered by our automatic focus on the easiest possibility to perceive.

Insurgencies subvert by their mere existence. In fact, a traditional way to turn a weak constraint into an insurgency is to trigger a response from the Target CAS. This is part of the reason why they are so hard to eliminate. Failed insurgencies are typically replaced by changes that will also trigger a new set of possibilities and a new insurgency.

Subversion is always possible. There is no way to build a fortress that is impervious to an insurgency. In fact, I think it is reasonable to describe the ongoing human conflicts in every State in the last 7,000 years as an insurgent struggle for change and freedom against a status quo struggling to increase and preserve control.

So, an insurgency is a kind of constraint, and it can move from a “weak” constraint to a powerful force for change just because the target reacts to its disturbance.

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(P2): Safe-to-Fail Experiments as Weak Constraints

Strange yellow and black bicycle with a perfectly square frame and no brakes.

The idea of Safe-to-Fail Experiments was developed by Dave Snowden as part of his Cynefin framework. The technique is a way to learn about a complex adaptive system without triggering unintended consequences that are out of your control (See the link above.) But the concept of using probes to learn about complex systems is useful in many other contexts, most notably, in social justice advocacy.

Most advocacy is premised on the idea that there are legal constraints on the behavior of target systems, and that these constraints can be used to change the behavior of the system. In other words, advocacy can use procedures repeatedly to create change. Implicitly, we only need to understand the legal constraint under which a system operates and the change procedures (complaints, lawsuits, etc.). We don’t need to understand the politics or history of the system we are trying to change, all of which are, of course, other kinds of constraints.

But we do need to appreciate these aspects of a system before we can hope to successfully change it. This is because even the most apparently logical procedural path of some bureaucratic machine is, as we all know, a little “Peyton Place”, more complex and messier than the bones of the procedure would suggest.  Which is to say, all bureaucracies are Complex Adaptive Systems using much of their available energy to prevent disturbance from creating change through forcing them to modify existing constraints.

From inside a bureaucracy (or any large organization, including for-profit corporations), creating change must involve experiments too small to trigger annihilation of the experimenters or the CAS, but enabling you to learn something useful about the systems dispositional trajectory, about its system of constraints.

Safe-To-Fail is also a useful tool for changing that most personal of CAS, yourself.

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