(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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(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): Nucleation

A stylized gray-blue picture of how ice crystals form from many particles.

Nucleation is a general term that I use to describe a specific repeated tactic where localized advocacy initiatives are used to maximize global response to the initiative. I know that sounds like a mouthful, so let me explain.

Nucleation is a general term for how, for example, ice crystals grow around dust particles in the air. When there is more than one particle, there are more places for ice crystals to begin to grow.

A nucleation tactic starts an advocacy initiative in several separate locations in a coordinated way without letting the local targets know that there are multiple initiatives. Because bureaucracies have limited resources, their response to advocacy initiatives is to match their resistance to the initiative to the perceived threat level to the local system. This threat is perceived as less significant if it is local and not regional or statewide.

Such an approach allows an advocacy network to test tactics and makes it more likely that one of the initiatives will succeed. That success can serve as a template or a learning opportunity for a broader less local advocacy effort. Advocates often use this kind of technique intuitively. But a nucleation tactic can be well-planned for a bigger advocacy initiative.

Nucleation can be done over time as well. For example, nucleation was used in many locations throughout Michigan over a period of several years to learn how to break classrooms segregated by disability to increase inclusion. The learnings from each attempt were shared among advocates to increase the effectiveness of each new attempt.

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(P4): Multiple Advocacy Initiatives

A fictional print of a huge squid attacking a 19th century sailing boat

“Release the Kraken!!”

One of the operational possibilities that modern technology and rights laws support is the use of multiple advocacy initiatives to increase the destabilization that is necessary for successful advocacy negotiation.

The systems that we use advocacy to change have a superficial and abstract appreciation of how their environment can destabilize them. They tend to try to manage weak constraints individually, by stabilizing each one of them separately. Naïve advocacy also tries to destabilize the weak constraints individually. This is a tactical advocacy failure.

For example, filing a complaint is typically done using a single set of regulations or rules (for example, special education laws, regulations, and rules). Even when a complaint covers violations of both Federal and State special education laws, the approach tends to be narrow and focused on a single remedy.

But, the use of, say, Section 504 as an additional complaint about the violation of civil rights, or the use of state civil rights laws where they are applicable, can add a remarkable complexity to the necessary response by the system. Using multiple complaint systems based on different statues and partially overlapping conceptual frameworks of what civil rights mean places a difficult burden on the system trying to re-establish stability in the weak constraint as quickly and cheaply as possible.

My observation is that if these multiple frameworks are used in sequence to poke the system from different directions over a relatively short period of time, the system tends to perceive that advocacy threat as far more powerful and unmanageable than the threat from a single framework where the system has long experience in responding to the advocacy issue raised. This is a misperception on the system’s part, but a useful one to advocates.

Also, if an advocacy issue (say, a failure of supports provision) has a public face and general application to a reasonable number of students, it is worth considering making the advocacy case public to increase pressure for a negotiated outcome and to let other students with similar issues know that it is possible to resolve them.

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(P3): System Aging and Our Organizations

A model of how corporations age. See long description link below the image for details

Long Description of Image

There are patterns in the aging of our advocacy organizations. Because these patterns arise out of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), they are not mechanically or programmatically determined. They arise out of the interacting possibility spaces created by the governing constraints that allow the creation of the CAS in the first place. These governing constraints are Mission, Reproduction, and Hierarchy.

So, there is no rigid development pattern in advocacy organizations. Instead, there are a series of choices about enabling relationships in the complex possibility space that create the actual pattern of the organization that arises. What follows are some observations I’ve made about these patterns during the last half-century of my personal development as an advocate and the many organizations to which I have belonged.

Early Patterns

When an advocacy or social support organization is first created, it usually prizes Mission over Reproduction and Hierarchy. Partly this is because small new organizations don’t have much money, the people who are in the organization generally got into the work they do because of the way they value that Mission and the non-mission skills they have are relatively unformed compared to their understanding of the importance of the Mission. The effect of this reality is, in many ways, to set up the organization for a difficult transition that accompanies the successful growth and expansion of Mission impact.

Transition to the Two Missions Framework

There is a transformation of the organization as it tries to create the infrastructure that is necessary to sustain the work. Creating this infrastructure can be thought of as creating a new governing constraint called Reproduction. This Reproduction infrastructure includes a Board, improved methods for getting program income. a system of accounting and monitoring the use of the funds, community relationships, etc. It is typical that building this infrastructure produces mistakes. Boards crash and burn, the bookkeeper that was handling the limited funds is discovered to have embezzled some of the limited money, lack of HR experience produces very poor management decisions about the people who work at the organization, etc. The punishment (however that plays out) of these errors either destroys the organization or shifts it to a model of Two Missions (Mission as Purpose and Mission as Reproduction). If the punishments are severe enough, but the organization survives, there is a tendency for the surviving managers to value the financial/social (Reproduction) Mission over the original purpose. This causes an organization-specific development (i.e., aging) process focused on managing the relationship and value of both Mission and Reproduction.

Long Term Paths for Two Missions Organizations

Once an organization has transitioned to the realities of the Two Missions, there are many paths that the organization can follow as it struggles to manage the relationship between the sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting demands of these two governing constraints.  It is common to try to use Hierarchy to manage these challenges.

As a Governing Constraint, Hierarchy never exists separate from the Two Missions. But, management beliefs about hierarchy themselves constitute a governing constraint that defines the possibility space for the management view of the quality of solutions to organization problems.

Management view of the level of control necessary to solve management problems is often set in concrete, narrowing the range of “acceptable” ways to solve problems, which in turn guarantees poor problem-solving. Under ordinary circumstances, some public failure of the organization (embezzlement, reputation failure, or similar organizational system issue) must occur, and it is not unusual for the existing governance structures, like the Board and the senior managers to turn over before there is any major change in the Governing constraint of Hierarchy.

The usual choice to resolve this problem is to increase the control offered through Hierarchy. This choice is made out of fear, not because it genuinely offers integration of Mission and Reproduction, and increasing control often starts the organization down a path of technocratic zombism, where the original Mission no longer has any meaning.

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(P3): Legislative Advocacy: Part Two

A diagram of how Advocacy Coalitions affect systems. See link in resources for image text.

Ultimately, if we wish systems advocacy to approach the scope for which we hoped, we will have to change both the kind of macro-frameworks within which we advocate, and the methods and mobilizations we use to impact both the existing frameworks and the innovations we wish to build.

This post will cover how we need to change our methods and mobilizations, and a later post will cover the creation of new visions of support systems that reflect the reality of complex adaptive systems, and the rejection of bureaucratic and mechanical forms of support.

How will we do systems advocacy differently in the future?

I am old enough to remember the talking points we used to mobilize against discrimination, institutionalization, the taking away of rights generally, and the de-valuing of people in our community. Rather than go over those points, I would like to reframe our values for talking points that could be used in this era to begin the creation of systems with governing constraints that promote our current understanding of what it means to support our community in the expansion of life possibilities, personal autonomy, and the endless exploration of choice.

Some preliminary notions of how we might talk about the governing constraints of potential new systems of support:

  • All systems must permit broad customized collaboration among all relevant actors organized around the hub of the person who is creating the personal support, and that person’s social network.
  • Systems of support must embrace the tension of locally developed mutual support alternatives or complements to the System’s closed approach as a normal and expected part of deeply engaged collaboration in creating customized supports for a person.
  • Collaboration is viewed as necessary to enable and coordinate the emergence of genuinely customized and flexible support over the lifetime of the person.
  • Supported Decision-Making is the core mental framework and skill set for making new support system governing constraints genuinely effective.

These principles can’t be implemented in a closed system of rule and regulation that limits outcomes to the preconceived. As Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety points out, only “Variety absorbs variety” ( see the link above). The systems that can collaborate to realize the values in the preliminary notions above must create a temporary Complex Adaptive System (CAS), the planning collaborative group, that can creatively marshal resources and enable the emergence of a customized support in the actual life of a real person. This is no different in principle (though different in size and scope) from anyone embracing an intention to do something they have never done before, and then exploring their possibility space to produce an emergence of something that reasonably matches their intention.

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(P3): Advocacy with Groups of Persons and Families

A group of adult citizens engaging in a public conversation at a Santa Cruz library.

Usually it is easier to produce systems change through advocacy with a group that has related advocacy goals. It is easier to destabilize a weak constraint in the system if there are several similar but somewhat different ways for the system to lose control of the destabilized constraint. A standard model of this process might involve eliminating a segregated classroom by arguing that each student in the class has a right to an integrated educational experience and doing this through a group collaboration.

Each student can pursue a separate action to move to an inclusive environment, since the typical reason why a system would segregate a group of students is to reduce the costs of similar supports for these different students. If the system loses even one of these advocacy initiatives, they will have to provide the supports outside the cheap classroom, and they will have to absorb the cost of the hearings that advocacy triggers. So, 6 students can mean 6 hearings, six separate hearing costs (maybe $20,000 each). It is cheaper in the long run to develop a model that provides the supports that would be ordered in a hearing result.

Also, systems have developed methods to isolate single family advocacy efforts by demeaning their competence, educational knowledge, purposes, impact on other students, and so on. These tools are far less usable when there is a group of similar advocacy efforts.

A group with a common purpose forms a temporary complex adaptive system (CAS). This purpose is the governing constraint and frames a set of possibilities that the group will explore as it moves toward a valued outcome in their work.

In addition, a group with a purpose can more easily pursue destabilization of many additional weak constraints that are part of the system. Political activities, public relations, educational initiatives, public policy planning, and many other possibilities for advocacy are much more feasible in a group.

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(P3): Advocacy with Individuals and Families

Cartoon of IEPC with school staff explaining the legalese poorly without providing any real information and the parents obviously confused

There is a standard way to advocate on behalf of an individual or that person and the family. The weak constraint in this standard scenario is ordinarily a set of rules regulating the target’s interaction with individuals, commonly described as individual rights. There will be one form or another of negotiation over customized supports for the person, and a set of rules for how supports are developed and implemented. There is typically a complaint system, an appeals system, and a fair hearing system to organize the process of resolving disagreements.

The ordinary reality of negotiation in this kind of weak constraint is that the target tries to manage the negotiation process by discouraging family or individual involvement, making the entire negotiation as complex and intimidating as possible, not providing support to the person or the family about how to use the regulatory framework of the support system, offering an existing support even if it clearly doesn’t provide the customization needed to actually succeed, framing the request for supports as an individual unrealistic demand rather than a system problem, using the argument of policy or practice to claim that the request is invalid, threatening the family or individual with punishment, repeated use of the strategy of denial, followed by pulling back on the denial at every successful advocacy step, and so on, and so on, and so on. All these tactics are designed to restore the constraint to its past usual managed cycle.

When we successfully destabilize this constraint management approach, on the other hand, the system must do things that it ordinarily does not do (our destabilizing of the weak constraint is enabling). This requires the target to commit resources (funding, expertise, staff and administrator time) to non-normal workflow. The target makes a judgement about whether they can contain the destabilized constraint or not. Under the impact of the destabilization, it is this judgment that advocacy tries to manage.

If the destabilization is successful, and the advocated change occurs, the target accommodates the change and remodels the destabilized weak constraint so that it is moved back to a predictable cycle.

To get some of the depth of this advocacy framework, think of the difference between a pick-up game of basketball, baseball, soccer, etc. by a bunch of 10year-old kids. They set all the rules, make all the ethical judgments, preserve competition in a way they believe to be fair. Also, though such a game seems to be a competitive one, it is in fact enabling, since the experience of the game by the participants develops social skills that the participants will use throughout their adolescence and adulthood. In a word, this kind of competition socializes the participants. This is the way that the basic successful advocacy pattern described above works.  At its best, it socializes the target system to be more responsive to the participants.

Now think through what happens to the kid’s “competition” when adults formalize their sports events over time and tie them ultimately to the behavior and constraints in professional sports (without the money). There is no enabling relationship. Every part of professional sports is engaged in a war with no ethics except those imposed from the outside. Money, fame, celebrity, and cult status are the only meaningful goals, none of which are enabling in any human way. While competition does not have to be winner-take-all (WTA), it has largely become that in every arena of adult behavior, far beyond the obvious example of professional sports.

The individual and family form a complex adaptive system, with the purpose of the advocacy forming the governing constraint on the CAS. When a family reaches out to an advocate, they are trying to enlarge the space of possibilities to increase the likelihood of a valued outcome.

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(P3): Other Examples of Weak Constraints

Stylized figures of generic viruses, bacteria etc.

Because the CAS that we target for advocacy are very complex systems tied to a very complex larger environment, there are a very large number of weak constraints (WC) available for potential destabilization. Obviously, not all weak constraints might be similarly effective in producing a specific advocacy outcome. And, in fact, we tend to use multiple weak constraints to effect a positive advocacy outcome.

But because it seems easier or more efficient to use techniques that have proven successful in the past, we build habits of ignoring other possibilities (a kind of faux “efficiency” argument). I would argue that creativity is an essential part of successful advocacy, if only because the target system will adapt to your advocacy efforts, and you must have a ”habit” of introducing novelty into your advocacy efforts to not have them degraded significantly over time.

So I offer this list, not as anything like a complete one, but to allow meditating by review of the possibilities. Perhaps one of these might trigger a realization on your part that would point to a more sophisticated novel approach to a high-quality advocacy outcome.

Legal WC:

  • Complaints
  • Fair hearings
  • Lawsuits of various kinds

Political WC:

  • Publicity
  • Politician-targeted problem solving
  • Boards and Councils
  • Elections

Financial WC:

  • Public Funding
  • Resource Allocation
  • Financial Disparities

Systemic WC:

  • Threatening Governing Constraints
  • Introducing Novelty

Organizing WC:

  • Emerging an Insurgency
  • Building local or community resistance
  • Effective Advocacy Training
  • Building Community Advocacy Supports

Any single or combination of these WC’s could be targeted for destabilization in a specific advocacy strategy.

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(P2): Activism as Bricolage

Theatre showing Tosca with a phrase projected onto the screen curtain, 'Power is always temporary'

Bricolage is rightly viewed as one of the “Powers of the Weak”. Elites typically view power as something exerted by a predictable machine of propaganda, sanctions, and punishments, and they view insurgents trying to change this as working to replace their machine of power with some other one.

So, bricolage, used as a tool of subversion, misdirection, or organizing, is hard for elites to see, or target. This is especially true if the bricolage is used to solve a local problem.

The point of using bricolage rather than using the system is to avoid having the problem-solving bricolage subjected to the services logic of the system.  This system services logic includes assumptions of:

  • Spending scarce resources to detect fraud
  • Using “failure demand” as a tool for managing system work rather than actually providing the service
  • After an initial period of seeking out persons eligible for the support, gradually turning the point of the system increasingly toward denial of supports.
  • Etc.

Bricolage allows a more coherent connection between support purpose and behavior. This coherence is lost once the support is subjected to the support logic of the system.

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