(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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(P5): Creating Possibility Spaces

An ocean tidal pool as an example of a possibility space.

Possibility Spaces are generated by Governing Constraints-not directly, as in a machine, but by, as it were, increasing the likelihood of interaction among what is within the possibility space. The Tidal Pool in the image is a sort of perfect example of the possibility space concept. The life generated in, and adapted to, a tidal pool is uniquely resilient to change, and elegantly adaptive in its response to change because of the exposure to constantly shifting disturbances. Such resilience is the promise of the concept of the “possibility space”.

Possibility spaces are entities that allow the creation of new enabling relationships and the destabilizing of existing relationships:

American Racism: American Racism began (well before there was an America) as an economic machine that generated vast profits for those who could create and maintain the enslavement of human beings and their exploitation for personal gain. But the evolution and expansion of its successful implementation also provided a space for antiracist initiatives. The important thing to grasp from this is that all possibility spaces have within them the possibility of change if we are willing to build enabling relationships that reflect human values and destabilize the ones that don’t. Such resistance doesn’t dissolve the possibility space, but it does force it to evolve and makes it less resilient.

Only a new possibility space can “replace” the existing one. And governing constraints are viciously resilient. Thus, resistance is not a strategy, however necessary it might be to resist. Resistance does force the existing possibility space to age. But, creating a new possibility space is tough.

Jazz: Wynton Marsalis describes the underlying dynamic of improvisational jazz as the abstraction of a melody line, a chord structure, and a rhythm to create an improvisation(s) that asks, “How might these components of a musical entity have played out differently in real-time?” This is an excellent description of a possibility space. This general frame provides a neat way to envision any possibility space as a force for creative and positive advocacy.

The Unavoidable Exhaustion of a Possibility Space: As a possibility space ages, the old enabling relationships (the ones that justified the creation of the governing constraint) become increasingly narrow and the existing relationships become increasingly brittle making small collapses more likely, and resistance more productive.

Assumptions that Weaken Possibility Spaces: When we assume that a system is a machine, we undermine the “possibilities” in the Possibility Space of our advocacy work. The systems we are trying to change commonly operate with the aphorism, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras”. This assumption is also very common in healthcare, and I believe it accounts for a fair number of misdiagnoses and medical mistakes. The reasoning of the aphorism is that the problem you face right now is more likely to be common than uncommon. That sounds reasonable.  But it is based on the idea that the problem space is a set of discrete machine parts. You identify the right part and then replace it.

We don’t actually make a kind of probabilistic judgment that there is a higher likelihood of horses than zebras. We pick horses as the problem and ignore any other possibility until we have completely failed with the horse “hypothesis”. This behavior is reinforced by systems of care or supports that are designed to reduce cost first and use fail-first and cost-based step methodologies as the core of our decision-making. Evidence-based frameworks, treatment protocols, and the euphemism, “Standard of Care”, are all conceptually related to the hoofbeat aphorism. These mindsets guarantee mistakes.

These issues affect our advocacy approaches as well. We become more predictable when we use the same techniques repeatedly to solve advocacy issues. Our targets adapt at various levels (local policies, hearing decisions, court cases, efforts to weaken laws, etc.). Our Advocacy Possibility Space shrinks over time, requiring more resources and more energy to accomplish less valued outcomes.

At the same time, if we use our creativity in pulling together advocacy actions, we can reasonably assume that the system will see horses rather than our advocacy zebra. This can be a real advantage. But it points out that one of our advantages as advocates is the use of novel interaction to destabilize a weak constraint in our target. Novel intentions and valued outcomes create their own possibility spaces and provide us with a new way of looking at the current Advocacy Possibility Space.

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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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(P4): Advocacy Cycles

A small boy walking down a two-track with a small stream of water. He is dragging a stick through the water.

Everything operates in cycles. If you understand the cycles of the system you are trying to change, you can make use of that for improving the effectiveness of advocacy tactics.

A basic cycle of those systems we seek to change is the balancing of exploration and exploitation in seeking valued system outcomes. A simple abstract example will illustrate what this means.

Predators must find food (exploration)  and they must eat it (exploitation). Finding food uses calories, which increases the urgency of the exploitation side of the cycle. Eating food does not by itself help the predator to find more food. So the animal must balance the amount of time spent looking for food with the necessity of eating it. You can think of this as an example of a strategy for dealing with the uncertainty of the future and the scarcity of resources.

Because all kinds of complex adaptive systems face this same environmental demand, their system flow is a cycle. What is important to the system varies depending on where they are in this cycle. In bureaucracies, over time and aging, exploration is entirely reduced to acquiring funding, and exploitation is reduced to internal competition over the control of funding.

For an advocacy example, State Rehabilitation Services Agencies commonly experience high demand for their supports despite chronically low funding. One impact of this is that available support monies fall off more quickly during a fiscal year than the passage of time would suggest they should. So, it’s easier to get expensive supports in the first quarter and much harder to get them in the last quarter of the agency’s fiscal year. There are many variations of this kind of insight:

  • Pushing for a summer hearing in a special education case. The district may have to pay overtime for witnesses from their district to testify in the hearing.
  • Policy change advocacy in the weeks leading up to funding decisions for the supports system. Systems try to avoid scandal when their funding is at stake.
  • Kicking the system when it’s down (say, from a political fight)
  • Etc.

We don’t tend to think of such opportunities as a part of a larger cycle, but they are.

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(P4): The OODA Loop

Complex Diagram of the OODA Loop. See description through link below diagram.

OODA Loop Diagram Long Description

The OODA loop (see picture above) was created by John Boyd to help explain why some fighter pilots were much better than others in aerial dogfights. His basic premise was that you could win if you made good decisions faster than the other pilot. This was oversimplified over time to mean just faster decisions, without the part about better decisions.

The most important part of the OODA loop for advocates is the “Orient” phase. Successful use of the Orient Phase requires not especially the observation of where the opponent is, but rather a deep understanding of how your opponent thinks about reality. What does your opponent value? What risks are paramount in their thinking? After all, you want to know where your opponent is going. As Wayne Gretzky said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been”.

For example, in an advocacy negotiation over, say, a complex support for a student, the Orienting Framework of a typical ISD or special education administrator focuses on cost, required program resource commitment (including staff, skills, general availability), precedent (will hundreds of other students/families request the same service if we support this student?), and the political consequences of agreement to the requested support from other staff, other parts of the education system, and the general public.

While it might seem as though these concerns are matter-of-fact, they are not. Underlying all of them is the decision-making rationale AND fear-driven concern for personal and system liability if things go sideways for some reason. Because the fear of such liability is never entirely rational (we can’t know the future), the Orienting Framework is sensitive to surprise, regardless of its source.

The use of the OODA Loop as a tactic in disability rights advocacy is often about producing novel challenges to the system as it is now and as it thinks/feels now. Thus, a successful challenge to a system with a novel destabilization requires that you have a clear understanding of how your target thinks and feels.

These challenges don’t have to be radical or revolutionary. They must, however,  be initiatives that the system hasn’t run into before.

Often, there also need to be several destabilizations. A bad habit of naïve advocates is to create a destabilization (say, a complaint) and then sit around waiting for a response. Delay (because it requires nothing but avoiding action) is always available as a default response for the system you are challenging, and it is used as much as possible by that system.

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(P3): The Ways of System Aging

The Panarchy Cycle; alpha-phase: reorganization; K-phase: Conservation & Stabilization; Omega phase: Release (Creative Destruction); r-phase: Exploitation & Growth; Poverty Trap (between alpha-phase and r-phase) is Insufficient Resources for starting New Growth; Rigidity Trap (between K-Phase and Omega Phase) is Holding on to old systems.

All CAS age (even us, or maybe especially us!). But seeing aging in a CAS is tough. There is no perfect way to describe such aging, but it is important to grasp the general contours if we are to make use of aging in our advocacy efforts.

Aging applies as much to advocacy organizations as it does to those organizations that are the object of our advocacy efforts. The Panarchy Cycle is as good a model for system aging as I have found, and it has the advantage of “face” usefulness. It is important to remember in what follows, however, that we can do things to change the path of aging in a CAS. If I develop arthritis in my hip and it gets bad enough, I might have a hip replacement surgery. If that surgery is successful, the quality of my life can take a huge leap. But, despite the improvement in my day-to-day activities, I am still aging.

The Panarchy Cycle is usually described as four repeating steps:

1.Reorganization

2.Exploitation and Growth

3.Conservation and Stabilization

4.Release or Creative Destruction

A commonly used example of these steps is a forest system after a large-scale fire:

1. The “empty” landscape after the fire becomes populated by weeds and other fast-growing plants and small animals and micro-organisms.

2. As the landscape becomes denser with life, fast growth is gradually replaced by plants and animals that can store resources and more easily alter the forest to fit their needs.

3. Eventually, the forest becomes stable and many of its possibilities for novelty are locked up in resources controlled by subsystems of large tree species, symbiotic relationships, organizing of resource flows like water, animal families and reproduction, and so on.

4. The CAS organization becomes increasingly brittle and subject to easier breakdown.

The two big drivers of the development of enabling relationships in the CAS are the “poverty trap” in the early development of the system, when it is tough to use resources because they must be changed (the enabling relationships must be created) by those organisms that participate in early development, and the “rigidity trap”, when most resources are already tied up in some subsystem, and organisms have set patterns for their use and reproduction. Rigidity is defended and becomes brittle and opens the forest to disturbances that cause some level of cascading breakdown in the system’s ability to adapt to further disturbance.

It is often difficult for us to accept this kind of aging cycle in our own organizations or those we target for advocacy because it seems as though the problems we experience would be easy to fix if we just go ahead and fix them. This apparent ease of problem-solving is based on our false idea that the organization is a machine or a computer.

The isolated problem is often easy to fix. But fixing the problem also changes the CAS in long term ways that are hard to see, by destabilizing some enabling relationships and generally making enabling relationships harder to create. This is the unavoidable burden of unintended consequences.

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(P3): The Ways of Governing Constraints

A female soldier doing orthopedic rehabilitation under PT supervision.

Governing Constraints create possibility spaces by eliminating large swaths of possibility that are irrelevant to the meaning of the governing constraint. When there is more than one governing constraint in an organization, the governing constraints create a complex possibility space that permits much more complex possibility choices.  When the CAS is working the way it is supposed to, the multiple governing constraints also allow the populating of the space by more complex enabling relationships. In turn, this drives a more complex CAS development process and a more complex aging process.

But the interaction of multiple governing constraints is, well, complex. Multiple constraints can undermine or enable each other, and the choices made by participants in an organization can produce extremely different organizational behavior. The three governing constraints of any advocacy organization or the usual organizations that are subject to advocacy (Mission, Reproduction, and Hierarchy) frame but do not determine that behavioral path.

The primary result of the Hierarchy Constraint is a massive reduction in the possibilities of enabling relationships. The best example of this is the aphorism about bureaucracies, “Anything not required is forbidden”. Hierarchy is a societal choice, not an objective law of physics. It hinges on the belief that the universe is mechanical, and that restricting choice improves the causal power of the mechanical links that supposedly guarantee outcomes.

The staff will be flogged until morale improves, etc.

Hierarchy can be based on logical relationships or power relationships. Logical hierarchies are not used to run organizations. The use of a power hierarchy always reduces the possibilities in the space created by Mission and Reproduction.

The Mission, at least in new systems, is the best statement of what the system can create. The relationship between Mission and Reproduction is complicated by the way that a complex adaptive system ages.

If a system ignores Reproduction to maximize it’s Mission, the system will run out of resources to realize the Mission. If the system maximizes reproduction at the expense of the Mission, then the system will become like a zombie, focused exclusively on more resources, with no regard for Mission outcomes.

Because human systems are made up of humans, it is always possible to change the relationship between Mission, Reproduction, and Hierarchy, creating a new complex possibility space. But it becomes more difficult to change these relationships as the system ages, and the likelihood of some kind of system collapse (not required to be total) increases.

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(P3): How An Advocacy/Target System Evolves

The pattern problem: An example becomes a lesson; A lesson becomes a method; A method becomes a practice; A practice becomes a doctrine; A doctrine becomes death.

In 1981, I went to work for Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service as a field advocate in the counties around Michigan’s Thumb. About half of my work involved representing students and their families in special education disputes. Over the next four years, I got to observe first hand how my special education advocacy and the approach of the special education systems in my catchment area evolved. It was quite enlightening.

Initially, school districts viewed special education largely as a new program only partially paid for by the federal mandate (this remains true today). The important aspects of it to the district CAS were how to pay for it and what impact did it have on their previous model of education services. There was, early on, and continuing to this day, a constant source of tension between regular education and special education systems (SPED services receive roughly twice the funding per pupil than regular education receives). Demands by special education students for supports and services that were outside the ken of past education practice were either ignored or denied.

This framework was ripe for effective advocacy. In the first few years of special education advocacy, it was very easy to win programs, supports, and services because the district didn’t really think it had to do anything to win other than obstruct demands. Advocates had time to prepare, to deepen their understanding of the law at both Federal and State levels, and to become adept at using the state and federal rules in the negotiations.

This advantage, like all advantages in the competitive interaction between different CAS, didn’t last.

One set of changes that our effective advocacy triggered was a dramatic increase in the number of students and families that requested advocacy assistance. Since the MPAS budget didn’t increase based on demand, this resulted in less time and resources for pursuing advocacy outcomes. In turn, this made our interventions less effective, overall.

The other set of changes that our effective advocacy triggered was to be taken more seriously by the districts. They began to commit resources to fight our advocacy including, eventually, hiring attorneys on retainer to improve their obstruction.  This also meant that the cases would be more complex (basic failures of civil rights were avoided), requiring more time from advocates and less successful outcomes. The upshot of these various forces (including successful State efforts to eliminate large amounts of state funding for MPAS) was, over time, to dramatically reduce individual special education advocacy by our organization.

Similar shifts in response by the system took place at the State and Federal level. The current state of special education law is an extraordinarily rigid narrowing of the possibilities that seemed just over the horizon in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. There have been some separate increases in advocacy effectiveness in ways other than the single student advocacy model of the early years, which I will talk about later.

This pattern of initial success followed by a slow steady reduction in advocacy effectiveness and the reduction of civil rights to rigid requirements is so common across all areas of disability rights that I think of it as a standard development pattern in the exercise of advocacy.

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