P5: Getting Good at Change

Times of crisis, of disruption or constructive change, are not only predictable but desirable. They mean growth. Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.

-Fyodor Dostoevsky

Because change requires us to move out of our comfort zone, we are “uncomfortable” with it. This is true even when we want the change.

Sometimes we just want change without wanting anything in particular, beyond not wanting our current situation.  This kind of desire for change is equally as useless as our discomfort with change we can’t control. Neither of these states of mind actually give us any control over the uncertainty of change that triggers our anxiety. But, they actively interfere with our ability to create an effective strategy of change.

The good news is that we can become less fearful of change, by the old human standby of practice. We can practice small changes, and gradually expand our tolerance for change. Even though we will never be entirely comfortable with change (even change that we want), we can reduce our natural anxiety with change enough to enable a more thoughtful and flexible approach to it.

For the purposes of our advocacy, we should focus on practicing small change around local advocacy strategies and the skills necessary to attempt them. What we learn from such practice will be clearer to us and more useful for our future efforts. If we wait until the necessity of our circumstances forces us to try something so complex that our anxiety about change will make it very difficult to implement, we will not only increase our likelihood of failure, but will lose a genuine opportunity for change for ourselves because, at least partially, we refused to take our personal anxiety over change seriously enough to focus on reducing it.

There is a tendency in advocacy organizations to become less willing to embrace risk over time. This process starts with a willingness to take risks in acquiring the skills of advocacy, and a follow-up process of using the skills more and more as techniques, more and more automatically, as the skills themselves become more practiced. Many times the needs and possibilities in the actual circumstances of rights violation gradually become subordinated to the techniques.  The use of the techniques becomes a defense against risk and liability.

The problem with this approach is that it turns the universe of advocacy possibility into a machine, i.e., there is a specific technique for changing oil and you always use that technique, even when there is something new in the situation that the technique for changing oil will not accommodate.  In the universe of advocacy, there are always new demands on the creativity of disability rights and supports, and technique (no matter how well practiced and refined) will not always be able to embrace the novelty of the current situation. Thus it is that increasing competence becomes less and less capable of dealing with real novelty. This is true of both organizations as and individuals.

We need to embrace what is called “beginner’s mind” as we approach each new advocacy possibility. We need to not impose the limitations of our competence on the novelty of the current situation.

Part 5: What Do We Do Next?

A bunch of dice with many different geometries and colors, like the ones for D&D.
The RPG of Disability Resistance

I imagine the outlines of what I think would be a useful approach to the dilemma that our disability community faces are fairly obvious. But it is easy to say that we need to create something new when our fears and habits are telling us constantly that we need to use the same old tired practices to stop this new threat.

If we are to create a genuinely new response, we will have to begin it locally, and the response will have to be conditioned by what we find locally, not by some larger political vision. If we don’t create what we need locally, using values that represent the best we can build, we will continue to thrash around “solving” for the short term only to have it bite us on the ass down the line.

Additionally, we don’t have the option of simply ignoring the current system, for all its problems. Like the freeway system, we have to keep using it until we actually have a viable replacement operating. We have to fade our dependence on the existing system through building our vision.

So our response to the question of what we do next does not have an answer that is either universal or easily predicted. But we can point to overarching ways of thinking about what we do, that can provide guidance as we wrestle with making our new path.

(P4): Delivering the Counterstroke

Black and white picture of troops landing at Normandy moving out of a landing craft toward the beach.

In the same way that the original insurgency was a surprise, so too must the counterstroke be unexpected.

The counterstroke must be many places at once and in many forms since one of its strengths is that the insurgent is overcommitted to their plan of success and has lost flexibility, resources, and creativity as a result.

Each part of the counterstroke must be able to adjust its actions on the basis of what it finds in reality and not according to some uber-plan, like the one of the insurgent. It is the growing and unavoidable commitment of the insurgent to their preconceived plan and its evolving flaws and weaknesses that increase the possibility of the success of the counterstroke.

After a long resisted insurgency effort, the insurgent loses redundancy, becoming increasingly brittle and subject to catastrophic failure in places if hit hard enough.

The pressure of the counterstroke must be continued until all parts of the insurgent plan assumptions have been countered.

(P4): Blunting the Insurgency

A slide entitled

  • Brittle systems experience rapid performance collapses, or failures, when events challenge boundaries- David D. Woods
  • “Even if the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” –Yogi Berra
  • No plan survives contact with a disaster-in-the-making.- General Law
  • “Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth”. -Mike Tyson

The first response of a community to an insurgency is to resist. This resistance has the effect of blunting the insurgency.  In this context, blunting means stuff like the following:

  • Forcing the insurgent to alter their plan in small ways.
  • Making them expend resources and energy correcting their mistakes.
  • Wearing out the people who actually conduct the insurgency.
  • Forcing them to reveal their plans prematurely.
  • Forcing large-scale changes in plans that no longer are consistent with available resources or skills.
  • Forcing them to use equipment and approaches that are generally maladaptive.

Successful resistance has the same effect as all chronic stress. As the stress continues, it provokes a chronic maladaptive response pattern from the insurgent. The longer the stress continues, the more maladaptive the response.

But this doesn’t mean much if blunting is all that happens. It is an illusion that resistance can actually restore what was before if the original insurgency was significant.

Part 4: What Is a Strategy?

A famous, large, incoherent systems diagram of Afghanistan Stability and Counter-Insurgency Dynamics. Impossible to understand.

The slide image is NOT a Strategy!

A strategy is not an operational plan, like the one you might put together for a grant using a logic model. Instead, a strategy is a way to deal with two unavoidable realities:

  • The inherent unpredictability of the future
  • The universal scarcity of resources for what we wish to do

The further we attempt to see into the future, the more uncertainty we face, and the more our decisions to commit resources will be wrong. We try in various ways to work around this reality.

One way is to reduce the scope of the changes we try to make, using such tools as logic models.

When we create an outcome that is easy to measure, we are contracting the possibilities of change, and undermining our ability to create change that is truly strategic, that won’t be washed out by changes and trends in the larger system.

Another way is to describe in some detail the changes we want to seek over the short term while using delusional thinking to describe the ones we hope for further into the future.

A third way is to ignore some or all the larger forces we already know are out there, but which we can’t quantify or parse effectively, or that we believe we can’t change.

And there are many more non-strategic assumptions we make to help us get through our day-to-day life.