(P6): The Art of Conflict

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At its best, advocacy is a strategic art for managing the movement toward deeply valued human outcomes. This art always involves some level of conflict. After all, real change inevitably produces conflict. Conflict gives the energy to change efforts, not only for those who want change but also to those who resist change. It is this energy that helps define the possibility space for change and managing the possibility space for change makes your advocacy strategy real and productive.

Any call for eliminating conflict is simultaneously a call for reduced energy in the advocacy possibility space. Judgement of the value of reducing conflict can be part of managing an advocacy strategy and involves assessing the impact of this on the valued outcomes that are the purpose of the advocacy. Eliminating conflict eliminates vast possibilities of change.

Advocacy conflict is never relentless or total. Part of managing an advocacy strategy is understanding the limits of conflict as an effective source of energy for change.

For example, it is common for advocates that meet substantial resistance to become angry and escalate the conflict, adding energy to the advocacy possibility space to overcome resistance. But adding energy by way of anger-driven action also increases the energy of the resistance to change and undermines the ability to strategically manage the outcomes sought.

Adding energy to a possibility space through anger doesn’t magically increase the likelihood of valued outcomes. However necessary some anger is to motivating an advocacy initiative, anger should never dictate the advocacy strategy.

Anger that motivates the initiation of advocacy is generally caused by the elimination of life possibilities for real human beings. Anger that arises from the ongoing dnamic of implementing advocacy is about frustrated advocates being blocked and has nothing to do with the valued outcomes that were the driving force for the initiation of advocacy.

Any meaningful advocacy strategy always presumes some boundary on the level and type of conflict. I have always thought of this boundary as a kind of, “Below this threshold, we negotiate collaboratively, beyond this threshold, we escalate the conflict.”, a kind of bounded agreement between parties as to how the possibility space of this advocacy engagement will be managed.

Negotiating collaboratively doesn’t mean that you agree with the target system. It means that you negotiate for your valued outcomes using an advocacy framework that both parties agree is valid (like some system of statutes and rules that already exists). You can be tricky and devious in the negotiation if you don’t move outside the framework.

As a general principle, the most “strategic” way to initiate an advocacy initiative is to introduce a novel insurgency into the target. Once introduced, the target must either ignore the intrusion or respond to it. If it is ignored, advocates can always escalate the insurgency. When the target responds, a possibility space will be created for advocacy actions that enable and destabilize relationships.

The only advocacy activities that can undermine this dynamic are those that trigger a failure of commitment or creativity, our two general advantages over target systems. Being stalled or having a specific advocacy initiative defeated is simply the reality of trying to change a target CAS. We can only defeat ourselves. No target can do that. 

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(P6): The Viable System Model

Decorative Image. Look to resources for explanation of VSM

The viable system model (VSM) has been around for a long time. It was one of the first successful attempts to build an organizational model using the human body as a functional template. Interestingly, When the revolution in Chile occurred in the early ’70s, it was a VSM model that was successfully used to run the country until the right-wing coup. Its biggest advantages are:

  • It is effective at supporting individual and work unit autonomy
  • It supports communication between individuals and between subsystems that promote the good of the whole
  • It can be used effectively for organizations of any size, though it is easier to implement in small organizations
  • It can resolve a lot of the concerns that advocacy networks have when deciding to form a more structured advocacy organization
  • It is independent of funding or other sources of organizational resources

A VSM has 5 interacting subsystems:

  • System 1: The entire collection of interacting Operational units.
  • System 2: The system responsible for stability/resolving conflict between Operational units.
  • System 3: The systems responsible for optimization/generating synergy between Operational units.
  • System 4: Plans for the Future and strategies. Adaptation to a changing environment.
  • System 5: Policy.

VSM requires some real effort to grasp because it is entirely different from the way that organizations (including advocacy ones) are run. The underlying drive that makes VSM a “viable” alternative to what you are doing now is the co-equal participation of everyone and each of the Systems with one another.

It always seems easier to just dictate an outcome (or at least faster).  But autocratic decision-making always results in strategic errors and unintended consequences. Even if you can’t entirely redesign your organization, you can use VSM to redesign your workgroup or team. Your work will improve if you do.

VSM can be applied at any level of organization.

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(P6): Advocacy Organization Heuristics

Using spatial heuristics to map hunter-gather search areas in the northern Mediterranean.

There are heuristics for advocacy organizations as well as all other processes in an advocacy/target ecosystem. Remember that a heuristic isn’t a rule. It is a framework for thinking about choice when you are in uncertainty.

The core heuristic for an advocacy organization is an authentic mission. Your authentic mission isn’t the one you use in your marketing or PR. Or even necessarily your official mission. It is the one that motivates the members of your organization to work for change.

This authentic mission is a governing constraint that can be used as a possibility space for exploring change potential. Your real mission is a true strategy, in that it allows you to reduce uncertainty through an exploration of possibilities and it frames your decisions about how to make use of scarce resources.

Enabling and destabilizing relationships are the abstract ways you explore your mission’s possibility space and learn about those possibilities. Mistakes in exploration are less actual mistakes and more ways to build a longer-term model of the possibility space that can help you manage uncertainty and resource scarcity. The model is strategic in comparison with the operational enabling and destabilizing actions that are the actions you use to explore.

Ritual is also a useful heuristic in organizations that seek change, as preparation for change action. Ritual allows us to shift from our day-to-day to the way of thinking and feeling we will need to be successful in pursuing our authentic mission. Rituals are techniques (NOT rules) that can build a mission-oriented organization. There is also a large class of such rituals that can be altered to make them mission-supportive, called Liberating Structures.

Creativity in engaging the context of your organization change work is also a heuristic. Organizations can support or undermine creativity in mission work. To support creativity:

  • Don’t punish mistakes that are consistent with your mission. Mitigate the effects of the mistakes, but don’t undermine the impulse that leads to them.
  • Encourage adventure in change efforts and don’t require that all such efforts conform to a restrictive operational planning model. Finding new ways to advocate in a larger environment prevents advocacy methods from becoming mere habits. As the larger environment becomes used to your advocacy operations, the operations will become less effective at producing change compared to the resources used. Searching for new arenas of change effort in your possibility space necessitates risk and potential failure. The alternative is a change effort gradually impoverished in meaning and impact.
  • Novelty always looks like chaos at first to those for whom it is novel. It isn’t chaos; It’s better conceived as an insurgency. If your organization can use creativity to generate novelty in your advocacy context, your targets will respond, at first, with management tools that are inadequate to resolve the impact of the novelty.

There are many more heuristics you will discover as you explore the possibility space generated by your authentic mission.

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(P6): Basic Organizing Framework

A large number of wooden branches mutually supporting one another in a stack like that supporting a native american tipi.

The community of people with disabilities has used a strategy of iterative change to build rights and services entitlement for many decades. It is becoming less productive to focus solely on this strategy over time. There are many reasons for this:

  • For the last half-century, cultural and political change has pushed an agenda of ignoring the needs of others to gratify personal needs. This effort has degraded the economy and almost eliminated the resilience of individuals and their families. Most of us have little to fall back on financially or socially. Our entitlements have become what we depend on, and when those are threatened politically or financially, we don’t have any place to turn.
  • COVID-19 has exposed the brittleness of our community’s support in the larger society. Many of us will be scrambling for the near term just to stay alive. Regardless of how successful we are in adapting to the current social, political, and economic losses we will all experience, we will be eventually faced with creating some new support system largely without the help of those social, political, and economic institutions upon which we have depended in the past.
  • At the same time, many members of our community depend on technologically sophisticated and very expensive supports to maintain life. This is a chronic issue which COVID-19 is demonstrating in large during the current crisis.  We don’t have the option of ignoring or distancing ourselves from that reality. We will have to struggle with only partial success to maintain that lifeline to which we have become accustomed. In the long term, we will have to produce other ways of support that are not as fragile. We will have to do that ourselves because the larger society will fail in a variety of unpredictable ways over the next decade.
  • We can no longer depend on the System to support us. At the same time, we can’t avoid the System. Our strategy must be a bifurcated one:
    • Resistance to the loss of our rights and the destruction of our ability to live through the preservation and improvement of the System to the extent that is possible.
    • Building a much more sophisticated mutual aid network for our community that does not depend on the System for its funding or development.

We must also give up on the long-term notion of creating supports which are then absorbed by the System. Anything absorbed by the System will be subjected to the logic of the System and will have the same brittleness that the current System has. We must find a way to maintain what we need without allowing the System to reduce its effectiveness and make us dependent on the System’s current political whims.

If this goal seems impossible to you, you can begin to see the extent to which we have become dependent on systems that we do not control, and which are not accountable to us. The logic of these systems of support will never be accountable to us no matter how much we tweak them. We must view them as tools, not as solutions, tools which we use as we see fit. We must reach a point where we are not forced to submit to them.

This dual strategy can be viewed as the integration of:

  • The System as a Tool not a Solution.
  • The development of scalable Mutual Aid networks completely independent of the System.

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Part 6: Organizing for Change

A word Cloud of many, many terms related to complex adaptive systems. The most prominent are CAS, advocacy, change, system, target, relationships, constraints, target

How do the lessons of Complex Adaptive Systems impact Activist Organizing?

We have internalized the notion that the change framework for a society is a machine or, these days, a computer program. This internalization begins at an early age and is a constant meme in our environment. Because we view our society in this way, our efforts to change that society are reduced to tactical and operational plans that would only produce reliable and consistent effects in machines or computer programs or problems that are short enough or small enough so that it doesn’t matter how we view them.

But our society and all the important systems of support and oppression that people with disabilities face every day are not machines or computer programs. They are Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), and if we persist in not embracing this reality, our change efforts will fade as the ripples of a small pebble dropped in the ocean, or they will produce consequences we never intended, including a worse version of what we tried to change.

There is no way around this reality. A constant din of simple silver bullet change plans will not save us.

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(P5): Think Flow, Not Thing

A complex river channel formed by white water with eddies, small waterfalls, and pools

The human way of engaging reality is largely through habit. Two of the most basic habits of reality-engagement are to think of the world as made up of things or processes. I view these as cognitive shortcuts-as ways of simplifying our engagement to serve some personal purpose.

Viewing reality as things is a cognitive shortcut for dealing with stuff efficiently. If we are discussing something of a social/organizational or explanatory nature, we might use things to make it easy to explain or easy to decide.

But if we want to change a system, using things becomes increasingly non-productive because what we are talking about more and more resembles a complex adaptive system (CAS). Instead, effective advocacy must use processes to understand CAS and how to change them.

Because “things” are such a deep habit, it requires some effort to shift to a process view of advocacy. Processes are always networks, and a network view of strategy is very different from a static thing view. Things have boundaries and we stop thinking about a thing when we hit its boundary. Networks go on and on, and we don’t automatically stop thinking in this absence of a “boundary”. We decide to stop thinking about a process because continuing along the natural path of the network no longer serves our purpose or strategy.

Because it usually takes some effort to shift to a process view of advocacy, we must, as it were, build a habit of seeing processes. We have to more and more automatically see the network implications of the CAS we are trying to change. This requires reflection and practice and if my experience with doing this is any indication, it can be very frustrating to make this shift.

Mostly, I found trying to see network connections in stuff that I would otherwise think of as things to be an effective if slow, path for building the habit of thinking “process” instead of thinking “thing”.

But the most effective way of making this transition to understanding process is to engage people with lived experience of the system you are trying to change. The stories of their experiences will, if you listen carefully, break the hold of things that might be the habit of your thinking about your change target.

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(P5): Local Community Use of the Recovery Model for CAS Change

A diagram of a Community-Based Recovery Model. The core of the diagram is a red oval labeled Individuals and Families; The Connected  Yellow Ovals include Home: Permanent Housing; Health: Recovery, Health, and Wellness;  Purpose: Employment and Education; and Community: Social Inclusion.

Although Recovery is a model first developed for people with lived experience of mental illness, and although the word Recovery seems to point to the idea of cure as a solution to disability, as the model has developed, it is an excellent framework for small mutual support social groups to use person-centered planning to forge individual paths to personal autonomy and freedom of choice.

Recovery allows a person with the support of others who understand their lived experience of disability to manage those parts of life that interfere with that individual path. It doesn’t matter whether the interference is from a so-called “symptom” or a so-called “social determinant”. The process of finding a way to reduce or eliminate the constraint is the same.

The resources in the slide are only the tip of the iceberg in making use of the Recovery Model. The Guiding Principles of Recovery also clearly show the connection to the driving and organizing power of Person-Centered Planning:

Recovery:

  • emerges from hope
  • is person-driven
  • occurs via many pathways
  • is holistic
  • is supported by peers and allies
  • is supported through relationship and social networks
  • is culturally based and influenced
  • is supported by addressing trauma
  • involves individual, family, and community strengths and responsibility
  • is based on respect

This model is also useful for thinking about how to organize locally to produce a change in the CAS that enable or destabilize our personal and group advocacy efforts. The Recovery model should be a core of organizing locally regardless of the kind of lived experience that triggers an embrace of this model. It is also a key to building organized change through the collaboration of different disability communities (including the Substance Use Disorder community). With a common person-centered model of how we achieve together, we can be more effective advocates.

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(P5): The Heuristic of Disability Rights

A large crowd of persons using wheelchairs carrying an American-style flag with stars in the form of a wheelchair, charging across a hill.

The idea of Disability Rights has served as a heuristic for our community for centuries, in small local ways, and for the last half-century as a global organizing framework (a scaffold) for the pursuit of personal autonomy and real choice.

In the process, our community has deepened and enriched the idea of civil rights to embrace the many ways that the context of personal autonomy and choice has on making those values real in the world. More than just the concept of context framing the possibilities of freedom, we have concretely defined, repeatedly, the many real ways the nature of the context can limit or support personal autonomy.

In fact, this exploration of the ways that the larger social context, in both cultural assumptions, infrastructure, and ideas about the meaning of disability, is the most important way that personal autonomy and choice are constrained, far more than the particulars of any disability characteristic.

Our community has explored the possibility space of Disability Rights to expand the impact of our insights and our advocacy practice on the larger world. That effort has resulted in a significant increase in personal possibility over these decades and the increasing sophistication of our advocacy.

At the same time, the model we have used is increasingly brittle, given the larger political and economic evolution of our society, in particular, and globally. This kind of limitation is true of all heuristics. They are never silver bullets but must always be judged in terms of their current strategic effectiveness.

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(P5): Constraint as Leverage

A drawn diagram of a human arm showing bones, muscles, and tendons with the hand holding a ball.

One of the problems of the machine assumption about systems and the barrier assumption about constraints is that they fail to realize the possibilities that constraints in a CAS have as points of initiating change. In a CAS various constraints act as potential points of leverage. Physical and Occupational therapists understand this concept of leverage as a deep part of their professional learning and work.

In a machine, a point of constraint has a single or a small number of potential uses as leverage. In our bodies, and in CAS generally, points of leverage operate in a Possibility Space, so that many currently unrealized uses of leverage are possible. This possibility space in us also involves our brain.

If you remember the discussion of how infants develop in a possibility space, you will remember that there is a lot more to development than the acquisition of a skill outcome. At every step, every experience of the child contributes to the development of the child’s ability to engage the possibility space. They also create new relationships with that space and what/who is in it, so the possibilities of the space expand as a direct result of developmental action.

Here, that means that using leverage and learning from its use enlarges the possibilities in the space and constitutes a core of what an enabling relationship means.

We need to internalize the idea that constraint=leverage by reflecting on the possibilities of any constraint we find in our work,.

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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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