(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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(P2): Weak Signals as Weak Constraints

Drawn picture of black slaves fighting off white slavers trying to recapture them.

  • I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.
    -Jeff Bezos
  • The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.
    -Igor Stravinsky 
  • Problems are hidden opportunities, and constraints can actually boost creativity.
    Martin Villeneuve

So, how do we use weak signals as a basis for changing Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS)? We must look carefully at the weak signal to understand how or if this signal represents a weak constraint, and what the constraint means to the Target CAS.

Earlier I pointed out that weak links buffer the wildness of CAS. This buffering is a form of constraint, and that’s why buffering works. The buffer acts a bit like the banks on a river, constraining the flow of the river without dictating the movement of individual water molecules.

Our usual understanding of system constraints mimics the beliefs of the homeless community and uber-rich communities. Constraints are barriers to the safety or freedom of these communities, and so they are eliminated. Successful elimination of such weak constraints makes those social communities brittle and hyper-responsive to small disturbances.

The image above is a drawing of the effect of the Underground Railroad during and around the Civil War. The Underground Railroad functioned as a weak constraint on the Southern Slave System It was largely ignored when it was small but was attacked (ineffectively) when it expanded and began to operate as a sign of the weakness of that Southern Slave System.

The Underground Railroad was more than a simple barrier. It actively forced the Southern Slave System to respond to it. In the same way, weak constraints do more than provide simple barriers to the system of which they are a part.

Target systems for our advocacy have many weak constraints that are a normal expected part of their day-to-day experience. They are usually ignored or tolerated because the behavior of the weak constraint is a small local cycle that doesn’t threaten the larger system’s normal behaviors. If the weak constraint begins to expand its impact on the larger system, it will trigger a response of some kind from the larger CAS.

In Part Three, I’ll talk more clearly about how we use weak constraints (and sometimes strong constraints) to produce advocated change in CAS.

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(P2): Activism as Bricolage

Theatre showing Tosca with a phrase projected onto the screen curtain, 'Power is always temporary'

Bricolage is rightly viewed as one of the “Powers of the Weak”. Elites typically view power as something exerted by a predictable machine of propaganda, sanctions, and punishments, and they view insurgents trying to change this as working to replace their machine of power with some other one.

So, bricolage, used as a tool of subversion, misdirection, or organizing, is hard for elites to see, or target. This is especially true if the bricolage is used to solve a local problem.

The point of using bricolage rather than using the system is to avoid having the problem-solving bricolage subjected to the services logic of the system.  This system services logic includes assumptions of:

  • Spending scarce resources to detect fraud
  • Using “failure demand” as a tool for managing system work rather than actually providing the service
  • After an initial period of seeking out persons eligible for the support, gradually turning the point of the system increasingly toward denial of supports.
  • Etc.

Bricolage allows a more coherent connection between support purpose and behavior. This coherence is lost once the support is subjected to the support logic of the system.

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(P2): Tinkering and Bricolage

A room full of various unexpected things for you to play with and make something new

Tinkering is standard behavior for anyone who is curious. Bricolage is a French word defining tinkering as finding a solution to a problem with whatever is in your immediate environment. Bricolage makes problem-solving local and personal and is more than just playing. Bricolage reliably produces solutions that are inexpensive, easier than managed solutions to implement, and well matched to the actual reality of the problem rather than the “planned” reality of the problem. In fact, in modern life, bricolage is a common response to solutions that are imposed by organized management.

I suspect bricolage was a primary way our hunter-gatherer ancestors engaged the problems of their daily lives. Adequate solutions would become part of a multi-generational exploration of what possibilities these solutions held, a kind of socially organized exaptive process. Bricolage speaks to the personal “engineering” drive we all have.

My father was an extremely capable chemical engineer who worked for Dow Chemical for 45 years. His primary focus over the course of his career was something called “process engineering”. His task was to take a reasonably successful research project and find out if the project had commercial potential. Researchers tend to think that you scale their successful research by simply making it a bigger version of what they used as their research methodology.

In reality, designing and building a commercial pilot that is a million times larger than the research process, respecting the physical environment of seasonal temperature changes, the length of pipes, the delivery of chemical components at the right temperature and with the catalysts and pre-product components at the right time, so the next step in the process can be successfully initiated, and so on. Process Engineering is a particularly large form of bricolage, and the difference between ideology (research) and engineering (bricolage) has many lessons for any attempt to change any CAS.

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(P2): Environmental Scanning

Wildly diverse images of pollen types in black and white

Environmental scanning is not monitoring. It is a deliberate activity designed to increase the possibility of surprise. It assumes you already have a commitment to changing your current view of reality by exposing yourself to what you couldn’t anticipate.

So, having a rigid procedure for environmental scanning won’t work. Over time, you’ll find less and less novelty and more and more repetition. You need an approach that has enough noise in its scan to produce stuff you didn’t expect or even know might exist.

I use a variety of ways of accessing information, including ones that I am uncomfortable with, or frankly disagree with, in order to maximize the possibility of surprise. This approach requires scanning a lot of useless crap. But I’ve gotten faster and more accurate in my scanning for crap over the years, so I still get a fair amount of surprise. I also add and subtract sources regularly to maintain the surprise. I use the criterion that a particular source is no longer surprising to me.

Since anybody’s experience of surprise is conditioned by the personal path they have followed in all its eccentricity and uniqueness, a useful environmental scanning approach will be customized to that anybody.  The vagaries and dynamic of our personal purpose and meaning will also influence what we find surprising, and that will change over time as we change. Our ecosystem always includes ourselves.

The way that this kind of environmental scanning helps us detect weak signals is best understood as similar to a kind of process called stochastic resonance. Stochastic resonance happens when you add noise to a weak signal. That part of the noise that matches some part of the signal will boost the “volume” of the signal. That part that doesn’t match will cancel out through interaction with other parts of the noise.

We often try to remove noise if we are dealing with a weak signal because we believe that will make the signal clearer. So it is surprising to find out that noise can help us understand weak signals. This reality is an interesting metaphor/framework for interaction with any CAS.

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