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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(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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