(P3): Why you shouldn’t destabilize Strong Constraints

A collapsed bridged over a river in the summer

The effort to destabilize social groups and their relationships is currently everywhere, being used at every level of every human Complex Adaptive System (CAS) of any size. Mutual destabilization has become the way various parts of CAS politically relate to one another at a scale that was ordinarily reserved in the past for plagues, wars, and large-scale natural disasters.

Such destabilization is often justified on the grounds that once the destabilization is successful, a new era of prosperity and social value will automatically blossom. In psychology, this is referred to as magical thinking.

The only way a brittle CAS becomes simpler and more humanly useful (oriented to a valued human purpose) is through a collapse, though the collapse need not be total (apocalyptic). The real problem with using any method of destabilizing the governing constraints in a CAS is that there is no way to predict or control the actual outcome of successful destabilization since the whole point of WTA (winner-take-all) constraints is the way they allow creative exploitation to run wild. The social relationships that enabled successful outcomes will become competitive one person at a time, and there is no way to see how that breakdown will spread and change the CAS. Think of a novel infectious disease and how poorly we predict its spread (say, for example, tick-borne diseases).

There is no automatic rebooting. There is no way of assuring that the “better angels of our nature” will drive the dynamic of recovery, and many reasons to think it won’t be those “angels” that drive the resulting change. Instead, the recovery will reflect the second by second interactions of what remains, not what we think should replace the past system.

It took millennia for humanity to evolve enabling social/physical systems that reflected significant support for the system’s members. It took all this time to build individual social relationships that were oriented toward general social improvement (enabling). These relationships were hard to build and hard to maintain. Destabilizing them (which is the point of the methods described in the last slide and this one) will destroy those enabling weak constraints, and there is no telling what will result.

If you review the links above, you’ll find that all recovery from collapse always takes much, much longer than the collapse itself.

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(P3): Destabilizing Strong Constraints

a balloon being pricked by a person's hand and collapsing

I have touched on these ideas earlier, but it is important to reframe them in the context of strong constraints. What follows is a story about how constraints develop and how they are destroyed.

For large CAS (like a state-organized society), the general pattern of strong constraint development can be thought of as starting from an authoritarian control system over subjects (think Egyptian Pharaohs). Over time, social relationships develop that make the CAS more efficient but undermine to totalitarian control that originally unified the state. This process in states used to take centuries to occur. This aspect of system aging has been sped up dramatically in the last couple of centuries.

These social relationships gradually become the central driver of the state society, and they become ensconced in meta-ideas like democracy or community. These relationships are “enabling” constraints because they allow groups of people to network in order to accomplish more complex, sophisticated outcomes.

Once the day to day operations have become more entirely dependent on local social relationships, the CAS is about as stable as it will get, and aging of the CAS will continue. Elites come to see the CAS as not allowing them to exploit it as easily as they once could (this perception has nothing to do with the number of assets they control). Which is to say that the increasing brittleness of the CAS as it ages is viewed as a loss of freedom by the subjects and a loss of power by elites.

In twentieth-century modernism, the idea of macro-change of an entire societal CAS evolved from the modernist belief that social reality was a machine and the arrogance that powerful superior human beings could control anything, reconstructing it to their liking. The early approaches  to manipulating governing constraints (strong constraints) clustered around two approaches:

  • Elites could take control of government power and restructure society to their liking.
  • The society could be entirely dismantled and rebuilt from scratch.

The Soviet system under Stalin is an example of the first, and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia is an example of the second. Mao tried to blend both methods in his effort to remake China.

None of these approaches worked. They annihilated, each in their own way, the underlying social network of enabling weak constraints in the CAS they attacked and replaced enabling constraints with winner-take-all constraints. The outcomes were appalling.

Today, elites in nation-states and insurgents are once again trying to increase their control. The method they are using might be described as modernist lite. Actors have developed a wide range of destabilizing techniques that can be used to undermine a target and replace enabling constraints with winner-take-all (WTA) constraints.

One technique is to delegitimize the current leader. Any group who can get lots of people out in the streets over a relatively short period of time to call for resignation can likely accomplish that. This technique doesn’t guarantee that the replacement will support the insurgents, or that someone who does support the insurgents and replaces a current leader can change the CAS for the better.

A second technique (with an astounding number of variations) is to disrupt and destroy existing social relationships to undermine the political structure that currently exists for personal or political gain. Examples include:

  • Eliminating tolerance by demonizing cultural, ethnic, religious, and political beliefs.
  • Exaggerating the impact of targeted “enemies” to social order regardless of their actual impact.
  • Making a social difference of any kind illegal in law, culture, or policy.

And so on……

The point of these disruptive actions is to replace enabling relationships with WTA ones. These techniques are political weapons that ignore the reality of the loss of enabling social relationships that took, in some cases, centuries to build, and will revert the target of destabilization to a kind of competitive anarchy in which it is much more difficult to build stabilizing social relationships. Chaotic low-level war results, leading to one or another form of authoritarian control, and a dramatic loss of social, political, economic, and environmental action effectiveness, and personal freedom and choice.

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(P3): Other Examples of Weak Constraints

Stylized figures of generic viruses, bacteria etc.

Because the CAS that we target for advocacy are very complex systems tied to a very complex larger environment, there are a very large number of weak constraints (WC) available for potential destabilization. Obviously, not all weak constraints might be similarly effective in producing a specific advocacy outcome. And, in fact, we tend to use multiple weak constraints to effect a positive advocacy outcome.

But because it seems easier or more efficient to use techniques that have proven successful in the past, we build habits of ignoring other possibilities (a kind of faux “efficiency” argument). I would argue that creativity is an essential part of successful advocacy, if only because the target system will adapt to your advocacy efforts, and you must have a ”habit” of introducing novelty into your advocacy efforts to not have them degraded significantly over time.

So I offer this list, not as anything like a complete one, but to allow meditating by review of the possibilities. Perhaps one of these might trigger a realization on your part that would point to a more sophisticated novel approach to a high-quality advocacy outcome.

Legal WC:

  • Complaints
  • Fair hearings
  • Lawsuits of various kinds

Political WC:

  • Publicity
  • Politician-targeted problem solving
  • Boards and Councils
  • Elections

Financial WC:

  • Public Funding
  • Resource Allocation
  • Financial Disparities

Systemic WC:

  • Threatening Governing Constraints
  • Introducing Novelty

Organizing WC:

  • Emerging an Insurgency
  • Building local or community resistance
  • Effective Advocacy Training
  • Building Community Advocacy Supports

Any single or combination of these WC’s could be targeted for destabilization in a specific advocacy strategy.

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(P3): How An Advocacy/Target System Evolves

The pattern problem: An example becomes a lesson; A lesson becomes a method; A method becomes a practice; A practice becomes a doctrine; A doctrine becomes death.

In 1981, I went to work for Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service as a field advocate in the counties around Michigan’s Thumb. About half of my work involved representing students and their families in special education disputes. Over the next four years, I got to observe first hand how my special education advocacy and the approach of the special education systems in my catchment area evolved. It was quite enlightening.

Initially, school districts viewed special education largely as a new program only partially paid for by the federal mandate (this remains true today). The important aspects of it to the district CAS were how to pay for it and what impact did it have on their previous model of education services. There was, early on, and continuing to this day, a constant source of tension between regular education and special education systems (SPED services receive roughly twice the funding per pupil than regular education receives). Demands by special education students for supports and services that were outside the ken of past education practice were either ignored or denied.

This framework was ripe for effective advocacy. In the first few years of special education advocacy, it was very easy to win programs, supports, and services because the district didn’t really think it had to do anything to win other than obstruct demands. Advocates had time to prepare, to deepen their understanding of the law at both Federal and State levels, and to become adept at using the state and federal rules in the negotiations.

This advantage, like all advantages in the competitive interaction between different CAS, didn’t last.

One set of changes that our effective advocacy triggered was a dramatic increase in the number of students and families that requested advocacy assistance. Since the MPAS budget didn’t increase based on demand, this resulted in less time and resources for pursuing advocacy outcomes. In turn, this made our interventions less effective, overall.

The other set of changes that our effective advocacy triggered was to be taken more seriously by the districts. They began to commit resources to fight our advocacy including, eventually, hiring attorneys on retainer to improve their obstruction.  This also meant that the cases would be more complex (basic failures of civil rights were avoided), requiring more time from advocates and less successful outcomes. The upshot of these various forces (including successful State efforts to eliminate large amounts of state funding for MPAS) was, over time, to dramatically reduce individual special education advocacy by our organization.

Similar shifts in response by the system took place at the State and Federal level. The current state of special education law is an extraordinarily rigid narrowing of the possibilities that seemed just over the horizon in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. There have been some separate increases in advocacy effectiveness in ways other than the single student advocacy model of the early years, which I will talk about later.

This pattern of initial success followed by a slow steady reduction in advocacy effectiveness and the reduction of civil rights to rigid requirements is so common across all areas of disability rights that I think of it as a standard development pattern in the exercise of advocacy.

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(P3): Destabilizing Weak Constraints in Advocacy

Image of the Night King from Game of Thrones Series

  • I came to a stark realization: chronic surpluses could be almost as destabilizing as chronic deficits. –Alan Greenspan
  • One of the points about distractions is that everything they do is destabilizing.
    -Bruce Sterling
  • Yet, history has shown that if material force can defeat some ideologies it can no longer obliterate a civilization without destabilizing the whole planet.
    Abdelaziz Bouteflika

In a Complex Adaptive System (CAS), any form of interaction between the system and the outside world can be usefully viewed as a weak constraint and a potential target for destabilization. Obviously, some constraints are closer to the heart of your advocacy outcome than others.  But there are always more ways to go after a valued change than whatever works the first time we use it.

The biggest problem we advocates have in interacting with the CAS is that we settle on a technique or procedure that has worked for us in the past. This approach, while understandable, dramatically reduces the palate of ways we might destabilize the CAS for a valued purpose.

When we use the same techniques with the same CAS over and over, the CAS will adapt to them, making our advocacy more complex and expensive for us to use. Additionally, when the larger environment in which our target faces the same set of destabilization techniques, that larger environment will also adapt, narrowing the impact of our efforts to destabilize and making the outcomes we achieve more predictable, and, thus, more manageable by targets. Both the target and our advocacy become more rigid.

An example (in the next post) will give you the idea of how local, state, and national CAS and our advocacy approaches adapt over time to successful advocacy.

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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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(P2): Weak Constraints Can Change Future CAS Behavior

Black and White photo of a small child trying to move a large boulder.
High Hopes

In addition to the obvious effect of weak constraints on the target system described earlier, we also need to understand weak constraints as fulcrums for coordination, in the same manner, that our bones, joints, and muscles serve as fulcrums for our movement, even the most sophisticated.

If there are no such constraints the system seems freer than it is when these constraints to movement are present. But, this freedom is like that of an amoeba. You can move anywhere but without any sophistication. You are “free” to do much less than you could do if the “constraints” were present. This idea of using constraints as fulcrums for sophisticated advocacy is the key to understanding how we can use the weak constraints (and sometimes the strong constraints) in a system to leverage change. What constraints enable, among other things, is the coordination of our advocacy work to achieve meaningful impact.

Because strong constraints are well defended in target CAS, it can be difficult to change them directly. But the strong constraints still represent fulcrums that the target must respect. So they can be used in much the same way as Aikido or Jiu-jitsu, by channeling the investment in energy that the target CAS must provide in order to prevent damage to itself, into “forced” change. This is different from trying to eliminate or replace strong constraints, which, frankly, almost always ends very badly.

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