(P6): Models as Practical Tools

A diverse set of plumbing tools in a kit.

Radical Uncertainty
Small-world network
AnyLogic simulation software
Practical Planning Models
Small World: Crafting an Inclusive Classroom (No Matter What You Teach)

Because it isn’t practical to fully model a CAS, we need to ask ourselves how we will make practical use of our understandings of the target systems and policies when we create and implement an advocacy initiative.

One common approach is to try to make our existing model of the system or policy more complete by iteratively making it more complex. Our assumption is that a model that is “more like” the target will provide us with a more usable base for an advocacy plan. Unfortunately, this isn’t true, and we need to understand why if we are to realistically use models as tools for change.

As the saying goes, “All models are wrong, some models are useful”. Even a very simple model can give us useful insights into the system or policy we are  targeting, but we always need to remember that the model is not the target and that no amount of sophisticated design can ever make it the target.  The model is an abstraction and can point us toward insights that will make our advocacy more effective, but it is never a true substitute for the target. And unfortunately, as we make the model more complex, it becomes increasingly useless as a guide to action.

We are so used to processing abstractions as a part of our thinking, planning, and change work, that it is easy to confuse those abstractions with the CAS.

A better approach is to use the frameworks of the practical sciences, like engineering, medicine, carpentry, plumbing, vehicle repair, and so on, as a guide to using our knowledge and experience in an organized way to increase the impact of our work.

These practical sciences are a mesh of theory, experience, training, and intuition that can be used to understand and change an issue in a CAS, even if that CAS is, say, your water, heating, and plumbing system. If water is accumulating in your house, it can be difficult to figure out why when the puddle might be a long distance from the source, and the source might be a long distance from the “cause”. We must diagnose, hypothesize, try small safe changes to see what happens, and apply different tools for different ways of changing the system.

All of this practical engineering becomes part of our long term learning about our target.

If we wish to approach the problem with a better tool, we improve an existing one. You want a better wrench, not a tool that eliminates the need for wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers, and so on. Such an omni-tool tool will only make diagnosis, testing hypotheses, and experimentation in general to solve the problem at hand more difficult, not easier.

Put another way, think Waze when you are trying to formulate a response to a travel problem, not the creation of the entire theory of human travel for the foreseeable future. A good model of traffic flow wouldn’t be based on a representative vehicle. Instead, it would be based on a small world model of typical travel outcomes in the larger travel space. Such a model allows for an interactive dynamic between different purposes to be formulated that reflects why people travel and not simply how they travel.

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(P6): Symbiogenesis

The origin of Eukaryotic Cells, showing a diagram of the ancestral host cell with aerobic bacterium and cyanobacterium separate but moving into the ancestral cell, and, after many generations, with mitochondrion and chloroplast full integrated into the modern cell
Our Real Ancestry

The term, “Symbiogenesis” was originally developed to frame how modern cells came to contain components that originated from other independently living organisms. An abstract description of this evolutionary process is in the slide image and in some of the resource links.  More recently, there has been an effort to understand how any living entities can change their relationship from entirely separate and intensely adversarial to integrated and symbiotic. The most obvious thing from this theoretical and research-based exploration is that there are a lot of intermediate forms populating the evolutionary flow of these changing relationships.

There is nothing about this framework of “stable forms” that make movement along this “path” in one direction guaranteed. Instead Symbiogenesis is a process that depends only on the current evolutionary context and the specific path-dependent history of the relationship. The fact that the merged form of modern living cells is what allowed complex life to evolve is a happy result for us, but in no way guaranteed by evolution.

I believe it is useful to ask about the implications of this conceptual framework for the evolution in the dynamic between advocates and support systems as a heuristic for understanding a specific current relationship between some advocates and some target systems, and its implications for advocacy planning. Categories like parasite, adversary, negotiator, partner, collaborator, and symbiont can facilitate our understanding of how our relationship with a target impacts the effectiveness of our advocacy tactics and plans, and it can point us toward underlying problems in our strategy.

There is no preordained path for our relationship with a target. We operate our advocacy in an evolutionary context, and it is the nature of these CAS that any part of one at any layer of that multiply granular CAS can trigger a change in the evolutionary context of our work. The biggest mistake we can make in such a world of radical uncertainty is to not notice that the context has materially changed. Our efforts, recently fruitful, suddenly undermine our purpose. The longer it takes to realize this, the more destructive to our advocacy effort. The most common reason for failing to notice is our focus on the advocacy plan we have articulated for our initiative. Our focus constrains our ability to notice something new.

This means that “noticing” the environment is not something we should drop when we have completed our plans and begun our change effort. Instead, we must continue to pay attention to changes in the context even if they don’t seem to be relevant to our work. There is no other way to remain sufficiently engaged with the target to be aware of important contextual shifts.

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(P6): Scaling Advocacy Initiatives

Scaled terrace agriculture in green and various shades of yellow

Scaling Impact
Demystifying Scaling: Part 1 (Other parts linked)
Scaling Social Justice
Building Advocacy at Scale
Scaling external advocacy without losing your soul

Over time, any successful run of advocacy initiatives brings speculation on how these successes might be scaled.

Scaling Advocacy success can be done by expanding the scope or the time frame of advocacy. But scaling isn’t about making something you have successfully achieved bigger. No success survives deeply unchanged by being made bigger.  CAS don’t scale like jigsaw puzzles (100 pieces to a 1,000), and the outcomes of intervening in them don’t either.

We usually take our success (say, in individual representational advocacy) and turn it into something very different (say policy advocacy with a goal of making the need for representational advocacy less acute). Sometimes we look to multiply the use of a successful advocacy tactic across the target ecosystem with which we interact. In both these cases, we are building a new advocacy initiative only tentatively connected to the success we are using as a model for our scaling.

We layer these separate initiatives rather than integrating them. In an advocacy organization, we make them, in one way or another, separate boxes in our organizational chart. Usually, they are subjected to entirely different planning processes. And, over time, they become more and more distant from one another. They are monitored in different ways, and the meaning of success in the separate boxes becomes progressively distinct, as the context of the target CAS continues on its own large-scale evolutionary journey. This loss of coherence of different initiatives in the advocacy strategy seems to those involved in planning and implementing the scaling of success as an unavoidable necessity.

But how does scaling work in ecosystems, in real world change, in our brains? Not like our standard scaling of advocacy success.

Processes in a CAS are integrated across all levels in the CAS. They are “fractal” at least in analogy if not mathematically. In practical terms, this means that whatever actually happens in a CAS requires all levels of the CAS to occur. Some levels may have little going on, though, and this activity at different levels shifts constantly. When we scale fractally, we are expanding our use of the possibility space we created with our advocacy initiative without giving up the work we do on the lower levels of the CAS.

There is not a  “privileged” level in a CAS that we can use as a proxy for the entire event we are interested in if we want to scale an advocacy success, and there never is such a privileged level. Our sense that one level is privileged is no more than a result of the way abstraction works in our brains. We abstract a level and because we are focusing attention on it, we think it is privileged.  This is very much like those videos where we focus on counting the number of passes by basketball players and miss the person in the bear costume running around without a ball.

When you simply ignore a level in the reality of a CAS, you trigger unintended consequences that you will only perceive once they have already occurred. In a CAS, levels are linked to one another, and can only be ignored to the detriment of our advocacy outcomes.

At the same time, we simply can’t fathom the entirety of a CAS as it evolves, not even for a moment. Again, we can’t use machine/computer models or logic model planning frameworks to scale an advocacy success, however necessary operational planning might be for our implementation. We must use a real strategy to guide our scaling of success. One thing that means is that the programs that represent our effort to scale must be integrated to produce coherence, not boxed off from one another, so they can be selectively ignored.

The point of the strategy we develop for building coherence across our various advocacy initiatives must be its use as a framework for making decisions when the future is uncertain and our resources are scarce.

In a CAS levels are not structures. They are defined by the enabling and disruptive links in their possibility space. Things that “happen” at one level cause emergent ripples throughout the CAS both up and down the levels.

There will be more about integrating advocacy scaling efforts in the next section on the Advocacy and Target ecosystem.

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(P6): Obfuscation

Four stages of assuming background camouflage by a living creature.
Getting Hidden

Obfuscation is a general term for making it harder to understand what is going on. The resources above show the extremely common nature of obfuscation and its role in much of our social and intellectual life. It is also important in advocacy.

As I discussed earlier, outright lying has many downsides:It destroys the possibility of using authentic honesty in the negotiation of a valued outcome

It increases conflict, creating barriers to creating valued outcomes

It tells your target that it is acceptable to use deceit in countering your advocacy. It also allows the target to justify an escalation of deceit from the standard level that the target normally uses.

Obfuscation is a better heuristic than deceit for muddling your target’s understanding of your tactics as you design, create, and implement them.

Examples include:

  • Chaff: Using distractions to partially hide your real purpose. Chaff has been used to make it harder for missiles to find targets by flooding the space of the hunt with false positives.
  • Noise: triggering additional messages in your target’s information space to confuse, like twitter bots.
  • Using patterns of behavior that subtly communicate intent like a tell in poker.
  • Using proxies to cloud decisions
  • Big noise, no substance: Pretending to begin an initiative with fanfare, but no real intent.

There are many more patterns of Obfuscation in the linked resources.

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A Birthday Bounty of Beautiful Brain Bonbons

head full of ideas

My idea of the perfect birthday present is an gift card for books. My wife thinks that is boring, and I guess I understand that. But she is willing to indulge my tedious nature out of love, and my 73rd birthday this last month has already brought a bunch of new ideas which I am just beginning to explore.

Radical Uncertainty:

Two economists wrote this book to try to explain the very large number of unanticipated globally important awful events that have occurred in the last few decades. Their point is that we use risk assessment for decisions where risk can’t actually be assessed, because real uncertainty is not the same as risk.

Early in the work, they describe an anecdote from Pesident Obama’s term of office in which he and his advisors were trying to decide whether to go ahead with the SEAL raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. The discussion was around the probability that Osama was actually in the compound. The advisor assessments ranged from roughly 40 to 80%.

Now, Osama was either in the compound or he wasn’t. And there was no way for any of them to know which was true.

President Obama recognized that the discussion of probabilities couldn’t provide an answer to this basic question. He also recognized that the probabilities he was hearing actually represented the fear that his advisors had over the political consequences of a wrong decision, not whether Bin Laden was in the compound. He understood that the real question that needed answering is, “What is going on here?”.

This is the right question because it is a always a strategic error to use a risk assessment as a cover to hide the realities of a truly uncertain situation.

This confusion of risk and uncertainty happens all the time and in every part of human life. We all try to use a meaningless assessment to reduce our fear about the consequences of our decisions. And we all suffer as a result.

Obfuscation:

I had read this book when it was only available in paperback. Now I can use the highlighting and note capabilities of Kindle to reinforce and deepen my understanding of the idea of Obfuscation.

Obfuscation is like the techniques that magicians use to get one over on us. Our brain is distracted by something “so important” that we must pay attention to it, and the performer slips something through of which we are simply unaware.

Obfuscation is a very useful advocacy technique, much more useful than deceit. Ambiguity and misdirection can dramatically increase the seriousness with which the advocacy target takes your actions. It does so by forcing them to pay attention to what you are doing.

But what they see when they do pay attention is the ambiguity and misdirection of your obfuscation.

The book focuses on digital obfuscation, but the parallels with advocacy are obvious and immediately useful.

Design Justice:

This book is an unexpected orchid for my mental greenhouse. It is a real gem, and has the added value of discussing organizations and social justice initiatives in Southeast Michigan, especially in Detroit. It focuses on the actual way that technology produces structural oppression of devalued communities, including the disability community.

Oppression at root is the denial of agency to people because of their personal characteristics, their gender identification, their membership in a culture, community, or other social group, or their systematic devaluing by the oppressive construction of “universal” social institutions that are supposed to support all of us.

Early in the book, there is a masterful description of the way that the ordinary operation of scanning by TSA agents results in the public shaming of a person because of life choices. I won’t ruin the depth of the example by trying to describe it here.

I know that over the last half-century, the examples of such devaluing that have taught me the deepest lessons about the oppression of my community have been those where the ableist denial of agency to a person with a disability was entirely personal in its impact, entirely thoughtless in the mind of the perpetrator. Deliberate ableism is a true horror, but it is also more obvious, and the day-to-day chipping away at a person’s life possibilities is the much harder and darker oppression to eliminate.

Design Justice makes a real effort to reflect what we have learned from the embracing of intersectionality, not at the abstract or academic level, but in the way it suffuses every level and every part of our lives and the lives of all of us together. The personal is never separate from the universal and everything in between inside the Complex Adaptive System in which we all swim.

So-there are my first forays into the marvelous worlds that my wife’s present has given me. I look forward to many more insights on this conceptual adventure. I may even share them!

(P6): The Art of Conflict

Danger: Authorized Personnel Only; This area may have unexploded ordnance (UXO); Do not leave the road or disturbe the soil without 30 SW safety approval; If you detect unexploded ordnance, record the location, retreat from the area, and report to law enforcement at 606-3911

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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