(P6): The Viable System Model

Decorative Image. Look to resources for explanation of VSM

The viable system model (VSM) has been around for a long time. It was one of the first successful attempts to build an organizational model using the human body as a functional template. Interestingly, When the revolution in Chile occurred in the early ’70s, it was a VSM model that was successfully used to run the country until the right-wing coup. Its biggest advantages are:

  • It is effective at supporting individual and work unit autonomy
  • It supports communication between individuals and between subsystems that promote the good of the whole
  • It can be used effectively for organizations of any size, though it is easier to implement in small organizations
  • It can resolve a lot of the concerns that advocacy networks have when deciding to form a more structured advocacy organization
  • It is independent of funding or other sources of organizational resources

A VSM has 5 interacting subsystems:

  • System 1: The entire collection of interacting Operational units.
  • System 2: The system responsible for stability/resolving conflict between Operational units.
  • System 3: The systems responsible for optimization/generating synergy between Operational units.
  • System 4: Plans for the Future and strategies. Adaptation to a changing environment.
  • System 5: Policy.

VSM requires some real effort to grasp because it is entirely different from the way that organizations (including advocacy ones) are run. The underlying drive that makes VSM a “viable” alternative to what you are doing now is the co-equal participation of everyone and each of the Systems with one another.

It always seems easier to just dictate an outcome (or at least faster).  But autocratic decision-making always results in strategic errors and unintended consequences. Even if you can’t entirely redesign your organization, you can use VSM to redesign your workgroup or team. Your work will improve if you do.

VSM can be applied at any level of organization.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Meanwhile, There Are Other Turkeys Dropping from the Sky

Poster saying As God is My Witness,I thought Turkeys Could Fly-Arthur Carlson

Making Choices in An Ocean of Uncertainty (Part 2)

Any genuine surprise triggers the same response from us:

  • Deny that it is a surprise by continuing to do what you normally do.
  • Tweak what you normally do to see if that helps.
  • If you become desperate enough, do something new.
  • When something new actually helps (what helps, incidentally, will be as novel as the surprise), it will outcompete what you normally do.

You would think that we would learn to skip the early responses and get to creating and using a novel approach, but we don’t. For humans, that seems to be because we have a lot invested in what we normally do (a lot invested in our past), and actually trying to do something as novel as the unexpected surprise warrants, seems to mean we’ll somehow lose our investment.

We are only gradually absorbing the basic and long term impact of the contagion right now; and, we are significantly behind in absorbing that. Our pandemic-specific numbers are always out of date when we see them, and we are still making choices based on obsolete and inaccurate data.

This problem of always being too slow to respond in regard to the impact of the pandemic applies to everything else that has changed in the last five months, and all that hasn’t. Other turkeys are falling from the skies and, as demanding as the virus is in terms of our immediate choices, we need to find a space for those others that are on their way down or being pushed to the edge of the helicopter door almost ready to drop into the complex adaptive system that is our common wicked problem:

  • The Confluence of Disasters: Just because we have a pandemic doesn’t mean that we somehow get relief from other disasters. Even if our altered behavior and self-isolation reduce some of the impact in those other dangerous events, we still can expect tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, fires, and a host of more local and personal disasters. But, because of the pandemic, our ability to respond to these will be reduced and disorganized, much like our early responses to the pandemic.
  • Medical Ableism: Triage systems that explicitly see people with disabilities as disposable and less than human have publically surfaced recently and are being effectively countered through advocacy. But, all of us in the disability community know that this more obvious strain of ableist eugenics bubbles below the surface in many parts of our lives, nowhere more clearly than in medicine. There will be a great deal of implicit and occasionally explicit euthanasia of members of our community in the course of this pandemic because it seems obvious to the healthcare system and insurers that younger, or healthier, or less obviously disabled people deserve life more than we do.
  • The Financial Psychopathy of Our Social Lives: For the last half-century, there has been a deliberate global effort to convince us that the only important lever for every decision we make, from the most to the least important, is to ask how it affects our wealth, reputation, and power. After all, our worth as a human being is clearly no more than these social and financial indices of our status, right? So embedded is this framework in our ongoing social and cultural communication, that even when our decisions will result in the emotional destruction and death of those we claim to hold dear, we can’t stop ourselves from sacrificing them to gain some meaningless additional increment.
  • Political Incompetence: The reduction of everything human to wealth, power, and reputation, has the unavoidable consequence of making our political elites and our political system generally incapable of anything more than a short-term pursuit of “victory” in some current short-lived meme war, whatever might be surfacing at this particular moment. This deep lack of governing competence leads to a surprising common assumption under the surface differences in political ideologies.  We actually have a political culture that believes that any reality can be entirely changed by merely making an effective political argument, stated over and over again. This is the modern form of the belief in magic; the political meme as a superstitious chant to appease or defeat some always temporary ideological god or demon. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the governance approach of our political elites to the Covid-19 virus.
  • Social Reconfiguration: Don’t kid yourself. Our political, social, and financial elites will continue to organize and appropriate more wealth, power, and reputation for themselves. They are simply incapable of thinking about the world in any other way. Opportunities for the rest of us lie outside our explicit and implicit support for that compulsive and unending search of theirs.

We need to look to ourselves, not our elites, for our future.

In the next, and last, part of this series, I’ll try to see some current possibilities for our community that will help start the long and difficult process of “distancing” us from those who see us as worthless and treat us as disposable.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(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.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P6): Basic Organizing Framework

A large number of wooden branches mutually supporting one another in a stack like that supporting a native american tipi.

The community of people with disabilities has used a strategy of iterative change to build rights and services entitlement for many decades. It is becoming less productive to focus solely on this strategy over time. There are many reasons for this:

  • For the last half-century, cultural and political change has pushed an agenda of ignoring the needs of others to gratify personal needs. This effort has degraded the economy and almost eliminated the resilience of individuals and their families. Most of us have little to fall back on financially or socially. Our entitlements have become what we depend on, and when those are threatened politically or financially, we don’t have any place to turn.
  • COVID-19 has exposed the brittleness of our community’s support in the larger society. Many of us will be scrambling for the near term just to stay alive. Regardless of how successful we are in adapting to the current social, political, and economic losses we will all experience, we will be eventually faced with creating some new support system largely without the help of those social, political, and economic institutions upon which we have depended in the past.
  • At the same time, many members of our community depend on technologically sophisticated and very expensive supports to maintain life. This is a chronic issue which COVID-19 is demonstrating in large during the current crisis.  We don’t have the option of ignoring or distancing ourselves from that reality. We will have to struggle with only partial success to maintain that lifeline to which we have become accustomed. In the long term, we will have to produce other ways of support that are not as fragile. We will have to do that ourselves because the larger society will fail in a variety of unpredictable ways over the next decade.
  • We can no longer depend on the System to support us. At the same time, we can’t avoid the System. Our strategy must be a bifurcated one:
    • Resistance to the loss of our rights and the destruction of our ability to live through the preservation and improvement of the System to the extent that is possible.
    • Building a much more sophisticated mutual aid network for our community that does not depend on the System for its funding or development.

We must also give up on the long-term notion of creating supports which are then absorbed by the System. Anything absorbed by the System will be subjected to the logic of the System and will have the same brittleness that the current System has. We must find a way to maintain what we need without allowing the System to reduce its effectiveness and make us dependent on the System’s current political whims.

If this goal seems impossible to you, you can begin to see the extent to which we have become dependent on systems that we do not control, and which are not accountable to us. The logic of these systems of support will never be accountable to us no matter how much we tweak them. We must view them as tools, not as solutions, tools which we use as we see fit. We must reach a point where we are not forced to submit to them.

This dual strategy can be viewed as the integration of:

  • The System as a Tool not a Solution.
  • The development of scalable Mutual Aid networks completely independent of the System.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Part 6: Organizing for Change

A word Cloud of many, many terms related to complex adaptive systems. The most prominent are CAS, advocacy, change, system, target, relationships, constraints, target

How do the lessons of Complex Adaptive Systems impact Activist Organizing?

We have internalized the notion that the change framework for a society is a machine or, these days, a computer program. This internalization begins at an early age and is a constant meme in our environment. Because we view our society in this way, our efforts to change that society are reduced to tactical and operational plans that would only produce reliable and consistent effects in machines or computer programs or problems that are short enough or small enough so that it doesn’t matter how we view them.

But our society and all the important systems of support and oppression that people with disabilities face every day are not machines or computer programs. They are Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), and if we persist in not embracing this reality, our change efforts will fade as the ripples of a small pebble dropped in the ocean, or they will produce consequences we never intended, including a worse version of what we tried to change.

There is no way around this reality. A constant din of simple silver bullet change plans will not save us.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Pandemic As A Fractal Disaster

A clipart image of a woman running with her hair on fire, tormented by various demands that she can't respond to effectively. They include email, Re:Re:Re:, 90, 17,Hey! Nobody told me that, How was I supposed to know that, Who has it?, and a polycom talking nonsense.

Making Choices in an Ocean of Uncertainty (Part 1)

The pandemic resulting from the spread of a novel virus, Covid-19, has pointed out many of the failures of not thinking, planning, or acting with an awareness of large systems and how they dynamically change over time. These failures occur every day in every system of support for people with disabilities, and they occur throughout the larger global complex adaptive system (CAS) that is our world. But we don’t normally see the failures except as small drops of irony. That is, we don’t see the ocean of uncertainty that is the reality of living out our lives in a Complex, Adaptive, System.

I don’t believe that any event in my life (over 7 decades) has shoved our collective face into these realities the way this virus has.

And in less than 3 months.

Much of this “in your face” quality of the pandemic is due to our “connected” world if connected is the right descriptor for experiences that can’t be avoided except in a sensory deprivation chamber, in a deep valley, underground, in Antarctica, with a face mask.

Pandemics always end, but while they are going on, they act like slow motion volcano eruptions, raining down ash on the just and unjust, rich and poor, and every other distinction we make among ourselves about our personal and social worth. Social, financial, and political choices that are usually buried or disguised become obvious. In the disability community, devaluing and destructive choices and matters of life and death become far more obvious and less hidden behind the walls of institutions and programs.

Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate. This is the dilemma we face, but it should not stop us from doing what we can to prepare. We need to reach out to everyone with words that inform, but not inflame. We need to encourage everyone to prepare, but not panic.” — Michael O. Leavitt, 2007 From Telliamed Revisited

The dilemma that Leavitt describes is certainly a real one, but it is also a dilemma not just because of the impact of a pandemic, but also because those who have taken on the authority for telling us about an appropriate response have long-standing, deeply political, and financial reasons to pretend that they are in control of the pandemic and that their simple, mechanical (maybe these days data-driven), operational policies will win the day. Messaging to communities that have always believed that every problem can be solved through an operational plan, a bigger version of replacing a leaky faucet through a DIY video, makes it easier to massage away the cramps that result from economic, social, and political failure and those pesky long term consequences when they inevitably occur.

The “message is the massage”, as it were.

Pandemics have lots of explicit characteristics that make them difficult to manage using the mechanical, operational planning, and contingency planning that passes for prevention and safety these days:

  • The dynamic process of a pandemic emerges from the relationship between people. Each and every contact has the capacity to spread the virus, but there is also no guarantee that the contact will, and in the immediacy of the contact, no way to tell what happened. There is no way to calculate the probability that any single contact will result in the spread, except over group and population averages that are nowhere near granular enough to track the actual dynamics of the pandemic. Your “track” of a pandemic is always well behind the reality because bugs are faster than we are and have a much longer track record of undoing our best plans for safety than we do for stopping them. This means that the evolution of the pandemic is, among other things, Fractal (everywhere at every level) and inherently uncertain.
  • You can’t negotiate with a virus. You can’t intimidate a virus. A virus is like a tiny Terminator. That means that none of the standard political memes and longstanding manipulation techniques available for everyday use will actually permit social, political, and financial elites to manage pandemics the way they manage everything else of importance to them.
  • Our society ordinarily uses the concept of Risk Management to deal with failure and disaster. Because the dynamic of a pandemic is a CAS, its actual path of destruction will remain uncertain until the current pandemic is over. Real Uncertainty is very, very different from calculable risk. In an uncertain ocean of possibility, every published Risk is wrong and is being used for some additional purpose besides authentically managing the actual pandemic.
  • As Italy has discovered in Lombardy, being supremely confident of your individual and community’s economic strength, high health status,  and social superiority doesn’t stop the corpses from decomposing in their homes, or the stereotyped social worth calculus of global medicine from throwing whole communities under the train.
  • So, in the rollup to the pandemic maximum (number of people affected, the peak of the Bell-Shaped Curve), all the numbers you are being told daily are underestimates (obviously). But it seems to me that most of the time people make decisions about their behavior on the numbers with which they are presented. How many people have been diagnosed today, and should I go to the store and buy food, or drop my child off at daycare one more day, or get drunk at the bar with my friends one more time? Our decisions are almost never made using an actual appreciation of the potential impact. Instead, we are conditioned to make choices that don’t match reality by the very efforts to educate us about what and how we should choose.
  • Although this should be obvious, it isn’t the lethality of Covid-9 that is the greatest threat. Although this virus is somewhere around 20 times as lethal as the annual flu, it doesn’t come close to our ancestral pandemics.  The problem is that our healthcare system is designed around the industrial notion of Just-In-Time supply, treatment, and disposition. If everyone who got the virus had the mild version, we would be able to manage the number pretty much no matter how many there were. But 15-20% of those who become ill (some estimates are as high as 40% for risk of complications) need more than basic illness care. We are all in real trouble if that population shows up in the emergency room on the same day. If the critical care system collapses, it won’t just be people with Covid-19 complications who will die. People with other conditions that ordinarily would have gotten competent treatment aren’t going to get it.

This is why the strategy for managing the pandemic is to first contain, then mitigate the results, as in #flattenthecurve. The goal is to avoid completely overwhelming the healthcare system, under the motto, “Flatten the Curve”; it is not an attempt to prevent death, which can’t be done, but to spread it out so that system failure doesn’t dramatically increase the number who die.

#flatten the curve is a genuine strategy. It is a framework for making decisions about the two things we can never control:

  • The unpredictable future;
  • The eternal scarcity of resources.

#flattenthecurve creates a space of possibilities where we can build and implement operational plans that are consistent with this strategy. Many such plans are being rolled out now. Because the pandemic is fractal, the operational plans resulting from the strategy have to be fractal as well. At every level, there are things we can do to support the strategy. We don’t necessarily need to wait to be told what to do, as long as what we do in our own lives and with those about whom we care is driven by the constraints of the #flattenthecurve possibility space.

If we avoid the collapse of healthcare, we will not only minimize death in the short term, but we will create a timeframe for the longer term that allows for better choices.

Because, like all strategies, #flattenthecurve isn’t a complete answer to a pandemic (there is no complete answer to a novel pandemic).

If we minimize the total number of people who actually get the virus this time around, we leave open the possibility, in fact, the inevitability, of an annual/multi-year cycle of recurrence, much like the annual flu season. But we also will have time for a genuinely effective vaccine, drugs that interfere with the ability for the virus to enter lung cells and cause damage, improved access to (hopefully) more sophisticated and cheaper ventilator systems, and a much deeper experience of acute and long term clinical care for the fallout from the virus.

If everyone on the planet had gotten the virus in one bell-shaped curve, we might have 140 million dead, and be treating the long term effects for many years. And there would be no resources for the mitigation and management possibilities mentioned above.

A well-chosen strategy doesn’t eliminate the reason for its necessity. Rather, it enables you to manage the current and future states of the original trigger for the common good.

We have lost touch with the idea that we should think about the long term together, instead of simply maximizing our individual gratification in the short term. I hope this pandemic proves to be a tonic for our social foresight about our common threats.

Because, as bad as this virus will be, there are far worse novelties that could arise, and we don’t have any idea which one will surface next.

Working together to build real safety and flexible response must be the lesson we take from this evolving experience that we all share, and we need to use this experience to dramatically improve how we manage our uncertain future.

(P5): The Heuristic of Disability Rights

A large crowd of persons using wheelchairs carrying an American-style flag with stars in the form of a wheelchair, charging across a hill.

The idea of Disability Rights has served as a heuristic for our community for centuries, in small local ways, and for the last half-century as a global organizing framework (a scaffold) for the pursuit of personal autonomy and real choice.

In the process, our community has deepened and enriched the idea of civil rights to embrace the many ways that the context of personal autonomy and choice has on making those values real in the world. More than just the concept of context framing the possibilities of freedom, we have concretely defined, repeatedly, the many real ways the nature of the context can limit or support personal autonomy.

In fact, this exploration of the ways that the larger social context, in both cultural assumptions, infrastructure, and ideas about the meaning of disability, is the most important way that personal autonomy and choice are constrained, far more than the particulars of any disability characteristic.

Our community has explored the possibility space of Disability Rights to expand the impact of our insights and our advocacy practice on the larger world. That effort has resulted in a significant increase in personal possibility over these decades and the increasing sophistication of our advocacy.

At the same time, the model we have used is increasingly brittle, given the larger political and economic evolution of our society, in particular, and globally. This kind of limitation is true of all heuristics. They are never silver bullets but must always be judged in terms of their current strategic effectiveness.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(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,.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(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.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License