(P3): The Ways of System Aging

The Panarchy Cycle; alpha-phase: reorganization; K-phase: Conservation & Stabilization; Omega phase: Release (Creative Destruction); r-phase: Exploitation & Growth; Poverty Trap (between alpha-phase and r-phase) is Insufficient Resources for starting New Growth; Rigidity Trap (between K-Phase and Omega Phase) is Holding on to old systems.

All CAS age (even us, or maybe especially us!). But seeing aging in a CAS is tough. There is no perfect way to describe such aging, but it is important to grasp the general contours if we are to make use of aging in our advocacy efforts.

Aging applies as much to advocacy organizations as it does to those organizations that are the object of our advocacy efforts. The Panarchy Cycle is as good a model for system aging as I have found, and it has the advantage of “face” usefulness. It is important to remember in what follows, however, that we can do things to change the path of aging in a CAS. If I develop arthritis in my hip and it gets bad enough, I might have a hip replacement surgery. If that surgery is successful, the quality of my life can take a huge leap. But, despite the improvement in my day-to-day activities, I am still aging.

The Panarchy Cycle is usually described as four repeating steps:

1.Reorganization

2.Exploitation and Growth

3.Conservation and Stabilization

4.Release or Creative Destruction

A commonly used example of these steps is a forest system after a large-scale fire:

1. The “empty” landscape after the fire becomes populated by weeds and other fast-growing plants and small animals and micro-organisms.

2. As the landscape becomes denser with life, fast growth is gradually replaced by plants and animals that can store resources and more easily alter the forest to fit their needs.

3. Eventually, the forest becomes stable and many of its possibilities for novelty are locked up in resources controlled by subsystems of large tree species, symbiotic relationships, organizing of resource flows like water, animal families and reproduction, and so on.

4. The CAS organization becomes increasingly brittle and subject to easier breakdown.

The two big drivers of the development of enabling relationships in the CAS are the “poverty trap” in the early development of the system, when it is tough to use resources because they must be changed (the enabling relationships must be created) by those organisms that participate in early development, and the “rigidity trap”, when most resources are already tied up in some subsystem, and organisms have set patterns for their use and reproduction. Rigidity is defended and becomes brittle and opens the forest to disturbances that cause some level of cascading breakdown in the system’s ability to adapt to further disturbance.

It is often difficult for us to accept this kind of aging cycle in our own organizations or those we target for advocacy because it seems as though the problems we experience would be easy to fix if we just go ahead and fix them. This apparent ease of problem-solving is based on our false idea that the organization is a machine or a computer.

The isolated problem is often easy to fix. But fixing the problem also changes the CAS in long term ways that are hard to see, by destabilizing some enabling relationships and generally making enabling relationships harder to create. This is the unavoidable burden of unintended consequences.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P3): The Ways of Governing Constraints

A female soldier doing orthopedic rehabilitation under PT supervision.

Governing Constraints create possibility spaces by eliminating large swaths of possibility that are irrelevant to the meaning of the governing constraint. When there is more than one governing constraint in an organization, the governing constraints create a complex possibility space that permits much more complex possibility choices.  When the CAS is working the way it is supposed to, the multiple governing constraints also allow the populating of the space by more complex enabling relationships. In turn, this drives a more complex CAS development process and a more complex aging process.

But the interaction of multiple governing constraints is, well, complex. Multiple constraints can undermine or enable each other, and the choices made by participants in an organization can produce extremely different organizational behavior. The three governing constraints of any advocacy organization or the usual organizations that are subject to advocacy (Mission, Reproduction, and Hierarchy) frame but do not determine that behavioral path.

The primary result of the Hierarchy Constraint is a massive reduction in the possibilities of enabling relationships. The best example of this is the aphorism about bureaucracies, “Anything not required is forbidden”. Hierarchy is a societal choice, not an objective law of physics. It hinges on the belief that the universe is mechanical, and that restricting choice improves the causal power of the mechanical links that supposedly guarantee outcomes.

The staff will be flogged until morale improves, etc.

Hierarchy can be based on logical relationships or power relationships. Logical hierarchies are not used to run organizations. The use of a power hierarchy always reduces the possibilities in the space created by Mission and Reproduction.

The Mission, at least in new systems, is the best statement of what the system can create. The relationship between Mission and Reproduction is complicated by the way that a complex adaptive system ages.

If a system ignores Reproduction to maximize it’s Mission, the system will run out of resources to realize the Mission. If the system maximizes reproduction at the expense of the Mission, then the system will become like a zombie, focused exclusively on more resources, with no regard for Mission outcomes.

Because human systems are made up of humans, it is always possible to change the relationship between Mission, Reproduction, and Hierarchy, creating a new complex possibility space. But it becomes more difficult to change these relationships as the system ages, and the likelihood of some kind of system collapse (not required to be total) increases.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P3): Advocacy Organizations (Good Times and Hard Lessons)

An infinity sign colored like a rainbow

In our time, advocacy is organized around networks of advocacy organizations. This networking through organizations was a natural result of both the problems and successes of individual advocacy and the ongoing struggle for disability civil rights.  Advocacy organizing brings with it its own strengths and weaknesses, and it won’t surprise any reader of this blog that I view this understanding of advocacy organizations through the lens of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS).

Any advocacy organization (or for that matter, any system we might focus on for advocacy) has at least three Governing Constraints:

  • The organization Mission (why it exists)
  • The organization plan for Reproduction (how it keeps the doors open)
  • Its framework of Hierarchy (how it controls)

To understand why advocacy organizations have their ups and downs, and how advocacy organizations age, you must understand how these Governing Constraints both cooperate and collaborate for the organization’s work over the course of time. Each of the Constraints creates its own possibility space, and the actual trajectory of the organization is a complex interweaving of collaborative and competitive choices in real-time.

The various parts of the organization’s infrastructure (Board, financing system, staff morale, network relationships both positive and negative, who is defined as a threat or competitor, etc.) also reflect this multi-constraint dynamic.

In modern organizations, even non-work time can reflect this dynamic to a varying extent.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P3): Meta-Systems Advocacy- Part 2

Famous cartoon of different stakeholder views of designing a tree swing. None of them except the customers original vision of a simple tree swing works as the customer intended

Long Description of Cartoon

More about the Differences Between the Two Kinds of Plans

Causal Models of change, like logic models, tie causal links between the steps from the beginning of the plan to the outcome. But, there is inherent uncertainty in change plans targeted at any CAS, which is inconsistent with the requirements for developing an operational plan like a logic model. We pretend that the problem and the plan are mechanically causal, eliding over the actual complexity. The effect of this is to weaken the so-called causal links and contract the potential outcomes of the plan.

Typically, we don’t just do this because of the obligation to create a mechanically causal plan for our proposal submission. We also do it because we try to make the plan match the perspective of the proposal reviewers about what constitutes a plan that is both creative and “realistic”. After all, if our plan is seen as too ambitious or too open-ended for the available money or the purpose of the RFP, it will be rejected.

But, if we were to stick very closely to the plan as we drew it up for the proposal, we would have great difficulty achieving our valued outcomes. So we fudge our proposal to meet the expectations of the reviewers while trying to keep our fidelity to the valued outcome we want to achieve.

This is a hard thing to do, and we tend to pull back on the impact of our outcomes to meet the realities of the funding possibilities available to us while reframing the outcomes and the steps as marketing memes in the RFP-required causal network.

A “plan” that respects the realities of a CAS is more like a plan for discovering the infrastructure of a room in the dark. You build a model of the room through experiments and exploration, not the traditional model of a plan. If you use a traditional model, you will miss important information about the room. If you experiment and evolve your plan based on what you discover, you can reach an understanding of the room, instead of imposing an inadequate meaning on the room using the traditional logic model approach.

Planning for change in a CAS requires constant engagement, not the “roll out the plan like dropping a rock off a cliff” approach that is almost universal in modern service/support/advocacy organizations.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P3): Meta-Systems Advocacy-Part 1

A map of Meta-impacts of systems- Evidence-informed effective policymaking: Policy rules promote evidence us and transparency; Sustained relationships, mutual trust, aligned medium and high level beliefs; deliberative processes systematic, collaborative. Political Forces: Advocacy for inclusion of broad groups and skilled chairing; Advocacy for establishing and maintaining relationships across the policy community; Advocacy for evidence use enhancing meta policy structure and processes.

How would we create a Complex Adaptive System whose purpose was to produce individually customized and emergent supports for individuals over the course of their lifetime?

First, we need to have a clearer grasp of the difference between mechanical causal outcome systems, and Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). The planning systems we all use now were designed from a framework of mechanical causality.

Mechanical Plans

Governance of a Mechanical Plan (say, a logic model for a grant proposal) is through a valued outcome. The outcome serves to organize the process of its achievement. The plan is a series of parallel linked steps that mechanically lead one from the other until the outcome is achieved. The adequacy of the plan is evaluated in the concreteness and causal (read measurable) links of the steps to the achievement. The point of the plan is that it works like a machine/computer if it is implemented properly. If it doesn’t work, the plan is treated like a broken machine/computer; we look for a broken part/process and replace it without changing the rest of the plan.

CAS Plans

Governance of a CAS Plan is through an outcome, as well, but the outcome is more like an intention, and the issues of measurability that arise in a mechanical plan are turned on their head. An intention is a governing constraint that does not dictate the steps required to achieve it. Instead, the governing constraint creates a space of possibilities within which we expect to find the realization or creation of the outcome/intention. Such an open approach is much more in line with how we all actually achieve an intention to do something we have never done before.

Imagine a pair of fraternal twins, both about 6 months old. A new ball is placed the same distance from each of them. Maybe the ball has flashing lights or bright colors on it, and each of the infants forms the intention of getting to the ball, grabbing it, and playing with it.

One of the infants carefully reaches out with a hand and carefully moves bit by bit to get closer to the ball until getting close enough to grab it. The other infant rolls about energetically until getting close enough to grab it.  Both strategies for reaching and grabbing the ball are part of the possibility space that the original intention creates.

There are many others. For example, the infant might communicate to a parent to bring the ball closer, or ignore the ball out of frustration, etc. Which strategy is picked is about the specifics of the CAS; the infant’s temperament, where the infant is in relation to the ball, the environment in general, other things that are around, and so on.

The strategy is not mechanically determined, but more felt through by trying approaches and muddling towards a solution. The second time the approach is tried, it is easier to reach the outcome and gets increasingly easier with practice.

This CAS-based way of thinking also has the advantage of being progressively customized to the dynamic actions of the infant. It matches the reality of the uniquess of the infant, and this uniqueness is reflected in the organization of the specific child’s brain.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P3): Advocacy within Local Communities

A tryptic of pictures; in the center a crowd of persons with disabilities in a rotunda surrounded by police; On the left side a police officer arresting a blind person; on the right police

Our disability community needs a community advocacy strategy that is about more than disability-related issues. All the following issues deeply affect our lives as well as the lives of many others where we live:

  • Health Care and Supports: Impacts children, elders, poor people, workers, LGBTQ communities. all oppressed communities
  • Climate Change: Impacts everyone, most especially our community
  • Transportation: Impacts elders, poor people, workers
  • Housing: Impacts all oppressed communities
  • Access to Healthy Food: Impacts people who are poor or who don’t have access to easily accessible transportation
  • Physical and Program Access to Supports: Impacts everyone who needs supports
  • Education: Affects all oppressed communities
  • Pollution: Especially affects oppressed communities
  • Community Development Policy: Impacts all the other issues listed here, and affects small business creation and survival

In the past, our community has focused on issues that  were concretely connected to the immediate experience of individuals with disabilities. We need to change our narrow focus and expand our advocacy through alliance with others who share the impact of these local community issues with us. This means putting continuing effort into getting to know one another, building advocacy alliances around specific issues of interest to other communities, using these relationships to create mutual education about how different community issues impact different local communities, and working together to build an effective and continuing advocacy presence in our local area.

The goal in community advocacy is secondarily to stop one political decision or action, and more to make the governing constraints of our local social/community CAS more effective at supporting enabling relationships and activity for all the members of our larger community. This strategy is a different view of every aspect of organizing for change and requires us to broaden our existing idea of inclusion to reach everyone affected. This, in turn, requires us to rethink every aspect of our organizing and advocacy.

In effect, it requires a more radical vision of inclusion and advocacy that reflects an expanded understanding of “Nothing about us, without us”.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P3): Legislative Advocacy: Part Two

A diagram of how Advocacy Coalitions affect systems. See link in resources for image text.

Ultimately, if we wish systems advocacy to approach the scope for which we hoped, we will have to change both the kind of macro-frameworks within which we advocate, and the methods and mobilizations we use to impact both the existing frameworks and the innovations we wish to build.

This post will cover how we need to change our methods and mobilizations, and a later post will cover the creation of new visions of support systems that reflect the reality of complex adaptive systems, and the rejection of bureaucratic and mechanical forms of support.

How will we do systems advocacy differently in the future?

I am old enough to remember the talking points we used to mobilize against discrimination, institutionalization, the taking away of rights generally, and the de-valuing of people in our community. Rather than go over those points, I would like to reframe our values for talking points that could be used in this era to begin the creation of systems with governing constraints that promote our current understanding of what it means to support our community in the expansion of life possibilities, personal autonomy, and the endless exploration of choice.

Some preliminary notions of how we might talk about the governing constraints of potential new systems of support:

  • All systems must permit broad customized collaboration among all relevant actors organized around the hub of the person who is creating the personal support, and that person’s social network.
  • Systems of support must embrace the tension of locally developed mutual support alternatives or complements to the System’s closed approach as a normal and expected part of deeply engaged collaboration in creating customized supports for a person.
  • Collaboration is viewed as necessary to enable and coordinate the emergence of genuinely customized and flexible support over the lifetime of the person.
  • Supported Decision-Making is the core mental framework and skill set for making new support system governing constraints genuinely effective.

These principles can’t be implemented in a closed system of rule and regulation that limits outcomes to the preconceived. As Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety points out, only “Variety absorbs variety” ( see the link above). The systems that can collaborate to realize the values in the preliminary notions above must create a temporary Complex Adaptive System (CAS), the planning collaborative group, that can creatively marshal resources and enable the emergence of a customized support in the actual life of a real person. This is no different in principle (though different in size and scope) from anyone embracing an intention to do something they have never done before, and then exploring their possibility space to produce an emergence of something that reasonably matches their intention.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P3): Legislative Advocacy-Part One

A typical hall of a legislature, with tourists, lobbyists, advocates with disabilities, and legislators moving about.

Legislative Advocacy (whether focusing on local zoning rules or appealing a lawsuit to the US Supreme Court) is the traditional arena of what has been referred to as “systems advocacy”. It includes policy, rules, regulations, and all the astounding number of areas that government touches.

As a community, we have worked on macro-frameworks, like universal special education, Social Security Disability and SSI, Medicaid, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the downward flows from these frameworks to the state, local, and individual level.

I believe that the current macro-frameworks have largely exhausted their potential for expanding personal autonomy and choice for our community. They are becoming increasingly brittle and rigid. In fact, to the extent that these macro-frameworks represented an entitlement to expanded autonomy and freedom of choice, they have contracted more or less steadily from their initial promise to smaller and smaller opportunities for tweaking existing patterns. Along with a dramatically contracted arena of possibilities, they have all shifted from a vision of who might be eligible for their benefits to a growing effort to make it more difficult to use them. Put another way, they are no longer vehicles for expanding supports, but increasingly vehicles for denying support.

I don’t view this conclusion as hyperbole. I think that more administrative funding is spent on ways to deny eligibility and reduce supports than is spent on fostering those promises from so long ago.

These symptoms of support system aging have impacted our systems advocacy. Lawsuits are now used to prevent contraction of rights, less so to foster their possibilities. We organize and mobilize to stop disastrous outcomes rather than to foster positive ones. Our targets of change have become smaller, sometimes focusing on word changes in what exists now.

Even in the development of civil rights advocacy for communities left out of the old macro-frameworks, we use the arguments we used then, not unfairly, to expand the meaning of existing rights, without asking ourselves if the macro-frameworks can actually handle the weight of the justice they are asked to bear. Or will they simply fail to deliver?

To some decreasing extent, of course, they can. But I see them less able to produce the kinds of outcomes we would hope would represent our best take on what rights can mean to people’s lives. And now, even those more limited possibilities are shrinking in the face of relentless assault.

In summary, the system’s vehicles for rights definition, expansion, and protection, are degrading over time and we are less able to use these vehicles for our advocacy purposes.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P3): Advocacy with Groups of Persons and Families

A group of adult citizens engaging in a public conversation at a Santa Cruz library.

Usually it is easier to produce systems change through advocacy with a group that has related advocacy goals. It is easier to destabilize a weak constraint in the system if there are several similar but somewhat different ways for the system to lose control of the destabilized constraint. A standard model of this process might involve eliminating a segregated classroom by arguing that each student in the class has a right to an integrated educational experience and doing this through a group collaboration.

Each student can pursue a separate action to move to an inclusive environment, since the typical reason why a system would segregate a group of students is to reduce the costs of similar supports for these different students. If the system loses even one of these advocacy initiatives, they will have to provide the supports outside the cheap classroom, and they will have to absorb the cost of the hearings that advocacy triggers. So, 6 students can mean 6 hearings, six separate hearing costs (maybe $20,000 each). It is cheaper in the long run to develop a model that provides the supports that would be ordered in a hearing result.

Also, systems have developed methods to isolate single family advocacy efforts by demeaning their competence, educational knowledge, purposes, impact on other students, and so on. These tools are far less usable when there is a group of similar advocacy efforts.

A group with a common purpose forms a temporary complex adaptive system (CAS). This purpose is the governing constraint and frames a set of possibilities that the group will explore as it moves toward a valued outcome in their work.

In addition, a group with a purpose can more easily pursue destabilization of many additional weak constraints that are part of the system. Political activities, public relations, educational initiatives, public policy planning, and many other possibilities for advocacy are much more feasible in a group.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P3): Advocacy with Individuals and Families

Cartoon of IEPC with school staff explaining the legalese poorly without providing any real information and the parents obviously confused

There is a standard way to advocate on behalf of an individual or that person and the family. The weak constraint in this standard scenario is ordinarily a set of rules regulating the target’s interaction with individuals, commonly described as individual rights. There will be one form or another of negotiation over customized supports for the person, and a set of rules for how supports are developed and implemented. There is typically a complaint system, an appeals system, and a fair hearing system to organize the process of resolving disagreements.

The ordinary reality of negotiation in this kind of weak constraint is that the target tries to manage the negotiation process by discouraging family or individual involvement, making the entire negotiation as complex and intimidating as possible, not providing support to the person or the family about how to use the regulatory framework of the support system, offering an existing support even if it clearly doesn’t provide the customization needed to actually succeed, framing the request for supports as an individual unrealistic demand rather than a system problem, using the argument of policy or practice to claim that the request is invalid, threatening the family or individual with punishment, repeated use of the strategy of denial, followed by pulling back on the denial at every successful advocacy step, and so on, and so on, and so on. All these tactics are designed to restore the constraint to its past usual managed cycle.

When we successfully destabilize this constraint management approach, on the other hand, the system must do things that it ordinarily does not do (our destabilizing of the weak constraint is enabling). This requires the target to commit resources (funding, expertise, staff and administrator time) to non-normal workflow. The target makes a judgement about whether they can contain the destabilized constraint or not. Under the impact of the destabilization, it is this judgment that advocacy tries to manage.

If the destabilization is successful, and the advocated change occurs, the target accommodates the change and remodels the destabilized weak constraint so that it is moved back to a predictable cycle.

To get some of the depth of this advocacy framework, think of the difference between a pick-up game of basketball, baseball, soccer, etc. by a bunch of 10year-old kids. They set all the rules, make all the ethical judgments, preserve competition in a way they believe to be fair. Also, though such a game seems to be a competitive one, it is in fact enabling, since the experience of the game by the participants develops social skills that the participants will use throughout their adolescence and adulthood. In a word, this kind of competition socializes the participants. This is the way that the basic successful advocacy pattern described above works.  At its best, it socializes the target system to be more responsive to the participants.

Now think through what happens to the kid’s “competition” when adults formalize their sports events over time and tie them ultimately to the behavior and constraints in professional sports (without the money). There is no enabling relationship. Every part of professional sports is engaged in a war with no ethics except those imposed from the outside. Money, fame, celebrity, and cult status are the only meaningful goals, none of which are enabling in any human way. While competition does not have to be winner-take-all (WTA), it has largely become that in every arena of adult behavior, far beyond the obvious example of professional sports.

The individual and family form a complex adaptive system, with the purpose of the advocacy forming the governing constraint on the CAS. When a family reaches out to an advocate, they are trying to enlarge the space of possibilities to increase the likelihood of a valued outcome.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License