(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): 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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All Important Problems Are Wicked

Easy Essays About Changing Systems

An interesting but impossible to describe artistic piece of many colors and too many strings to count

Where Do I Start?

Almost a half-century ago, a couple of researchers gave a name to something we all know is real, but have a hard time articulating. They said that science was good at solving what they called “tame” problems, but was inadequate to deal with what they called “wicked problems”.

The name, “Wicked Problems” stuck, because it was a fundamental insight into the difficulties of dealing with the appalling reach of real-world complex adaptive systems (CAS).

Right now, we are dealing with a pandemic, a surge in the explicit oppression of all marginal communities and resistance to that surge, ongoing and apparently unstoppable economic degradation, the potential for the worst hurricane season ever, a healthcare system that has shown its extraordinary brittleness at exactly the time we need it most, and looming long-term failures in the larger economy over the next decade. These are all individually wicked problems, and they are all interconnected.

A gumbo of wicked problems.

These are some of the characteristics of Wicked Problems (WPs):

  • There is no single way to describe the problem. Creating a description of the problem always leaves out very important parts of the WP. You can’t get outside a WP to see it in its entirety, so you can’t ever describe it in its entirety.
  • “Solutions” to WPs never solve them, though they can make them better or worse. To add insult to injury, if your solution is effective, your solution changes the nature of the Wicked Problem without necessarily making it any easier to solve.
  • No matter how we try to categorize a wicked problem, every WP is unique, and our characterization of the WP is inadequate.
  • Every solution to a WP is one-shot; there can be no trial and error approach to WPs. This doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from interacting with the WP. It just means that what we learn will have very little transferability to other apparently similar WPs.
  • We only gain any real understanding of a WP by trying out a solution. Before we come up with a solution, the WP is just a Big Mess. The solution will be inadequate for the problem. So, our understanding will also be  inadequate for the problem, even if this is the best we can do.

People with significant disabilities have a deep understanding of WPs that has developed from our lived experience of dealing with the real world. We have learned some lessons the hard way that can be of use to everyone as we try to improve the current litany of WPs we all face now:

  • Institutions, regardless of their purpose or intentions, are always dangerous places to live.
  • Commitment by medical professionals to customized care of people with disabilities is too often limited by how inconvenient our needs are to the medical practice or the professional staff’s daily routines.
  • For our community, supports that are common in the treatment of the nondisabled are treated as “special” for us and are the first kinds of supports dropped when a crisis like the current pandemic occurs.
  • Finally, the US healthcare system is approaching 20% of the economy.  But, the primary health system take-away from this pandemic is that the search for financial efficiencies and the economic protections that credentialing/licensing and scope of practice laws provide simply made a sizeable proportion of the health care labor force unavailable for responding to the pandemic.

We can certainly get better at managing WPs, but we will have to give up our simple notions of silver bullet solutions and get good at embracing these increasingly Wicked Problems on their own terms.

(P6): Deceit

An artistic rendition of the Tower of Babel

All conflict involves deceit. In fact, all communication involves some level of deceit, whether purposeful or not. This is because all communication is necessarily limited. Truthful mutual understanding is only achieved through long-term authentic relationships.

Deceit is in no way an unalloyed good or evil since it can be both manipulation and self-defense at the same time. Deceit always makes management of an advocacy strategy more complex and less controllable. Deceit can be an impulsive act to help control some unexpected disturbance in the advocacy possibility space. Deceit seems safe, a way of increasing the security of the advocacy strategy. It isn’t. It can and does reduce your choices in the advocacy possibility space.

Deceit in advocacy initiatives is of three kinds and all three are always present (if not necessarily competently implemented) in every conflict:

  • Strategic deceit
  • Tactical/Operational deceit
  • Self-deceit

Strategic Deceit

Because a true strategy is a framework for managing future uncertainty and scarce resources, any statement of the strategy is automatically deceitful because the statement can’t frame the actual use to which the framework will be put. Of course, this applies to those who are part of the advocacy initiative as well, although communication and relationships are stronger within the initiative as opposed to the interaction between the advocacy effort and the target. This isn’t strategic deceit.

Strategic Deceit is a performance that provokes uncertainty in the target’s choices about the advocacy initiative. It is analogous to the operational notion of the Indirect Approach (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indirect_approach) that your actions should be ambiguous as far as their outcome is concerned.

A successful Strategic Deceit requires a deep understanding of how the target thinks, and how it values. This knowledge is not something especially prized by advocacy organizations that view advocacy as supporting only the appropriate implementation of rules and regulations, which, by their nature, aren’t about what the target’s actors think and value.

Tactical/Operational Deceit

There is a wide base of public information about this kind of deceit. There have been many books about military based operational and tactical deceit, and there is a kind of cottage industry in articles about the cleverness of such deceit. Because of the actual military actions that are subjected to deceitful preparation, the deceit comes as a surprise to the opponent. This surprise is a lot more difficult to pull off as part of an advocacy initiative, where the initiative may go on for months or years.

There is always a downside to discovered deceit. Once the deceit is discovered, the target will devote more energy to paying attention to you and they will feel more justified in extravagant deceit and trolling than they did before the discovery of your misinformation.

Tactical deceit can be useful for, say, a specific IEPC. There are also ways to cloud your purposes by careful orchestration of your messaging without lying about those purposes. For example, a method I have mentioned in other posts and slides is to initiate an advocacy action in several local areas without showing that you are creating several nuclei for the initiative. Local targets will respond to the local initiative without seeing the larger pattern, and their responses will be less effective as a result. This kind of short-term deceit is only constrained by your understanding of the target’s motivations and values, and your initiative’s creativity.

Self-Deceit

The most problematic form of deceit in advocacy initiatives is Self-Deceit. There are two reasons for this.

One is that humans have evolved to be more optimistic than pessimistic; see (https://grist.org/article/80-percent-of-humans-are-delusionally-optimistic-says-science/). Optimism produces hope and hope can generate action even when situations seem very dire. This is especially a useful bias when there is no obviously effective way to deal with some threat. But optimism is a bias. We use optimism to maintain advocacy energy, but the bias affects how we frame our actions, and how we execute them. So, we make mistakes because of our optimism.

Depressive Realism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depressive_realism) is the other side of the coin in self-deceit. Mild and moderately depressed individuals are better at predicting outcomes under uncertainty than people who are optimistic. It is difficult, though to see how running an advocacy initiative using depressive realism would work out well in an activist community.

The best way to manage this in my book is to allow optimism to generate energy while making use of the insights of depressive realism to manage tactical/operational decisions.

In general, I think that deceit makes effective advocacy more complex and difficult. But, if you must, use the framework of obfuscation rather than outright deceit.

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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): Figure-Ground and Change

A figure-ground image from the Pittsburgh zoo and the PPG Aquarium. It shows a tree as the figure and a gorilla and big cat as the ground.

The framework of Figure-Ground that arose out of Gestalt Theory is a useful metaphor for grasping the dual strategy of “System as Tool” and “Mutual Aid”.

The basic idea is that we focus on the figure rather than the ground because it is evolutionarily useful. But the figure doesn’t exist independently of the Ground. In fact, the Figure emerges from the ground and depends on the ground for its continuation.

If the context (The Ground) disappears, so does the focus (The Figure). What we think of as a thing (The Figure) emerges from the Ground and is maintained in existence by the Ground.

The “thing” that we focus on is a process and emerges.

So, the context must always be a part of our change strategy if we expect to change the system. If you abstract your change strategy so it only focuses on the target system, you will have less impact and unintended consequences that may eliminate or distort the change you wish to create.

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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): Scaffolding

A large and tall building entirely surrounded by bamboo scaffolding

Whenever we work to change a system, we use some method of scaffolding as part of our strategic thinking, even if it is only our personal and implicit assumptions about how the problems we are trying to change actually exist in the real world.

If we carefully examine our thinking about scaffolding as a heuristic, we find that we can make better, deeper choices about how we affect change. Because there are many kinds of scaffolding (not just the ones we see on the streets), there has been increased work to parse out these types and evaluate their different impacts on change.

Dave Snowden and his colleagues have used ideas from others and their work on Cynefin to build a typology of scaffolding. I will offer a basic definition of each type, but you really need to dig into the resources above to internalize the usefulness of the concept in your advocacy.:

  • Old School Steel Scaffolding-the kind we see in building construction zones: This kind of scaffolding is designed to be reused, and consequently is lacking in broad flexibility. It is the materials equivalent of universal procedures for problem-solving or strategic planning or other “silver bullet” solutions.
  • Bamboo scaffolding, which is less rigid and more easily changed if circumstances dictate the need for a change during ongoing construction.
  • The idea of a Nutrient Lattice, supporting healing with, say, a piece of cartilage that allows burned skin to absorb what healing needs, and is then removed.
  • Lattices that leave something behind, like a heart patch that leaves active and new electrical tissue as it dissolves
  • The more sophisticated scaffolding/infrastructure needed to support extreme sports, like wild river kayaking. This scaffolding is itself a complex adaptive system. The possibility space includes personal skills development, equipment development, infrastructure development, and the creation and support of a social system of practitioners and allies to make the accomplishments of these sports real.

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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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