The Core of Effective Advocacy Strategy

A Clipart Apple Core with red skin and what appear to be seed-eyesAn Apple Core

I’ve covered a lot of topics over the last few weeks. This post is intended to begin a new phase in this blog. If a strategy is a framework to deal with future uncertainty and scarcity of resources, then it matters what the focus of the strategy is, what aspect of the target  organizes the thinking about how to change that target. I’ll begin with an abstract statement of the core, and try to make it more concrete over later posts.

The core of an effective social justice strategy in dealing with a change target is to impact the processes that the target uses to keep itself going, changing these self-reproductive processes to make them more equitable, supportive, and productive of greater freedom and personal autonomy for devalued communities.

Whew! A mouthful…..


  • Most of the time, we try to impact the surface of an organization by advocating about a specific structural issue (policy, political position, practice). But the core of what any target does is keep itself as it is now.

    There is nothing passive about this maintenance of the status quo. Targets must actively use resources, capabilities, energy, etc. to actually do this. Though we tend to think of the status quo as not requiring maintenance effort (it is simply there), this is not true.

    While maintaining the status quo becomes more automatic over time, it still requires a significant proportion of all the time and resources the target has available. This is because all targets (for that matter, all of us) are beset by a variety of disturbances to their self-reproduction from both inside and outside. But, all this effort is often not obvious (in fact, it is deliberately made not obvious), and we don’t focus on it. We focus on public positions and individual decision makers. This is a strategic error, one of mistaking the surface for the core.

  • Put more bluntly, if you change the core of a target’s self-reproduction to promote better outcomes for your community, the organization is more likely to continue to do that.

  • You can’t engage these core processes by taking public advocacy positions, which is a typical technique. The battle over positions is a surface battle. Regardless of how that battle turns out, neither the advocacy group nor the target is changed at their core.

  • Remember that the main tactic used in individual advocacy effort is to threaten a systemic change in the target if they don’t go along with the individual advocacy goal. This approach is effective precisely because the target doesn’t want to change anything at the core.

  • Reproductive processes include governance, communication strategy, customer relation policies, bureaucratic workflow, target/outside world interface, and so on. Most of these are designed to reduce engagement with the outside world, to foster internal control over acquisition and use of resources, and to manage the political relationships both inside and outside of the target by minimizing the possibility of change. At the base of all this effort to manage the ongoing reproduction of the target is anxiety about loss of control. 

Often, the staff in the target organization are also divided between functionally surface roles and functionally core roles. The surface roles are performances; the core roles are the ones that make it possible for the organization to continue to be what it is. This reality has an impact on how we disturb the target to produce change.

Next Post: Roles as Targets of Change Strategy

How Advocacy Organizations Age

The Adaptive Cycle with 4 phases: Exploitation, Conservation, Release, Reorganization
The Adaptive Cycle

A Reminder Post before we go on:

Advocacy Organizations and Groups and their change strategies tend to age through similar phases (so can people, actually). This aging path is the default, and can be altered by conscious choice if not eliminated entirely:

Phase 1: In the early days, they are driven by passion for change, some level of general resources without many constraints, and the ability to create effective tactics faster and better than their target. Because of their target’s difficulty in responding well, they experience early success.
Phase 2: At some point, they hit a resource wall which is difficult to change. It can be funding, skills set, a more competent target, etc. This limit requires a strategic choice, whether anyone thinks of it as a strategic issue or just a crisis. In turn, this typically leads to internal conflict over governance, what to use available resources for, contradictions between public values and actual group or organization behavior, and a host of other issues with which I suspect all of you are familiar.
Phase 3: Out of this struggle, a consensus is built or forced, and those who don’t subscribe to the consensus leave, one way or another. The consensus is usually framed around the competency of the group’s operational skills, not strategy, and it tends to focus on reliable and expanding sources of funding and a complementary public face of success. There is, of course, a strategy in there somewhere. But it is implicit.
Phase 4: The group or organization stabilizes around the operational consensus, and continues. Because the new consensus does not reflect the original vision of change, the organization begins a long path in which the necessity of keeping the doors open undermines the stated mission. I think of this process as leading to a state of operational stagnation, in which the quality of outcomes are judged by the degree that they support reliable funding and reputation. This process of zombification can go on for decades and can span the entire replacement of staff, funding sources, changes in skill sets, and governance philosophies. Its stability is very hard to shift and tends to change only with a high level of corruption arising from the misuse of funds. As a former boss of mine said, “They never get you for not doing your mission. They only get you for misusing the money.”

Some Other Examples of Aging:

Creating and Maintaining the American Freeway System:
I grew up in Midland, Michigan, but the rest of my extended family lived in Detroit. Pre-Freeway, the trip to visit Detroit was 4 hours on two-lane roads traveling through many little towns. When the freeway was finished, our first trip was one hour and 15 minutes. Then repairs and maintenance started, and traffic use increased. Now, if there is no gridlock, the trip is 2 and a half hours. And it is getting worse as more maintenance is required.

The purpose of the freeway is becoming (more and more) an object for repair and maintenance and the money that can be made by doing that, and (less and less) a tool for rapid comfortable transportation.

New Humans: Brand new humans are full of possibilities, but as we age, we spend more time maintaining ourselves and less time learning and exploring possibilities.
Government: Programs start out with one purpose and gradually add rules and additional purposes until they sometimes end up doing the exact opposite of what they started out to do.
Large Corporations: When businesses start, they typically have one outcome-a product or a service. As they get bigger, they may go public and suddenly have shareholders who don’t care about the product, only how much money they are making. Often, the largest enterprises are only about money, and we find financial services corporations betting against their own customers in order to make money for individual brokers and managers.

The image at the top is a useful model of how complex systems adapt over time, and how they are replaced in the natural world. There are important lessons in the diagram for advocacy organizations and groups, as well as targets. and I will be exploring some of those in future posts.

Next Post: The Core of Effective Advocacy Strategy


The Future is Chock Full of Unintended Consequences


Blackboard with chalked written phrase, Unintended Consequences, that doesn't quite fit on the lines
Unintended Consequences


“We can control our choices, but we can’t control the consequences of those choices”
-Many authors in many contexts

Because strategies are often chosen in crisis, then frozen in policy, mission-related stories, governance, and other organizational infrastructure after the crisis has passed, the consequences of any strategic choice eventually become a day to day reality without requiring any particular awareness of those consequences on our part. Current reality becomes the focus of the organization, and how it got to be that way or what might have been if a different choice had been made is viewed as inconsequential. After enough time has passed, it is common for members of an organization, even the senior managers, to have no idea what their strategy “is” or how it actually developed. The strategy is “water to a fish”. It is there but it is everywhere, and can be safely ignored.

After the fact justification imposes a much more rational and planned notion of how the strategy came to be than was actually the case. Many times the How is not transmitted at all, and it is presented to the current organization members as a “fait accompli”.”This is how we do business.” This lack of reflection is reinforced by the use of operational plans and tactical responses rather than ongoing, open-ended, strategic conversation, as the guide for action by the members of the organization. Those operational plans always assume the current configuration of the organization as the unquestionable context for creating operational plans and implementing tactics. Even if the goal of the plan is to expand funding or organizational reach, the objectives are drawn from the current constitution of the organization. Only in failure do most organizations pay any attention to why they do things the way they do, and even then mostly to point fingers and assign blame. Moreover, the unconscious acceptance of the status quo makes even the detection of failure more difficult, much like the old metaphor of the frog and boiling water.

Because of this lack of strategic conversation and reflection, organizations tend to try to repeat their tactics and operational frameworks over and over again. After all, isn’t repetition the way to get good at something? But, all else being equal in the world of change advocacy, any repetition of a tactic or operational framework will be less effective than the previous one. Some examples:

  • Public Protest
  • Petitions
  • Shaming

Over the last half century, each of these tactics has become less effective. In the future they will continue to become less effective, all else being equal.

If all else isn’t equal, then a tactic can continue to produce good benefit. For example, ADAPT has successfully used direct action protest for several decades because the impact of people with significant disabilities blocking entrances with 300-pound electric wheel chairs has overtaxed the usual responses of law enforcement and elite power. Paddy wagons aren’t accessible, the wheelchairs themselves are impossible to move once they are shut down, etc. But the advantages of ingenious or creative uses of tactics are always temporary. There are no “7 steps to social change” techniques that will work forever.

In the big picture of social justice change, the major operational framework that social justice communities have pursued is some kind of legislative change, with community organizing as a close second. Today, we find that most of our legislative work is to stop the undermining of previous social justice gains. Where we are working for positive change, it tends to be either in communities who are trying to get basic civil rights for the first time or by pursuing small tweaks that certainly improve people’s lives, but don’t break new ground.

This is not to say there are no new ways of approaching social justice advocacy. It is only to say that the traditional approaches (actually, any approaches used over and over again) will  lose their impact over time and that this normal and expectable. To repeat, it is also inevitable.

This loss of tactical effectiveness through repetition is a kind of aging. Just as people age, so do organizations, social change tactics, and everything else that is real. In my next post, I’ll take a look at a model of the way everything ages.

Next Post: How Adaptive Systems Age

Strategy, Part 4: Another Real Strategy


A National Strategy for the Provision of Special Education in the United States

I was working with children who had brain injuries, including learning disabilities, in the early 1970’s, when there was an active discussion of what model to use in the federal legislation that would require the provision of education to all students, including those with disabilities. There were two alternatives being discussed.
The first was the use of a model that today would be called “wrap around”. The idea was that local resources would collaborate to provide services to children that included traditional education, family support, vocational and social skills support, etc.

The second was the model that was implemented and was the focusing of all responsibility for the educational support of students with disabilities on the local, intermediate, and state school systems.

In the parent community, this alternative was a no-brainer, since the apparent lesson of the civil rights era of the immediately preceding decade (the 60’s) was that civil rights laws had to be focused on a responsible party for litigation purposes, in order to enforce the civil rights framework of special education law. This notion was accurate as far as it went. With the 40th anniversary of the law, it is clear that litigation framed and clarified the meaning of the law to this day.

At the same time, it is also so clear that the current state of special education is a rigid, very partial realization of what advocates and parents had hoped for when the law was passed. Absent momentum for change like that which built and energized the parent movement in the early 70’s, the current law will remain as it is now only the subject of tweaking and puttering in the future. Of the values that supported the original, the only one that has deepened up to this day is the idea of expanding universal access to education, albeit to a weak and inadequate continuum of supports, and active resistance by educational systems to that value’s implementation.

It isn’t clear that the other alternative would have, on balance, produced a better outcome, but there is no question that it would have produced a very different education system, which is the point of this strategic discussion. If the wrap around system had been codified in law, I suspect our focus would be on collaboration agreements, and that it would be easier to perturb the system because of the number of local actors who would be actively and independently involved in the implementation of a set of supports for a specific student. It might also be easier to develop group supports that didn’t undermine the critical nature of customized support for a specific student.

It might  be interesting to consider a strategy of supports integration for students that used the framework of Medicaid covered services in a model like the Accountable Community Organization (ACO) that the Center for Medicaid/Medicare Services recently released. This model attempts to implement supports for issues in the social determinants of health along with other social supports, educational supports, and primary care integration. The goal of the model is to reduce health issue impact on life chances in non-health areas as well as health care for individuals and families in a specific community.

There are many more lessons about choosing strategies that can be learned from the choices that were made to implement special education, especially in financing and rights. But they would take up an awful lot of space, so I’ll put that discussion off to another day.

Next Post: Strategy, Part 5: Unintended Consequences of Strategies


Strategy, Part 3: A Real Strategy


Traditionally, a strategy is about ways, means, and ends. In operational planning mode, this means detailing the paths, tools, and outcomes, as in a logic model.

A real strategy provides more than this. It realizes a framework, not just for describing, but also dynamically coordinating ways, means, and ends, and providing guidance when the context of your effort changes-not dictating ways, means, and ends as a result of being somehow able to predict the future. After all, the larger world is always changing, and when it does, if we are faithful to our values and our hopes, we should support our change goals by shifting the relationship between ways, means, and ends.

Dynamic coordination means that you can change anything arising from your strategy at any time if the context changes (which it always will). Operational plans only allow you to tweak a way, a means, or an end, not fundamentally alter their relationships.

I’m going to take you through 2 genuine strategies. These two strategies were actually used in the real world, and they have all the complexity and depth that we should expect from our change strategies, even if the scope of our strategy will probably be much narrower than these. I will discuss one below and then describe the other in the next post.

The Allied Strategy in World War II:

You may have heard the phrase “unconditional surrender” as a description of the Allied strategy against the Axis in WWII. This was not just a slogan to mobilize citizen support. It was a strategy that grew out of the failure of the “negotiated settlement” that had ended WWI. In fact, the belief was that the settlement had led directly to the rise of fascism in Germany, and contributed to the rise of fascism in Japan and Italy.

Unconditional Surrender had profound consequences for both the prosecution of the war and its impact on all the participants. A reasonable guess would be that twice as many people died as would have if negotiation short of unconditional surrender had been a possibility. Ditto for infrastructure destruction, the number of people who acquired life-long disabilities, and the dramatic shrinking of social capacity that occurred in the Axis states. It is unclear whether the Holocaust would have been less humanly destructive, or even more so, had a settlement been allowed in, say, 1943. The industrialization of the US and the Soviet Union were dramatically accelerated by this strategy of Unconditional Surrender, leading directly to the Cold War. The race for nuclear weapons would have been slowed had the war ended in 1943. At the same time, it is possible that Germany would have acquired nuclear weapon technology had the war been foreshortened by a settlement.

My point is that this choice of a strategy has had real, concrete consequences down through post-war history to this day.

Strategy, Part 2: Fictitious Consensus


Inuit Caribou Figurine in wood
Inuit Caribou Figurine

In the first edition of Planet Medicine, by Richard Grossinger, he describes a tribal method to begin the hunt for caribou which has a fascinating connection to our modern approaches to building and maintaining consensus in the creation and implementation of complex planning (and also complex change).

The short overview of the ritual is that the shoulder blade of a previously hunted caribou is heated over a fire until cracks appear in it. The bone is oriented to map the hunting territory of the tribe, and the cracks are interpreted as the paths of caribou herds. A tribal decision about where to start the hunt is made on the basis of the information on the bone.

The ritual practice, in one form or another,  has been used by many different communities. The question that Grossinger raised was why the practice survived when there is no correlation between the map and the actual location of herds of caribou in the hunting territory.

He offered two kinds of possibilities:

  • The ritual solved the problem of how to get started quickly on the hunt when the actual location of the herds couldn’t be determined. In this environment of significant uncertainty, it was better for the tribe to start hunting right away and gradually discover where the herds were, rather than wasting time arguing among themselves about where to start. Certainly anyone who has been in a modern meeting trying to make a decision about a problem without enough information to do so will sympathize with this very effective way of producing consensus about doing something. Perhaps the most significant deficit of our modern approach to dealing with large uncertainties is the way social, political, and financial conflicts and their negotiated resolution eliminate any useful consideration of inherent uncertainty.
  • The second possibility was more subtle. Because the effect of the ritual was to have the tribe start their hunt in a more or less random place in their hunting territory, it was not possible for the caribou herds to evolve a defense against the hunting plans used by the tribe. The relationship between the tribe and its food source was kept stable by the ritual, adding a measure of constraint to a truly uncertain task.

Change advocacy as a social action framework is more like hunting caribou than it is like designing and building a nuclear power plant. There is significant uncertainty in creating and implementing change in Snowden’s “complex systems”, and when humans try to manifest that change, they will, by the very nature of what they are trying to do, engage in the social construction of some fiction to begin their change work. They will use shared values and their common commitment to outcomes consistent with those values to begin engaging with the target of their effort, learning as they go, evolving a plan of change through action, and, hopefully, achieving the change they desire by adapting their action to fit the constraints and ongoing evolution of the target.

We need to accept the uncertainty of what we do and the complex context within which that uncertainty lives if we expect to enhance our change effectiveness. In an environment of uncertainty, detailed pre-action planning wishes uncertainty away through the apparent detail and concreteness of the plan, creating the arrogance of the planners of Fukushima, who thought they could afford financial and political compromise in the creation of their fictional starting consensus.  Better to learn while on the path of change, than to assume that everything important is already known.

These last two posts have looked at the role of uncertainty in justifying an open, one step at a time, evolutionary approach to change. I have tried to emphasize this difference because of the astounding dominance of detailed operational planning as a method to secure a predictable change in our global culture. As useful as such planning is in creating complicated artifacts (like nuclear power plants), the failure of typical operational planning to include the lessons of an evolving environment brings immense danger with it. There is no greater danger than the assumption that because our social focus should be on the complicated artifact we are trying to create, the only relevant considerations should be the negotiation necessary to secure the beginning of the project. Social, political, and financial conflicts become the only “problems to be solved”. Everything else is in the detail of the plan.

Because of the dominance of operational planning as a substitute for a real strategy, I am going to take one more crack at framing the differences between this global  convention and evolutionary change action, by discussing one of the oldest distinctions in systems theory: The difference between Open and Closed systems.

Next Post: Lessons from the Casino of Life


Strategy, Part 1: Strategy and Uncertainty

A diagram of counterinsurgent activity in Afghanistan that looks like a plate of spaghetti and can't be understood

This Isn’t A Strategy

Today, we use the word strategy to describe any planned action model to achieve outcomes. But historically strategy served a different purpose than simply describing an action plan.

A strategy is a change framework designed to deal with two realities:

  • The uncertainty of the future
  • The scarcity of available resources (including funding, staff, skill sets, networking, values, etc.).

An operational plan, on the other hand, by its nature is supposed to draw boundaries and eliminate uncertainty by detailing the specific action path to outcomes before the project starts, and by applying a budgetary limit for the achievement of those outcomes.

In this first post, I’m going to talk about the difference between Risk and Uncertainty, since uncertainty is part of the reason why we need a strategy.

Risk and Uncertainty are not the same, though we tend to think that they are synonyms.

Risk is statistically calculable-which is to say, we can assign a probability to the risk because we have some source of data that allows us to estimate how likely the event is. The proper response to this risk probability is to mitigate risk, to take steps that will allow us to react quickly to reduce the impact of the event that we are worried about.

We can’t assign a probability to real uncertainty though it is common for organizations to define uncertainty as risk, so it will be seen as manageable and requiring no particular change of current behavior. If we confuse uncertainty with risk, we will end up imagining events (since we are uncertain as to what will actually happen), assigning them a fictitious probability, and developing fictitious mitigation strategies.

The perfect example of this was the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown. In the planning for building the power plant, the corporation’s design system had discussions of how to quantify the likelihood of an earthquake that would threaten the integrity of the plant’s operation. These discussions were only incidentally about the actual risk. They were mostly about the initial costs of building the plant to mitigate the results of an earthquake since that structural mitigation would dramatically affect the cost of building the plant and the potential profit from its operation.

You can easily imagine ongoing arguments between engineers and financial planners about the right investment in earthquake mitigation. What they settled on was a model that made the construction of the plant able to withstand an earthquake that was 10 times stronger than any earthquake in Japan’s history (that is, experiential history, written history, narrative history, since there was no way to access historical evidence of earthquakes back beyond these sources of data).

Of course, the actual earthquake was several orders of magnitude greater than any earthquake in that historical record and resulted in the complete loss of plant integrity and an ongoing destruction of the area around the plant and in earth’s oceans that will continue at some level for longer than anyone currently alive will be around to see it.

Obviously, the planners for this nuclear plant had no idea what the actual risk of this event was. They concocted a model of the “risk” that would allow them to build the plant, satisfy state regulators and provide predictable financial projections to the organization and its investors. The model was entirely wrong but was financially,  socially, and politically useful.

While nuclear meltdown is seldom a possibility in our change efforts, we often follow exactly the same line of reasoning that the engineers and financial planners did for the Fukushima plant.

The answer to uncertainty is not an operational approach to a mitigating a fictitious risk, but the development of a real strategy.

Next Post, Part 2: Fictitious approaches to uncertainty as social glue.

An Example of Complex System Advocacy


ADAPT Rally 1990, young man in wheel chair in front of MLK monument
ADAPT Rally 1990


I discussed in my last post the reality that most real ongoing advocacy involves dealing with target systems in the complex realm. This means that there won’t be straightforward expert based advocacy solutions that can be easily implemented through typical logic model plans. Instead, we must find our way a bit at a time, trying change ideas, seeing what they do, and building on the efforts that produce some successful change. The description of an advocacy effort directed toward a target is more like an evolutionary process than it is what we think of as planned change. Like any evolutionary process, both the advocacy effort and the target are changing and responding throughout. Advocacy in complex systems is a learning process, not a plan execution.

I worked for Michigan Protection and Advocacy starting in 1981, and roughly half of my direct advocacy work was representing students and their families in special education issues. It was very interesting work, and the evolution of MPAS special education advocacy illustrates advocacy in complex systems.

When I first began advocating on behalf of students and families, it was very easy to win the negotiations with schools. Mostly, this was because the school districts considered special education a small part of their overall responsibilities, whereas we saw special education advocacy as one core service of what we did as advocates. We knew the laws and rules better than the schools, we had more practice at things like special education complaints, and we were expected to be well prepared when we went into the education planning meetings on behalf of a specific student, unlike the schools who were running (sometimes) hundreds of education planning meetings in a few weeks. So, we won most of the negotiations, even if they went to formal hearings. Also, the families we represented were very grateful, and we liked that. Finally, it was easy and quick for us to solve the problem ourselves without taking the time to teach the families how to advocate on their own behalf in future.

This worked well for the a few years. But at first slowly and then much more quickly, a number of things began to happen.

The first was that local school districts and ISDs began to hire attorneys for specific cases, and eventually, keep the attorneys on retainer. Especially when districts had attorneys on retainer, they used them in lots of situations, since they were paying them anyway. This meant that schools stopped making simple rules errors, and the cases themselves became more complex. In turn, this meant that advocacy required more research, more time, more layers of appeal, more meetings, and fewer victories.

The second thing that happened was that families told their friends in the special education community and we had a sizeable uptick in the number of requests for advocacy support. Also, since we had inadvertently encouraged dependence, we got the same families back year after year for representation in their education planning meetings. This produced a sharp spike each year in such requests, and, after a few years, we no longer had the time or resources to respond well to all the requests.

Which is to say, that we ran into a resource limit as a direct result of our success. This limit was not just some lack of funding. A great deal of skill is required to properly negotiate such cases successfully, and there simply weren’t enough experienced special education advocates to handle the demand. In fact, the Michigan Department Of Education estimated that 10% of the special education planning meetings each year were contentious (i.e., needed an advocate), and that amounted to ~20,000 or so meetings a year. Since a single advocate could only handle about 100 cases a year, that meant we need 200 full time advocates. That was never going to happen.

The organization had to respond to this evolutionary demand from the environment, and there were basically 3 alternatives. These 3 alternatives are roughly the same for any advocacy organization that faces a resource limit (an evolutionary challenge) in implementing their mission.

Keep Current Practice: Most organizations struggle to maintain what they see as the most important parts of their change advocacy, and to try to alter the forces in the environment that are requiring this strategic reconsideration. This approach almost never works. Even when it does, it is typically for a relatively short period. Instead, the organization becomes less capable over time, bureaucratizing its workflows in order to gain control over the demand. One of the telltale signs of this is a sharp rise in what the British refer to as “failure demand”-calls, letters and other contacts from clients asking for updates or responses where the response is that nothing has changed. Failure demand sucks up time that the organization already doesn’t have because of the resource squeeze.

Modify the Current Model: Various versions of constraining the actual response are made across mission related demand so that the organization can control demand. In the case I experienced, the core responses of individual advocacy and legal responses were kept more or less intact, but the percentage of cases considered for these two responses was reduced through the use of an issue priority system that was updated each year. These contacts were responded to by an organized Information and Referral process. I&R became the primary response for roughly 80-90% of the contacts, and the number of demand contacts has plateaued at many thousands.

New Way of Doing Business: The one discussed during the transition I experienced was to move to a community organizing model, in which organization staff would work as organizers training and providing technical assistance to families in local school districts, building up a more or less permanent cadre of special education advocates around the state.

As you can imagine, there are many potential variations of these three canonical responses to resource scarcity. There isn’t a “best” response. There is only the response that the advocacy organization chooses, which maps out the organization’s future for many years, and lays out a path of skill and capability (learning) that the organization will track until another evolutionary challenge comes along.

This is the way that dealing with complex advocacy always works. It has little in common with the pretty picture of a logic model implementation. It isn’t that plans are of no use. Rather the plans are executed inside this evolutionary environment in which the advocacy effort and the target both adapt.

Next Post: Some other ways of looking at advocacy in complex systems

Cynefin Framework: Unordered Systems


In my last post, I discussed the right-hand side of the Cynefin Diagram, the Ordered Systems. Today, I’ll discuss the left-hand side of the diagram, the Unordered Systems.

We hear a lot about chaotic systems these days, but Chaos is always a short term event. Chaos produces Novel Actions, stuff we can’t predict, and our best response is to act according to our values (not our past practice), see what happens, and support the best of the novelty that appears. It is difficult to have an effective change strategy in a genuinely chaotic situation. But, engagement by your organization or group will let you learn what you can from the turbulence.

Complex systems are largely the place where advocacy groups plot and execute their change strategies. Most typical organizational planning is focused on the Complicated Realm, however, and we often try to make our interactions as part of complex systems change fit the logic and “predictability” of the complicated realm.

This is a mistake, and continuing to interpret the complex as complicated (and amenable to procedurally focused planning and execution models) is a strategic error, weakening our change strategies and constraining the possibilities for real change.

In this complex realm, your organization or group and your change target become part of a single system that is changing together or coevolving. The longer you pursue change in a particular target, the deeper the coevolutionary relationship becomes. Put simply, you change the target and the target changes you.

Part of the change in you involves the learning you acquire about your target, which in turn is largely a result of the responses that your target uses to blunt or counter the change strategy you are implementing. Ideally, your learning from this coevolutionary relationship improves the effectiveness of your change strategy for this effort and for future ones.

In advocacy organizations, people who have been around for a while and have created and experienced change efforts against a target will often recognize a pattern in a current change effort that has either appeared before or which is a variation of one they have worked on in the past. This recognition of a pattern doesn’t dictate a specific advocacy action but provides a guide for creating a customized response to the current circumstances of the advocacy effort. Interestingly, efforts (I have seen many) to identify such patterns and make them explicit so they can be shared  with people who haven’t experienced them are largely failures. The pattern is best recognized and used in a real situation, and it is hard to pull out in the abstract (say for an advocacy manual); it is also hard for new advocates to grasp the importance of the pattern outside a real change situation. This is clearly different from the Complicated System where you can create a user’s manual for each component, and reuse already existing explicit information (from blueprints, procedures, experts, etc.) to solve a very specific problem.

In complex systems advocacy, you should try probing the target for its range of responses so that you can learn more about how it views your change effort, and how sophisticated its experience really is in the current engagement. Which is another way of saying that the success of your advocacy depends on your ability to learn from your current engagement with a specific target.

I know that the above is a mouthful. In my next post, I will use concrete examples from actual advocacy efforts to show how important this coevolution with our change target is, and better illustrate the weakness of a “complicated system, detailed planning, measurable outcomes” approach.

Interventions in Complex Systems


Cynefin Framework: Ordered Systems


The right side of the Cynefin diagram represents ordered systems. Most of the time, even when a system is clearly unordered, we try to interpret it and change it as though it were ordered. I will go into more detail about how poorly such an approach to change can work in the next post.

Simple Systems

The lower part of the diagram covers what Snowden calls simple systems. As a very simple example, consider a form that your organizations submits every month or every quarter because the form is required for you to maintain some employee benefit. Basically, filling in the form assures some agency of government that you are doing the same thing you were the last time you submitted the form, and the form, signed and sent, makes you liable if you aren’t doing things right.

You update each time if there is anything that is actually new. A more involved version of this same concept of a simple system would be tweaking a personnel policy because of a change in your organization or the rules regarding such policies. Most of the time, with a little effort, you can figure out what needs to be tweaked, make the changes, and be done with it.

Snowden describes these activities as “Best Practices”. There is a right way to perform these actions and once you figure it out, you can pretty readily keep doing it right. You identify the task (Sense), you connect what you Sense to a task you have more or less done before (Categorize), and you Respond with the appropriate output.

Much of day-to-day work for most people falls into this kind of system.

Complicated Systems

Systems are called complicated because they have lots of parts. Think of an airplane, like a 747, or a computer. When a complicated system is being designed, the relationships between the parts need to be rigidly constrained. We don’t want the wing of a 747 to suddenly decide that it needs to be somewhere other than remaining attached to the plane. Also, while the parts are optimized for being a part of the 747, they are not necessarily optimized for what they could be if they weren’t part of the 747. It is a bad idea to have one part that will last forever and another connected to it that fails with great regularity. In complicated systems, parts and their maintenance are often tailored to each other so that failure of the system as a whole won’t occur.

Much of the design of our organizations and change groups become complicated in this sense over time, as we get bigger and have more complicated constraints (laws, audit requirements, 3rd party contracts, etc.). These design changes are usually done because they can’t be avoided, and we tend to add the changes and make some adjustments in the rest of our organization or group to accommodate them. It is like trying to remodel the 747 while it is flying.  Optimization doesn’t enter into our organizational results because we have to keep the doors open while we design and make the changes. After such changes, organizations usually go through a process of running into “pain points” that didn’t exist before the change. We muddle with these to make them work as well as we can, but some aspects of such change will show up in employee stories about the problems in the organization for years. Some will even outlive the employment of every person who participated in the original change.

If a change is particularly difficult (say, rewriting your retirement plan to make it compliant with a new Federal law), you might hire an expert to help plan and implement the change (say to draft a compliant plan which you can then tweak to fit your organization). Even though you end up with a plan, it had to be created part by part in the same way that you would design or build that 747.

This need for real design is the reason why “Analyze” replaces “Categorize”.  The notion of problem solving rather than matching an exact solution is the reason why Snowden describes this quadrant as “Good Practice”. Nonetheless, understanding (making sense of) a complicated system can be achieved one piece at a time. Think of the metaphor of a “blueprint” (I’m old enough to remember when blueprints were blue). While you may not be able to get the whole of the 747 inside your head, you can go through the entirety of the plan by using the design documents and the narratives attached to them. Much of what we think of as funding proposals qualifies them as complicated systems. We are constructing them a piece at a time, and organizing them in a way that will show the proposal reviewers what we expect to happen and how we expect to make things happen. A blueprint. In fact, most strategic plans are also blueprints. This may seem obvious to you as you read that last sentence. But as I hope to show you in the next post, blueprints don’t work well with complex systems, and they don’t work period with chaotic ones.

Introduction Cynefin (video)