Part 5: Strategic Heuristics

Complex image. See link below image for description and explanation.

Image From  Panarchy: a scale-linking perspective of systemic transformation

Unlike tactical heuristics, Strategic Heuristics aren’t procedures or techniques in the usual sense of that word. Strategic Heuristics are ways of thinking about the context that frames your advocacy initiative. Like tactical heuristics, Strategic Heuristics require practice, but more in the form of reflection, dialogue, debriefing, and similar approaches that try to learn meta-lessons from the planning and results of advocacy action.

The heuristics I’ll explore here include:

  • Creating Advocacy Possibility Spaces.
  • How apparent Constraints create points of Leverage.
  • How the Mindset of Flows produces better advocacy strategies than the Mindset of Things.
  • Using Disability Rights as a Strategic Heuristic.
  • The Recovery Model as a Framework for Community Change
  • Scaffolding
  • Symbiogenesis

There are many other strategic heuristics that you will discover through active advocacy action, reflection, dialogue, and so on.

The image in this slide depicts the nested nature of the Adaptive Cycle and the Aging of every CAS. It is worth reading although it is very abstract. Every advocacy effort that we undertake is embedded in systems above and includes systems within. Because of this, we do not make mechanical plans for measurable outcomes but develop and evolve a strategy that teaches us how to move on.

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(P4): Advocacy Cycles

A small boy walking down a two-track with a small stream of water. He is dragging a stick through the water.

Everything operates in cycles. If you understand the cycles of the system you are trying to change, you can make use of that for improving the effectiveness of advocacy tactics.

A basic cycle of those systems we seek to change is the balancing of exploration and exploitation in seeking valued system outcomes. A simple abstract example will illustrate what this means.

Predators must find food (exploration)  and they must eat it (exploitation). Finding food uses calories, which increases the urgency of the exploitation side of the cycle. Eating food does not by itself help the predator to find more food. So the animal must balance the amount of time spent looking for food with the necessity of eating it. You can think of this as an example of a strategy for dealing with the uncertainty of the future and the scarcity of resources.

Because all kinds of complex adaptive systems face this same environmental demand, their system flow is a cycle. What is important to the system varies depending on where they are in this cycle. In bureaucracies, over time and aging, exploration is entirely reduced to acquiring funding, and exploitation is reduced to internal competition over the control of funding.

For an advocacy example, State Rehabilitation Services Agencies commonly experience high demand for their supports despite chronically low funding. One impact of this is that available support monies fall off more quickly during a fiscal year than the passage of time would suggest they should. So, it’s easier to get expensive supports in the first quarter and much harder to get them in the last quarter of the agency’s fiscal year. There are many variations of this kind of insight:

  • Pushing for a summer hearing in a special education case. The district may have to pay overtime for witnesses from their district to testify in the hearing.
  • Policy change advocacy in the weeks leading up to funding decisions for the supports system. Systems try to avoid scandal when their funding is at stake.
  • Kicking the system when it’s down (say, from a political fight)
  • Etc.

We don’t tend to think of such opportunities as a part of a larger cycle, but they are.

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(P4): Nucleation

A stylized gray-blue picture of how ice crystals form from many particles.

Nucleation is a general term that I use to describe a specific repeated tactic where localized advocacy initiatives are used to maximize global response to the initiative. I know that sounds like a mouthful, so let me explain.

Nucleation is a general term for how, for example, ice crystals grow around dust particles in the air. When there is more than one particle, there are more places for ice crystals to begin to grow.

A nucleation tactic starts an advocacy initiative in several separate locations in a coordinated way without letting the local targets know that there are multiple initiatives. Because bureaucracies have limited resources, their response to advocacy initiatives is to match their resistance to the initiative to the perceived threat level to the local system. This threat is perceived as less significant if it is local and not regional or statewide.

Such an approach allows an advocacy network to test tactics and makes it more likely that one of the initiatives will succeed. That success can serve as a template or a learning opportunity for a broader less local advocacy effort. Advocates often use this kind of technique intuitively. But a nucleation tactic can be well-planned for a bigger advocacy initiative.

Nucleation can be done over time as well. For example, nucleation was used in many locations throughout Michigan over a period of several years to learn how to break classrooms segregated by disability to increase inclusion. The learnings from each attempt were shared among advocates to increase the effectiveness of each new attempt.

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(P4): Record-Keeping

An ancient written text not in English

Record-keeping is the great unsung heuristic of effective advocates. It is unsung because it seems tedious and time-consuming and seldom drives change by itself.

In the bad old days, record-keeping was incredibly tedious. For example, imagine what it took to transcribe a recording of a meeting before digital frameworks were available to support such tasks.

For example:

  • Using a live transcribe app on a phone to record a meeting and generate a correctable text.
  • Spoken note recording.
  • Composite resource documents so that related information can be reviewed in one place or document by a simple email invitation.
  • Notification when emails are read and by who.
  • Easy encryption.
  • Easy sharing of info and events in an advocacy network through apps like Slack.
  • Social Media as an adjunct to advocacy work.

It is also far easier to collaborate and organize around advocacy information, initiatives, and events through separate personal, support groups, targets, and public venues.

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(P4): Tactical Heuristics

Typical Military Tactic Maneuvers: frontal attack; break through attempt; contra flanking including extended wing contra flanking and mobile force contra flanking; successful break through including stabilizing flanks and rear operation; Hammer and anvil including unyielding front anvil and mobile hammer; Flank counterattack; decoy and destruction; Break through with advance and Counterattack.

ngd-Excuse the typos in the image. I couldn’t find another image that communicated the same stuff….

Here are some guides to making tactical decisions when you are advocating. There are many more out there and you will discover them through your advocating experience as well as the experience of others:

  • Record-Keeping: Deep record keeping has always been an advantage that advocates could have over the systems. The data that advocates develop tend to be useful for advocacy-if you have a record of it. But we often don’t make use of it effectively. This is especially unforgivable with modern digital record-keeping tools easily available.
  • The OODA loop: The OODA loop is a famous model created for pilots involved in dogfights. But its uses go well beyond this original inspiration.
  • Multiple Advocacy Initiatives: Advocacy Targets often interpret multiple advocacy initiatives as far more threatening and anxiety-provoking than single initiatives, even when multiple initiatives require almost no additional effort.
  • Nucleation: Several low-profile similar advocacy initiatives can be used to produce system change without triggering significant counter-responses.
  • Cycles as exploitable weak constraints: Everything in a CAS operates in cycles. We typically don’t pay attention to this, even though there are real exploitable opportunities if we take the time to observe and learn.

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Part 4: Advocacy Heuristics

A complex image. See Text from Image and Notes link below the image.

Text from Image and Notes

What is a Heuristic?

As a tool for disability rights advocacy, a heuristic is a framework of meaning that provides a way of developing an advocacy tactic, strategy, or organization. At its simplest, a heuristic is a rule-of-thumb, that allows us to make decisions about what to do more easily. Mostly heuristics are used to develop tactics, but they can be used at any level of decision-making and for any advocacy purpose. Heuristics represent a distillation of someone’s experience and reflection on what worked in the past.

Even a very capable heuristic guarantees nothing. Heuristics have their own built-in bias and using them automatically prevents you from noticing that bias. Remember that heuristics are initiators of reflection, discussion, and collaboration to reach a decision for action that respects the current reality and the current context, not ways to save time and thought.

So, remember that you, too, come to advocacy work with an existing set of heuristics and their biases. Capable advocacy should always be an opportunity to question, explore, and reframe the automatic responses we all have living in our world of failed social justice.

I would also note that it is common for advocacy organizations to use heuristics more and more automatically as they age.

The image is from Scott Page who has done a lot of work in the usefulness and challenges of diversity as a framework for problem-solving. His work is noted in the text through the link under the image.

The complement of this view of diversity and advocacy (kind of the other side of the coin) is detecting weak constraints in the problem by deliberately avoiding the homogenization that arises in groups. This way of respecting the lived experience of persons is called distributed ethnography (DE). DE is a complement because diversity in groups helps with both problem-solving and detection of weak constraints if approached properly. These ideas are explored more completely through links in the “Text from Image and Notes”.

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(P3): System Aging and Our Organizations

A model of how corporations age. See long description link below the image for details

Long Description of Image

There are patterns in the aging of our advocacy organizations. Because these patterns arise out of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), they are not mechanically or programmatically determined. They arise out of the interacting possibility spaces created by the governing constraints that allow the creation of the CAS in the first place. These governing constraints are Mission, Reproduction, and Hierarchy.

So, there is no rigid development pattern in advocacy organizations. Instead, there are a series of choices about enabling relationships in the complex possibility space that create the actual pattern of the organization that arises. What follows are some observations I’ve made about these patterns during the last half-century of my personal development as an advocate and the many organizations to which I have belonged.

Early Patterns

When an advocacy or social support organization is first created, it usually prizes Mission over Reproduction and Hierarchy. Partly this is because small new organizations don’t have much money, the people who are in the organization generally got into the work they do because of the way they value that Mission and the non-mission skills they have are relatively unformed compared to their understanding of the importance of the Mission. The effect of this reality is, in many ways, to set up the organization for a difficult transition that accompanies the successful growth and expansion of Mission impact.

Transition to the Two Missions Framework

There is a transformation of the organization as it tries to create the infrastructure that is necessary to sustain the work. Creating this infrastructure can be thought of as creating a new governing constraint called Reproduction. This Reproduction infrastructure includes a Board, improved methods for getting program income. a system of accounting and monitoring the use of the funds, community relationships, etc. It is typical that building this infrastructure produces mistakes. Boards crash and burn, the bookkeeper that was handling the limited funds is discovered to have embezzled some of the limited money, lack of HR experience produces very poor management decisions about the people who work at the organization, etc. The punishment (however that plays out) of these errors either destroys the organization or shifts it to a model of Two Missions (Mission as Purpose and Mission as Reproduction). If the punishments are severe enough, but the organization survives, there is a tendency for the surviving managers to value the financial/social (Reproduction) Mission over the original purpose. This causes an organization-specific development (i.e., aging) process focused on managing the relationship and value of both Mission and Reproduction.

Long Term Paths for Two Missions Organizations

Once an organization has transitioned to the realities of the Two Missions, there are many paths that the organization can follow as it struggles to manage the relationship between the sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting demands of these two governing constraints.  It is common to try to use Hierarchy to manage these challenges.

As a Governing Constraint, Hierarchy never exists separate from the Two Missions. But, management beliefs about hierarchy themselves constitute a governing constraint that defines the possibility space for the management view of the quality of solutions to organization problems.

Management view of the level of control necessary to solve management problems is often set in concrete, narrowing the range of “acceptable” ways to solve problems, which in turn guarantees poor problem-solving. Under ordinary circumstances, some public failure of the organization (embezzlement, reputation failure, or similar organizational system issue) must occur, and it is not unusual for the existing governance structures, like the Board and the senior managers to turn over before there is any major change in the Governing constraint of Hierarchy.

The usual choice to resolve this problem is to increase the control offered through Hierarchy. This choice is made out of fear, not because it genuinely offers integration of Mission and Reproduction, and increasing control often starts the organization down a path of technocratic zombism, where the original Mission no longer has any meaning.

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(P3): The Ways of System Aging

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

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

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

The Panarchy Cycle is usually described as four repeating steps:

1.Reorganization

2.Exploitation and Growth

3.Conservation and Stabilization

4.Release or Creative Destruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(P3): Meta-Systems Advocacy-Part 1

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

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

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

Mechanical Plans

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

CAS Plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(P3): Advocacy within Local Communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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