Practicing Change

two persons practicing fencing while others watch
Fencing Practice

(Lost in the UP last week; recently “rescued” by the requirements of work…..)

Everyone knows that people are afraid of change.  We know this primarily because we are afraid of change. This fear comes on us when change is threatened (there are specific parts of the brain that detect and react to threats):

  • People who hate their jobs nonetheless experience anxiety when change in that job is threatened
  • Rumors of change are treated as threats
  • Anticipating learning a new skill is often experienced as a threat
  • Past trauma can enlarge the arena and context  of life changes that are experienced as threatening

It seems that our anxiety about change arises from the apparently unpredictable consequences of actual change and our own doubts about our personal or organizational ability to manage it.


  • Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know
  • Curiosity killed the cat
  • Out of the frying pan into the fire

Inability to Manage:

  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew
  • Too many irons in the fire
  • The perfect is the enemy of the good

Advocacy and Change Anxiety

As we gain experience in advocacy action, we learn that it is much easier to develop a plan that seems to promise what we want, than it is to predict the actual consequences of that plan.

There is no better example than the crash of 2008. Quants were smart enough to design derivatives as a hedge against risk but were apparently not smart enough to see how derivatives would be gamed by their own financial community.

It is common for advocacy organizations to become risk-averse over time. This is especially a problem for managers of advocacy organizations who often bear the public brunt of unanticipated consequences and the punishment for organizational failures that have nothing to do with the advocacy mission.

But, to toss in one more common idiom, “practice makes perfect”.

If we expect to become more comfortable with change, we need to practice it. Obviously, we can’t “practice” big change plans daily, but we can practice small changes in ourselves and in our organizations as a standard part of organizational practice.

These small changes will, in fact, produce increased tolerance for change.

They will, in fact, create comfort with an incremental approach to change initiatives, where we try something and check out the results, adjusting our change plan as we come to understand the larger environment and the impacts we are having.

Like any other frightening skill acquisition process (public speaking, giving bad news, flying, and just the general fear of failure), you can gradually become more comfortable through small steps.

Next time, I’ll try to provide personal and organizational examples of small changes that can increase our comfort with change.

Next Post: Getting Good at Change



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



Systems Thinking: A Tool for Advocates

drawing of questions problem solvers ask themselves
Rich Picture for Problem Solving

Thinking about problems as systems of relationships has a very long history. I ran across it in the 70’s when I was trying to understand how change worked. Every 10 years or do, there is a resurgence of interest in systems thinking. It makes intuitive sense that seeing the problem of focus in the larger world in which the problem exists should make it easier to solve.

But systems theory is very abstract, and the history of the use of systems theory in problem solving is basically a path of trying to make it more practical. “Rich Pictures” (above) is one practical method, but there are a very large number of practical methods out there, and there is no easy way to pick one. Basically, if the tool resonates with you, you should learn more by using it. You develop the usefulness of systems thinking by trying to use it rather than by learning some specific magic-bullet method. Systems thinking is a way to frame advocacy problems and advocacy strategy, not a way to replace a leaky faucet in your kitchen.

Advocacy problems are part of a class of systems called “complex”. In complex systems. parts and relationships between parts are changed at least a little every time there are interactions. You can compare complex with complicated (like a 787plane) in which the relationships between the parts change, but not the parts themselves (a changing part is a red flag of danger). When we try to alter a target system because of a rights problem that we either heard about or discovered. we are trying to change the way the system works (and in the process we are changing ourselves). ‘

Hence, Complex.

If this description reminds you of an ecosystem, that’s because ecology is the index example of a complex system, and all complex systems share important similarities. I’ll be discussing some of those similarities in future posts.

Some resources:

Systems Thinking: from

Systems Thinking, Systems Tools and Chaos Theory: from Free Management Library

Next Post: Systems Age Just Like You and Me


Building Better Advocacy Strategies

(My effort to write the “Functional Psychopathy” post is running into problems. I know what I want to say, but clearly don’t know how to say it. So that one will need to wait for the future.)

wooden ship-building in gloucester harbor and kids building small ships
Ship Building

For some time I have been working on a series of four presentations to help advocates understand how change strategy can support, expand, and deepen their advocacy efforts. While it is hard for me to view them as final, I thought I’d provide them for review where they are now. The links are to PDF files of each presentation. The PDFs include both the slides and fairly extensive notes (one slide + notes on each page of the PDF). If you want an alternative format, send me an email at, and I’ll crank one out for you.

Mission 1, Mission 2: Why Our Change Advocacy Organizations Get Off Track

M1, M2

This presentation gives an overview of why strategy for change organizations matters at all. I focus on a very real issue (that all advocacy organizations face); how do we struggle with the problems that our core mission and keeping our doors open create? Sometimes both these missions mesh and sometimes they don’t. How can we manage the evolving relationship between our purpose and our logistics?

Making Our Lives Larger: Creating Effective Social Justice Change Strategy

What Is Strategy?

This presentation tries to revive the importance of strategy as part of our advocacy efforts. These days every plan is called a strategy. But useful strategy isn’t a plan. It is a framework for dealing with the two realities of change advocacy:

  • The future is uncertain and no matter how hard we try, we can’t predict it
  • We have scarce resources (funding, time, capability) and we still have to produce change

Strategic Frameworks: Tools for Creating a Specific Change Strategy

How Do We Create A Strategy?

Since real strategy building is no longer a standard part of non-profit change work, how do we build one? There is a long history of efforts to build strategies and a wide variety of meaningful frameworks to help. Pick the one (or more) that resonate with you and learn more about those.

Executing Strategy: Tools for Making Your Strategy Real

Tools of Execution

Once you have a strategy, how do you make it real in your advocacy environment? Again, there is a long history of methods for making what you want to be real. And Again, choose the ones that are most attractive you and explore them more.

Well, if something occurs to you, let me know!

Next Post: Systems Thinking for Advocates


The Strategy Disconnect in HCBS Advocacy

A chain breaking apart

I am part of a large work group negotiating a rough consensus about how Michigan should implement the CMS HCBS Community Services Rule. This set of requirements for services to people with disabilities through Medicaid is the most far reaching effort to change the quality and impact of supports since the closing of institutions in the 70’s.

What makes the HCBS Rule so revolutionary is the guiding principle of its implementation: The life possibilities and experience  of persons receiving supports should be the same as the possibilities and experience of people without disabilities.

The implementation of this rule will occur over the next few years, and there are many, many practical issues with altering the way supports are currently structured, planned, funded, and implemented.

There is a disconnect between the way a civil right is supposed to operate and the way that we actually go about realizing that right in practice. The CMS HCBS rule highlights this disconnect very clearly.

Civil rights were originally developed as an expansion of the notion of property rights. It appears as though this had to be done in order to make civil rights palatable to American courts. Broadly, property rights were intended to protect contracts (and estate inheritance, a kind of contract between generations). So the focus was on the specification of the meaning of language in a contract, and the preservation of the property interest from fraud.

And, in fact, much of civil rights advocacy whether in courts, fair hearings, IEPs, etc. is an effort to negotiate a final version of a contract (between family, student,  and school; between landlord and person with a disability, and so on).

But the meaning of a civil right to the person who “has” it and the meaning of that same right in an ongoing advocacy process is different, and it is this reality that leads me to describe the HCBS implementation process as having a disconnect.

I realized this disconnect when it became apparent that many stakeholders in the implementation process for HCBS view the implementation as a negotiation over terms, albeit a new one (or as it is often called by providers, a “fad”). Their ideal outcome would be a negotiation that allowed them to behave and be paid in exactly the same way they do now.

But, from the perspective of a person who might benefit from the implementation, the terms have a very different meaning. The rights being discussed are only incidentally about what providers can no longer do in restricting the person’s access to the full community.  HCBS implementation has the ability to open up an unrestrained vista of choice that maps to the one that all citizens expect.

All of the counter arguments to such an opening of possibility are arguments that devalue the ability of people with disabilities to benefit from such possibilities (hiding the true agenda of maintaining current payment relationships and workflows).

The fact that there is a larger “meta” strategy underlying HCBS implementation to open up these possibilities doesn’t change the requirement of negotiating as though we were creating a contract for how supports will be done. But it does re-frame what is at stake. All of our lives are a mixture of what we would choose to do if a broad range of possibilities were available, and how others work to restrict our choices to the ones that benefit them rather than us. The disconnect in the meaning of this negotiation underlies the long struggle of people with disabilities  to realize their self-chosen lives and the efforts of others to stop that.

We will see how far the HCBS implementation reaches toward that goal of equity in life possibilities. But that common goal will remain the harbinger of a truly free disabled community, and nothing less will ultimately be acceptable to all in our community.

Next Post: Functional Psychopathy

Part 3 Cont’d: Examples of Epiphanies

Tile showing a man moving from earth into the celestial spheres
Medieval Tile:  Moving from Earth to the Celestial Spheres

In my last post I tried to frame what I brought to the experience of social injustice gained from the communities in which I was raised. But the actual experience of social injustice and the experience of trying to prevent or resist it are far more powerful ways to develop the meaning of social justice and the motivation to pursue it as a calling.

All people who work in social justice go through such epiphanies that expand and deepen their commitment to, and understanding of, a calling to social justice. And every single one of those people has an entirely unique path. Some elements of mine (not special, just illustrative of how pursuing a path brings on epiphanies related to that path):

  • Personal Disability Experience: A core of any social justice calling is your own experience of stigma and oppression. I was well aware before adolescence that my thinking and mood weren’t normal, but because they were predictable I was able to imitate others and do an adequate job of passing. When I became a teenager, my first serious depression occurred along with massive social anxiety, and I understood that I was seriously disabled. At the same time, a friend of mine, who I knew was a person with a developmental disability was carted off to Lapeer Hospital. When I asked why I was told that his family didn’t think he would be able to handle junior and senior high school. I took this to mean that I too could be institutionalized if adults decided I couldn’t handle school emotionally. I hid a great deal in order to avoid institutionalization. I ran into this friend at the Michigan Arc 50th Anniversary  Conference, and he was living in his own apartment and instantly recognized me. I had a notion that he had been crushed by a system of oppression, but he had found a way to live the life he wished. A very good lesson indeed.
  • Murder at a Fiesta: When I was 15 I worked in a Catholic youth group project with migrant family crop workers in northern Bay County. Our job was to support young children (under the age of 6 or with a disability) in schoolwork. One reason was that migrant families had to come up north before school ended and not leave until after school started. Another reason was to keep young kids out of the fields and the sun.At the fiesta in early July to celebrate the end of one kind of crop work, two young men had an argument with several others. One pulled out a revolver and fired it, missing those arguing and hitting a young man in the heart 30 feet away, killing him.
  • Television of Beatings of civil rights protesters: Like many others, I was shocked by the abuse of civil rights protesters  in the mid-60’s. It was visual proof of what civil rights activists had said was the case. This vision of oppression was cemented by the killing of 3 civil rights workers.
  • Military Experience: I witnessed a large amount of racially based discrimination during both my training and combat experiences. I also tried to do something about what I saw, but was barely able to dent it. But, I saw organized efforts by black soldiers to resist that were much more effective.
  • Fred Hampton: A couple of days after I came home from Vietnam (mid-December, 1969), I read an article about the police raid that killed Fred Hampton in Chicago. There was a small black and white picture of his bed, clearly and deeply stained with his blood. I can still remember that picture though the details of the raid have faded.
  • PWD and Family Support Experiences: In the early 70’s I worked with people who had very significant brain injuries from a wide range of causes. Their families had kept them out of state institutions, and there were no supports for either the families or the person with the disability. The most important lesson I learned in this work was that persons with severe disabilities continued to develop and work for their own development largely unsupported by their environment. This was mostly due to our inability to see their actions as attempts to engage with their world and learn about it like the rest of us. I had to learn (as did the families) a deeper way of seeing so that I could support their efforts to become more. There was a real struggle involved in this learning, but it became easier and easier over time. Now I see this drive to have a larger life in everyone.
  • Advocacy experience: There are far too many lessons from my work as  an advocate at Michigan Protection and Advocacy to narrate them here. Perhaps the most important for my current work and my understanding of social justice was the realization over time and through experience that the most important drivers of oppression and devaluing are habits of thought and work, and that most people (just like me) can come to a deeper understanding of the need for and power of self-determination and choice.
  • Seeing the disability rights movement catch fire and grow: Once I understood that everyone in the disability community was struggling to become more, I could see it everywhere. Social networks (most especially including peer groups and peer work) are now taking that struggle out of the realm of the solitary activist and making it more and more a struggle through mutual support and mutual learning.

I am able to see our common work to expand the possibilities of our community far more as a force or a flow now than I could when I was younger. Even as our community faces renewed efforts to eliminate us from the social stage, we have become far more capable of asserting our right to be as we are, and to pursue our personal and community growth as we see fit. The struggle is far from over, but we are far better prepared to embrace it. My epiphanies may have less impact on me as individual events than they did when I was younger. But now they are occurring all the time, expanding and deepening my appreciation of the gift that is the struggle for social justice.

I am going to take a short break from posts about change strategy to finish work on a couple of ideas.

Next Post: The Disconnect in HCBS Advocacy


Pt. 3 Continued: More About Epiphanies

Lake of the Clouds at Dawn
Lake of the Clouds at Dawn
(This post kept getting longer and longer, so I decided to break it into 2)

My commitment to social justice as a set of values and a calling grew slowly over the first 3 decades of my life. I think the path I followed would be recognized as similar by many people, and I believe my experience illustrates the characteristics of personal change through epiphanies. Because I know my own path well, I’ll use it to illustrate the value of supporting epiphanies as part of a larger change strategy (bottom-up strategies).

Because epiphanies re-frame meaning for the individual (regardless of how many people share a particular experience),  they always remain individual in their impact. We are used to thinking about the meaning of events as impacting all participants i the same way. Of course, events don’t do this. Each person experiences an event in a way particular to their personal history and current state of being.  However, whatever the individual character of the re-framing, it affects the general system of meaning for the person sometimes for their entire life. It is this long term impact that lends strategic impact to epiphanies, though not at all like top-down victories discussed in earlier posts.

My parents came out of the depression and World War II with a commitment to equality that was typically American. They grew up in a working class neighborhood and my father was the first (and for a long time the only) person in that neighborhood who went to college. When he went to work for Dow in Midland, it was as part of professional upper middle class community and my parents found the ready devaluing of working class people offensive since it painted our entire family as inferior. They taught us that this was immoral and unacceptable.

Because of this personal, family base, Catholic social justice history made sense to me and expanded my idea of who should be able to use freedom and justice to forge their lives. The advent of the civil rights era also educated me to oppression I had not perceived before. But more important than education were the actual experiences I had as a person with a disability and as an ally to oppressed groups.

Next Post: Part 3 Cont’d: Examples of Epiphanies