(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): 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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Part 4: Advocacy Heuristics

A complex image. See Text from Image and Notes link below the image.

Text from Image and Notes

What is a Heuristic?

As a tool for disability rights advocacy, a heuristic is a framework of meaning that provides a way of developing an advocacy tactic, strategy, or organization. At its simplest, a heuristic is a rule-of-thumb, that allows us to make decisions about what to do more easily. Mostly heuristics are used to develop tactics, but they can be used at any level of decision-making and for any advocacy purpose. Heuristics represent a distillation of someone’s experience and reflection on what worked in the past.

Even a very capable heuristic guarantees nothing. Heuristics have their own built-in bias and using them automatically prevents you from noticing that bias. Remember that heuristics are initiators of reflection, discussion, and collaboration to reach a decision for action that respects the current reality and the current context, not ways to save time and thought.

So, remember that you, too, come to advocacy work with an existing set of heuristics and their biases. Capable advocacy should always be an opportunity to question, explore, and reframe the automatic responses we all have living in our world of failed social justice.

I would also note that it is common for advocacy organizations to use heuristics more and more automatically as they age.

The image is from Scott Page who has done a lot of work in the usefulness and challenges of diversity as a framework for problem-solving. His work is noted in the text through the link under the image.

The complement of this view of diversity and advocacy (kind of the other side of the coin) is detecting weak constraints in the problem by deliberately avoiding the homogenization that arises in groups. This way of respecting the lived experience of persons is called distributed ethnography (DE). DE is a complement because diversity in groups helps with both problem-solving and detection of weak constraints if approached properly. These ideas are explored more completely through links in the “Text from Image and Notes”.

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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): 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): Meta-Systems Advocacy- Part 2

Famous cartoon of different stakeholder views of designing a tree swing. None of them except the customers original vision of a simple tree swing works as the customer intended

Long Description of Cartoon

More about the Differences Between the Two Kinds of Plans

Causal Models of change, like logic models, tie causal links between the steps from the beginning of the plan to the outcome. But, there is inherent uncertainty in change plans targeted at any CAS, which is inconsistent with the requirements for developing an operational plan like a logic model. We pretend that the problem and the plan are mechanically causal, eliding over the actual complexity. The effect of this is to weaken the so-called causal links and contract the potential outcomes of the plan.

Typically, we don’t just do this because of the obligation to create a mechanically causal plan for our proposal submission. We also do it because we try to make the plan match the perspective of the proposal reviewers about what constitutes a plan that is both creative and “realistic”. After all, if our plan is seen as too ambitious or too open-ended for the available money or the purpose of the RFP, it will be rejected.

But, if we were to stick very closely to the plan as we drew it up for the proposal, we would have great difficulty achieving our valued outcomes. So we fudge our proposal to meet the expectations of the reviewers while trying to keep our fidelity to the valued outcome we want to achieve.

This is a hard thing to do, and we tend to pull back on the impact of our outcomes to meet the realities of the funding possibilities available to us while reframing the outcomes and the steps as marketing memes in the RFP-required causal network.

A “plan” that respects the realities of a CAS is more like a plan for discovering the infrastructure of a room in the dark. You build a model of the room through experiments and exploration, not the traditional model of a plan. If you use a traditional model, you will miss important information about the room. If you experiment and evolve your plan based on what you discover, you can reach an understanding of the room, instead of imposing an inadequate meaning on the room using the traditional logic model approach.

Planning for change in a CAS requires constant engagement, not the “roll out the plan like dropping a rock off a cliff” approach that is almost universal in modern service/support/advocacy organizations.

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(P3): Meta-Systems Advocacy-Part 1

A map of Meta-impacts of systems- Evidence-informed effective policymaking: Policy rules promote evidence us and transparency; Sustained relationships, mutual trust, aligned medium and high level beliefs; deliberative processes systematic, collaborative. Political Forces: Advocacy for inclusion of broad groups and skilled chairing; Advocacy for establishing and maintaining relationships across the policy community; Advocacy for evidence use enhancing meta policy structure and processes.

How would we create a Complex Adaptive System whose purpose was to produce individually customized and emergent supports for individuals over the course of their lifetime?

First, we need to have a clearer grasp of the difference between mechanical causal outcome systems, and Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). The planning systems we all use now were designed from a framework of mechanical causality.

Mechanical Plans

Governance of a Mechanical Plan (say, a logic model for a grant proposal) is through a valued outcome. The outcome serves to organize the process of its achievement. The plan is a series of parallel linked steps that mechanically lead one from the other until the outcome is achieved. The adequacy of the plan is evaluated in the concreteness and causal (read measurable) links of the steps to the achievement. The point of the plan is that it works like a machine/computer if it is implemented properly. If it doesn’t work, the plan is treated like a broken machine/computer; we look for a broken part/process and replace it without changing the rest of the plan.

CAS Plans

Governance of a CAS Plan is through an outcome, as well, but the outcome is more like an intention, and the issues of measurability that arise in a mechanical plan are turned on their head. An intention is a governing constraint that does not dictate the steps required to achieve it. Instead, the governing constraint creates a space of possibilities within which we expect to find the realization or creation of the outcome/intention. Such an open approach is much more in line with how we all actually achieve an intention to do something we have never done before.

Imagine a pair of fraternal twins, both about 6 months old. A new ball is placed the same distance from each of them. Maybe the ball has flashing lights or bright colors on it, and each of the infants forms the intention of getting to the ball, grabbing it, and playing with it.

One of the infants carefully reaches out with a hand and carefully moves bit by bit to get closer to the ball until getting close enough to grab it. The other infant rolls about energetically until getting close enough to grab it.  Both strategies for reaching and grabbing the ball are part of the possibility space that the original intention creates.

There are many others. For example, the infant might communicate to a parent to bring the ball closer, or ignore the ball out of frustration, etc. Which strategy is picked is about the specifics of the CAS; the infant’s temperament, where the infant is in relation to the ball, the environment in general, other things that are around, and so on.

The strategy is not mechanically determined, but more felt through by trying approaches and muddling towards a solution. The second time the approach is tried, it is easier to reach the outcome and gets increasingly easier with practice.

This CAS-based way of thinking also has the advantage of being progressively customized to the dynamic actions of the infant. It matches the reality of the uniquess of the infant, and this uniqueness is reflected in the organization of the specific child’s brain.

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(P3): Advocacy within Local Communities

A tryptic of pictures; in the center a crowd of persons with disabilities in a rotunda surrounded by police; On the left side a police officer arresting a blind person; on the right police

Our disability community needs a community advocacy strategy that is about more than disability-related issues. All the following issues deeply affect our lives as well as the lives of many others where we live:

  • Health Care and Supports: Impacts children, elders, poor people, workers, LGBTQ communities. all oppressed communities
  • Climate Change: Impacts everyone, most especially our community
  • Transportation: Impacts elders, poor people, workers
  • Housing: Impacts all oppressed communities
  • Access to Healthy Food: Impacts people who are poor or who don’t have access to easily accessible transportation
  • Physical and Program Access to Supports: Impacts everyone who needs supports
  • Education: Affects all oppressed communities
  • Pollution: Especially affects oppressed communities
  • Community Development Policy: Impacts all the other issues listed here, and affects small business creation and survival

In the past, our community has focused on issues that  were concretely connected to the immediate experience of individuals with disabilities. We need to change our narrow focus and expand our advocacy through alliance with others who share the impact of these local community issues with us. This means putting continuing effort into getting to know one another, building advocacy alliances around specific issues of interest to other communities, using these relationships to create mutual education about how different community issues impact different local communities, and working together to build an effective and continuing advocacy presence in our local area.

The goal in community advocacy is secondarily to stop one political decision or action, and more to make the governing constraints of our local social/community CAS more effective at supporting enabling relationships and activity for all the members of our larger community. This strategy is a different view of every aspect of organizing for change and requires us to broaden our existing idea of inclusion to reach everyone affected. This, in turn, requires us to rethink every aspect of our organizing and advocacy.

In effect, it requires a more radical vision of inclusion and advocacy that reflects an expanded understanding of “Nothing about us, without us”.

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