(P1): Basic Ways of Thinking about CAS

A hand drawn diagram of the Cynefin Framework which is ironically very complex. Text Version through link.

By Edward Stoop at Sketching Maniacs
Text Version of Hand-drawn Cynefin Diagram

Because changing a CAS requires an entirely different way of engaging, we must develop new skills and new ways of perceiving in order to manage the losses we will not be able to avoid and to frame our future actions more strategically. These new skills are not mechanical procedures or recipes. They require ongoing engagement with the CAS and flexibility of response. These two dimensions of our CAS change strategy are the very things we have spent millennia trying to eliminate from our change plans, and our work to increase engagement and flexibility result from the rejection of the “system as machine” mentality.

This is not in any way a moralistic judgment. Unintended consequences don’t occur because there is some personal moral sanction being made by the universe that your actions are bad. Every time we create a short-term advantage for ourselves, we create an unintended and largely unperceived consequence somewhere down the tunnel of the future elsewhere in the CAS.

Humans are evolutionarily favored in devising and using short-term tactics to secure some immediate good. Before states were a reality (say, 7,000 years ago), this worked well for us generally. There was enough room in the world for our waste or mistakes to be recycled as we migrated elsewhere. The world would be “fixed” before we came back to the place we started, as it were. Now, over time, someone will eventually pay for our short-term thinking. Unintended consequences are triggered by all our efforts to stay ahead of the results of our current decisions. And, everyone else is doing the same thing. So, we or our descendants all eventually get burned by the distant actions of someone else. Our tweaks just make things worse over time.

The following posts will focus on one aspect of engaging CAS or another. The image in this slide is itself an engaging way to think about CAS.

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(P1): Approaching the Wild CAS

A Large powerful waterfall at Eagle River in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, as an example of a wild CAS
Eagle River

One of the ways of thinking about modern society is that our lives are becoming more like membership in a wild ecosystem. Our common CAS is becoming more like the ecosystems that existed before humans had such a profound impact on nature.

For many centuries, societies have reflected some set of values and outcomes derived from the effort by elites to make society gratify elite needs. But the shift toward a more ecosystem-like CAS is gradually undermining this hierarchical control, and like an ecosystem, it is becoming more difficult for any individual to organize their own future.  Hence, the willingness of Tech tycoons to consider going to another planet in order to preserve their privilege (see linked article above).

Although we think of power as something that an individual has, power is gifted to a person or group by a larger community (human, financial, religious, etc.). It can be and is taken away when the community no longer sees that the person or group contributes to its purpose. While an “apex predator” makes a convenient political metaphor for power and control, in a real ecosystem, the predators die off if the actual ecological basis of their supposed “power” disintegrates.

Our society is becoming more like other evolutionary systems, and there is no guarantee that such a process shift will favor humans (or our disability community), or for that matter anything that now exists. Evolutionary systems favor continuing evolution, not any of the “parts” of the CAS. The continuation of evolutionary change depends on the generation of variation as evolution’s hedge against the uncertainty of the future. That future uncertainty clouds all efforts to control the future and spawns a dodgy business opportunity for anyone willing to claim they can predict the future.

We humans tried to work around that reality by isolating and organizing our exploitation of nature to buffer our goals against the relentlessly increasing complexity of unintended consequences. We are losing that long-standing effort for the same reason that all short-term advantage gives way to the “revenge” of long term biological processes.

My point is, as it is elsewhere, that traditional control behavior is becoming less and less effective and more and more expensive every second of every day.

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Part 1: Changing Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS): How Exactly?

A slide entitled Wrangling Complexity, with stick figures working on computers to manage a network shown on a large screen.

There are two problems with the Title Question: How and Exactly.

We automatically use machine model beliefs and operational planning to build and implement change. Such an approach is largely inadequate for a CAS.

Any CAS has mechanical aspects and we can delude ourselves into thinking that because we can change the mechanical aspects with operational planning, that we should be able to change the whole Kit and Kaboodle that way (as in, for example, “you can only change what you can measure”, and similar sophistry).

It ain’t so.

As the slide image suggests, changing a CAS is more like wrangling (cats, say) than standard measurable outcomes based operational planning would have us believe.

If our old standard tools and operating assumptions don’t give us the control we seek, what will?

Well, the bad news is that nothing will give us that amount or scope of control over a CAS. The good news, as unlikely as it might seem, is that we can change the way we approach CAS and be effective.

A CAS is a “dispositional system”, not a mechanical one. A CAS tends to move in directions, but because of the interaction of its parts, there are no guarantees about where it will end up.

Changing a CAS is like approaching a cobra to take close up photos. You can get those photos, but you need to be circumspect to avoid getting bit.

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FutureStrategy Recap

The original double attractor that demonstrated the variation and complexity of weather. It looks like a pair of eyes with no path repetition.
Why The Weather is Hard to Predict
  • Twice and thrice over, as they say, good is it to repeat and review what is good.
    -Plato
  • Even if we remember the past, odds are good we’ll still repeat it.
    Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Reminiscence and self-parody are part of remaining true to oneself.
    -John Updike

After a half-century of progress in the advocacy by our community for the support we need to live lives of choice and freedom, our work is stalled. Many forces (together called the #reaction) in the larger society are contributing to this struggle. Changing any one of them will not alter the momentum of this steadily expanding global backlash. Recently, the effort to stop and reverse the progress the disability community has achieved has become increasingly public and has spread to every part of the political and support systems upon which we depend for the quality of our lives and the freedom to make our own choices about how we will live those lives.

The disability community has gradually become a part of the general response of many communities to the current reality, popularly know as the #resistance.

The resistance seeks to restore the momentum of change in the direction it had previously. However, the trouble with resistance is that the past can’t be restored to what it was so that progress can continue as it would have if the forces of reaction hadn’t fought against progress. As necessary as resistance is, it is not enough. Resistance can’t “correct” the complex adaptive system that is our society. Resistance can undermine the momentum of the reaction, but it can’t create a new basis for progress by itself.

While resistance can slow and disrupt the reaction, resistance is meaningless unless we have a strategy which we can use for a counterstroke when the reaction is sufficiently weak. Without that strategy, the result of resistance will be less capable (if less damaging) society, at least as far as our freedom and choice are concerned.

The counterstroke of the disability community must have two phases:

  • We must support the resistance to weaken the reaction because doing so is a tactical necessity for keeping us living our lives.
  • We must begin to build our counterstroke, a response that will reduce our dependence on the social system for those supports we need to survive.

This double-sided approach is FutureStrategy. If we embrace it, we will need to simultaneously try to extract as much support as we can from the society through the resistance, and we will begin to build our own supports, separate from the system and emerging from our local community, based on the system realities we face in each moment of this rapidly, and complexly evolving society.

The image in the slide is the original attractor model that Lorenz used in his discovery of the volatility of weather. I suggest you view it as a metaphor for the two-pronged strategy described here.

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Part 6: Onward!!

A large lego structure built to travel and containing ongoing construction on its various levels
Our Future: Mortal Engines
  • “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”
    Sun Tzu
  • How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can start now, start slowly changing the world
    Anne Frank
  • Why always, “not yet”? Do flowers in spring say, “not yet”?
    – Norman Douglas
  • The hour is ripe, and yonder lies the way.
    – Virgil

Though the content of these posts has not been joyfully optimistic, I hope you have found a sense in your heart that we can make a world for ourselves that works hard to maintain and expand our possibilities and choices in our common future.

So we need to get on with it, starting today and continuing with a valued strategy of building community and supports.

Even in the relentless face of our declining value as a community in our larger society.

(P5): Some Strategic Rules of Thumb

A sign on a pole that says, No parking; Monkeys poop on windshield
Words to Live By

These are not procedures or any form of “7 steps to success”. They are guiding notions that can open up possibilities for the situation that you and your personal network face.

What to do when you can’t reduce the uncertainty effectively:

  • The Indirect Approach: Liddell Hart was the person who developed the idea of the “Indirect Approach” in the West, through the use of the idea has always been reflected in effective strategies. Sun Tzu is the best-known example of Eastern Thought on the same issue, and Hart read Sun Tzu as he developed his own framework. The idea is that as you implement your plan, you hide the actual target of that plan. Geographically, you might choose an approach path that is between a number of potentially useful targets, moving toward your choice only at the last minute. Conceptually, you might advocate for small pieces of your advocacy strategy, without revealing how you would use a victory in the small pieces. The purpose of using this approach is to force your opponent to commit scarce resources to the defense of targets that won’t actually turn out to be targets, and to increase uncertainty in your opponent’s planning.
  • Avoid Irreversible Commitments: In the Cynefin model, this is called “fail-safe experiments”. You try out ideas on a small scale to learn more about how they work in the current reality. Then, you ask yourself what you can do to make the successful ones more common.
  • Build Reserves: Reserves are a kind of redundancy that you build to make it easier for you to turn on a dime when your view of the future turns out to be inaccurate. Reserves are not just cash. They include trust, cross-skills training, mutual support, and a host of other things described in various posts. Reserves mean a bunch of different resources that partially overlap. It doesn’t mean a big pile of the same stuff.
  • Weak and Strong Links in Your Network: In network theory, it is useful to distinguish between strong and weak links in a network when thinking about change. The Strong Links are the ones that drive whatever it is that the network is doing. The Weak Links buffer the volatility and unpredictability of the interactions between those strong links so that they don’t cause the network to run away uncontrollably. People who are deeply focused on their own personal power think that weak links are preventing them from increasing their personal power (however they define that) and seek to eliminate them. Interestingly, the two communities that deliberately and successfully eliminate weak links, thus exposing themselves to volatility, are homeless and destitute people, and the 1%.

 

(P5): Cynefin: A Better Way to Think about Change

Updated Cynefin Model Diagram: 4 quadrants of kinds of systems: OBVIOUS-Tightly constrained; no degrees of freedom; sense-categorize-respond; Use Best Practice. COMPLICATED-Governing Constraints; tightly coupled; sense-analyze-respond; Good Practice. COMPLEX-enabling constraints; loosely coupled; probe-sense-respond; emergent practice. CHAOTIC-lacking constraint; decoupled; act-sense-respond; novel practice.
Updated Cynefin Model

The graphic above is an updated draft of the new formulation of the Cynefin framework. This is a prelude to Dave Snowden’s new book (not yet published) about the entire framework.

Cynefin is the best multi-purpose framework for thinking about systems change I have found. It was created and continues to evolve under Dave Snowden, a Welsh OD person who has never let the necessities of making a living interfere with seeing the truth of what he and his community are creating. If you take nothing else away from this slide, immerse yourself in Dave’s thinking as an antidote to all the useless ways of thinking I have listed over my posts.

Cynefin is a framework for reimagining the interaction between us and the systems around us. The categories of Cynefin are ways of thinking about those interactions. This is not an abstract notion of interacting with a system. It is a way of dealing with the demands that the interaction requires of you.  Our interaction with these systems can be framed as :

1.Obvious: These system interactions are simple enough that you can use an automatic practice. Think of an autogenerated monitoring form report that must be submitted every quarter, and only requires a current signature from the person filling the appropriate role.

2.Complicated: A 777 airplane is complicated because it has a lot of parts and interactions, but the parts don’t change very much because of the interactions. The parts might wear a little or gradually become obsolete, but they don’t change fast just because they interact with one another.

3.Complex: These systems interactions are like the ones referred to in many other parts of my posts in our change work for complex adaptive systems.  In these systems, parts do change all the time because of their interactions with one another. This means that the future of these systems can’t be clearly predicted, and our interactions with them must be viewed as experimental (called fail-safe experiments in Cynefin). We need to learn lessons from these experiments in order to manage our interactions with the system. Over time, it is possible, if “complicated”, to move some complexity to the complicated arena.

4.Chaotic: When unpredictable events occur outside the system, the system with which we are interacting can enter a phase of chaos, when its behavior is entirely unpredictable. We have to try interactions and immediately learn from them to manage chaos. Fortunately, real chaos doesn’t last long.

The deepest lesson of Cynefin for managing change is that those complex systems are very dependent on the evolving context within which we interact with them. If we don’t respect that reality, we will always get unanticipated and generally unpleasant consequences.

(P5): Mutual Support

Stylized diagram of people of different colors in huddle as metaphor of collaboration.
Huddle for Support

Mutual Support is the way we operationalize the values of personalism. It is the way we get the values of personalism to emerge in our communities. As opportunities arise, we support one another. We also organize ongoing mutual support around longer-term supports for specific targets (say various kinds of recovery support, food support, caregiving support). We organize local projects to build an alternate infrastructure and experiment with ways of building local alternatives to the dominant system structure.

Most of all, we use mutual support to get better at, and more comfortable with,  rapid change, and rapid response to change.

Mutual support isn’t about building permanent alternatives to replace the dominant system infrastructure. It is about getting better at short term support creation, and being more circumspect about committing resources to permanent solutions. The reason for this approach is because the dominant system will always be changing as it gradually and/or suddenly degrades.

Mutual Support builds values, and organizations that emerge from such support must be viewed as temporary. If we try to make them permanent, we will build in the flaws of the current infrastructure at the same time. Any time you integrate your new vision of support into the dominant CAS, the system imposes its logic and values on your novelty. Your change becomes part of, and subject to, the aging of the CAS.

(P5): Prefigurative Politics

Early Picture of Bob Dylan playing an acoustic guitar and harmonica.

  • Prefigurative Politics
  • An anarchist is someone who doesn’t need a cop to make him behave.
    Ammon Hennacy
  • I want a change and a radical change. I want a change from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers.
    Peter Maurin

Prefigurative Politics is an umbrella term for trying out changes in relationship, economic, and political practice within the current complex system to build the skills necessary to mount a successful counterstroke. Below are frameworks whose values can be used for these experiments.

Personalism: Personalism is a framework that puts the individual at the center of social justice work. It is an old philosophy, largely replaced by the view of social change as work on macro-political or economic improvement of whole societies. In my own life, the clearest example of personalism was the Catholic Worker movement.

But personalism need not be religious. In my view, personalism fits the vision of building the counterstroke through the local instead of the universal. What we build needs to fit all who are or would be members of our community.

I see parallels in personalism with the idea of accommodation as a tool of community inclusion in our disability community. Inclusion is not really accomplished by law or dictate, although such law can enable it. Inclusion is always accomplished by respect for the uniqueness of each person, and direct support for choice and possibility.

Mutual Support: Mutual Support is the collaborative enabling of each by all, in a context of mutual respect.

The Recovery Framework: In communities of Severe Mental Illness (SMI) and Substance Use Disorder (SUD), there is a framework called Recovery which allows individuals and their support networks to collaborate in managing those symptoms or personal characteristics which cost the person control over their immediate life and their hopes and dreams for a larger life.

The Recovery Framework is a surprisingly versatile tool kit and can be applied to a wide range of issues in the implementation of a counterstroke, because of the focus on core empowerment of each individual and their personal support network.

(P5): Ways to Think About Such a Strategy

Slide says 'Prefigurative Politics'
Making the New Within the Shell of the Old
Innovation Word Cloud. Includes many words related to openness and collaboration
The Many Memes of Innovation

Today, the most common way we think about alternatives to the current system is to use a procedural ideology as a template. If we do such and such, we will have an effective society.

There are many such procedural ideologies.  These procedural ideologies occupy a very complex space of competition we call politics. There is no real expectation that any one of the ideologies will actually “win”. The struggle seems eternal, and it is. Getting rid of an ideology is a lot like getting rid of a phylum. It is very difficult and in the time frames of our extended lives, it is impossible.

Through the earlier part of these posts, I have tried to convince you that such an approach won’t work with a complex, adaptive system.  Instead, I believe we will have to create something that can survive the decline of what we live in now. What we create will have to be local for a very long time, and it will have to make use of the existing system as much as possible as the new (whatever it is) is realized.

There is no procedural template for doing this. The process of building these local versions of a future will be murky and experimental and will require from us an honesty about what works and what doesn’t that is not possible when using a procedural ideology. Procedural ideologies dictate what works and what doesn’t, and have no tolerance for dissent. They are fundamentally dishonest.

But, there are some frameworks that can guide our local designs, as long as they are subject to this clear and reflective honesty about what we are accomplishing and what we aren’t.