(P2): A Weak Constraint as a Potential Insurgency

A painting of a medieval revolt. Many people and soldiers fighting one another.

Mostly, CAS (Complex Adaptive Systems) view both internally generated and externally driven encounters as disturbances or perturbations. For purposes of understanding how you can advocate for change in a CAS, I prefer to think of these triggers as insurgencies.

An adjacent possible is something you can do readily from where you are right now. Some insurgencies keep resurfacing, an indication of an adjacent possible.

There are always more adjacent possibles than you know. They are often weak constraints, and we tend to pick one, stick with it as our preferred novel change target, and fail to see the other possibilities lurking close by. Our ability to survey the possibilities of the uncertain world around us is encumbered by our automatic focus on the easiest possibility to perceive.

Insurgencies subvert by their mere existence. In fact, a traditional way to turn a weak constraint into an insurgency is to trigger a response from the Target CAS. This is part of the reason why they are so hard to eliminate. Failed insurgencies are typically replaced by changes that will also trigger a new set of possibilities and a new insurgency.

Subversion is always possible. There is no way to build a fortress that is impervious to an insurgency. In fact, I think it is reasonable to describe the ongoing human conflicts in every State in the last 7,000 years as an insurgent struggle for change and freedom against a status quo struggling to increase and preserve control.

So, an insurgency is a kind of constraint, and it can move from a “weak” constraint to a powerful force for change just because the target reacts to its disturbance.

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(P2): Weak Signals as Weak Constraints

Drawn picture of black slaves fighting off white slavers trying to recapture them.

  • I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.
    -Jeff Bezos
  • The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.
    -Igor Stravinsky 
  • Problems are hidden opportunities, and constraints can actually boost creativity.
    Martin Villeneuve

So, how do we use weak signals as a basis for changing Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS)? We must look carefully at the weak signal to understand how or if this signal represents a weak constraint, and what the constraint means to the Target CAS.

Earlier I pointed out that weak links buffer the wildness of CAS. This buffering is a form of constraint, and that’s why buffering works. The buffer acts a bit like the banks on a river, constraining the flow of the river without dictating the movement of individual water molecules.

Our usual understanding of system constraints mimics the beliefs of the homeless community and uber-rich communities. Constraints are barriers to the safety or freedom of these communities, and so they are eliminated. Successful elimination of such weak constraints makes those social communities brittle and hyper-responsive to small disturbances.

The image above is a drawing of the effect of the Underground Railroad during and around the Civil War. The Underground Railroad functioned as a weak constraint on the Southern Slave System It was largely ignored when it was small but was attacked (ineffectively) when it expanded and began to operate as a sign of the weakness of that Southern Slave System.

The Underground Railroad was more than a simple barrier. It actively forced the Southern Slave System to respond to it. In the same way, weak constraints do more than provide simple barriers to the system of which they are a part.

Target systems for our advocacy have many weak constraints that are a normal expected part of their day-to-day experience. They are usually ignored or tolerated because the behavior of the weak constraint is a small local cycle that doesn’t threaten the larger system’s normal behaviors. If the weak constraint begins to expand its impact on the larger system, it will trigger a response of some kind from the larger CAS.

In Part Three, I’ll talk more clearly about how we use weak constraints (and sometimes strong constraints) to produce advocated change in CAS.

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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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(P2): So What Do We Do with Those Weak Signals

WhatToDoWithWeakSignals

First, we have to actually pay attention to them. Our default is to ignore them as unimportant. That means we have to have a way of making them stand out.  Most importantly, we have to conserve the meaning in the story of any weak signal instead of homogenizing that meaning or averaging it or abstracting it through ordinary statistical analysis. That is one of the strengths of SenseMaker. Its function is, first of all, to make raw weak signals stand out in a number of ways. We need to do the same.

Then, we have to ask ourselves about the value of the narratives we have acquired to support or undermine positive change. This isn’t simple to do. But our first order goal with these signals is to increase the ones that support positive change and decrease the ones that undermine it. Because these are weak signals, it is feasible for us to try out ways to do both of these in time frames that let us change our approach as we learn which weak signals we can effectively increase and decrease, and when we need to look at different initiatives to produce these outcomes.

The reason why this works at all in trying to change a CAS is that the cycle of experiment and evaluation is short. Such an approach respects the dispositional nature of CAS and doesn’t require us to use prediction and mechanical outcomes as the signs of progress.

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Part Two: Detecting and Using Weak Signals (Cynefin)

A Specimen Cynefin Diagram (not the newest, not the oldest).  Simple / Obvious: The simple/obvious domain represents the 'known knowns'. This means that there are rules in place (or best practice), the situation is stable, and the relationship between cause and effect is clear. Complicated: The complicated domain consists of the 'known unknowns'. The relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or expertise; there are a range of right answers. The framework recommends 'sense–analyze–respond': assess the facts, analyze, and apply the appropriate good operating practice. Complex: The complex domain represents the 'unknown unknowns'. Cause and effect can only be deduced in retrospect, and there are no right answers. 'Instructive patterns ... can emerge,' write Snowden and Boone, 'if the leader conducts experiments that are safe to fail.' Cynefin calls this process 'probe–sense–respond'. Chaotic: In the chaotic domain, cause and effect are unclear.[e] Events in this domain are 'too confusing to wait for a knowledge-based response'. managers 'act–sense–respond': act to establish order; sense where stability lies; respond to turn the chaotic into the complex. Disorder / Confusion: The dark disorder domain in the centre represents situations where there is no clarity about which of the other domains apply.

Cynefin is a body of knowledge and tools to assist in changing CAS, among other things. Cynefin, as an enterprise intervention, also has developed a “narrative access and analysis tool” called SenseMaker™. Sensemaker allows the intervenors to accurately access raw views by the participants as short narratives without groupthink or homogenization. It is this ability that allows for the detection of weak signals.

Because SenseMaker has developed an app, it is possible for its users to engage huge numbers of people in a very short time. The example that had the most impact on my understanding of its capacities was an effort to work around the unwillingness of local citizens to say what they actually thought to US civil and military personnel in SE Asia.

The system was used to ask children to relate a story from their grandparents about the most important lesson that the grandparents had learned in their lives. Then the children sent the stories using the SenseMaker app. This project got 50,000 stories in four days.  There is simply nothing else that supports authentic narrative by real participants with the speed of SenseMaker.

Unfortunately for our community, SenseMaker is an enterprise tool and is priced that way. I have been exploring ways we might be able to use this system in our community, but I am some distance from a genuine solution.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t make use of the idea if we can come up with ways to assure fidelity to SenseMaker’s ability to easily access real raw narratives from participants.

I’ll discuss some ideas for using this general framework to get meaningful narratives in our community in later posts. For now, I hope you can see the importance of weak signals in the development and use of our FutureStrategy.

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(P1): Why Are Weak Signals Ignored?

A slide: Weak Signals Detection with Social media-No surprise at all? Theory: In contemporary future studies the term weak signals refers to an observed anomaly in the known path or transformation that surprises us somehow. (Kuosa, 2014 p, 22) Our Experiences; Are We Alone? Possible Explanations:  #1 Noisy social media and other limits #2 Filters #3 Customers are Experts #4 Epistemological Limits

Most of the ways we have of finding signals in CAS make us ignore the weak signals.

Surveys, focus groups, social media scans, and almost all the paraphernalia of social studies research homogenize signals to allow the “provable” detection of the Big Signals, the ones that represent larger trends in the CAS. And statistics, as it is usually used in these studies, is designed to relegate weak signals (at best) to a distant periphery where it can be ignored.  Think about what you were taught about the bell-shaped curve, and what you believe is meaningful about the data.

This approach to detecting signals is a framework that our social and profit-driven CAS imposes on us as the meaning of “worthwhile pursuit”.  Weak signals are seen as useless in this framework and, thus, meaningless.

To find weak signals, we have to access the raw narrative that the signal creates once it comes into existence. We have to deliberately prevent the homogenization and loss of the weak signal through our usual methods of assigning meaning to the information. We have to learn to pay attention to the small, weak, and powerless.

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(P1): Weak Signals

A network diagram with a large hub (strong links) and many smaller hubs (weak links)

One way to think about weak signals is through network modeling.

It is intuitive to view strong links in a network as the important ones and the weak links as unnecessary details or random defects in the network that don’t contribute to the purpose or function of the network. But in complex adaptive systems, strong links generate volatile unpredictable behavior. Weak links buffer the volatility of the activity of these strong links and are largely responsible for the stability of the network, even as the CAS goes about its merry way.

Interestingly, there are two communities that deliberately eliminate weak links from their social lives:

  • People who are homeless and desperate, I suppose because they believe that persons they don’t know very well are persons they can’t trust.
  • Very rich people, I suppose because they believe that those who aren’t their peers can’t be trusted and are after their money.

Both of these communities are largely right in their loss of trust for weak links, which says something about their location in the current CAS and their personal futures in the CAS.

Note that authoritarian regimes and cults both eliminate weak links in the belief that their survival only depends on the strong links that produce (in their view) their power and wealth. These kinds of “strong” CAS are notoriously volatile and readily suffer collapse if any insurgency can disturb the control.

This framework maps to the basic CAS change concept that powerful system trends are very difficult to control for positive change (even if they might support our change). The best opportunity for change lies in the weak links, because they are small now, but can grow to have much greater influence.

But identifying the weak links that might be the best support for CAS change efforts remains difficult because those links aren’t poking us in the face.

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(P1): Basic Ways of Thinking about CAS

A hand drawn diagram of the Cynefin Framework which is ironically very complex. Text Version through link.

By Edward Stoop at Sketching Maniacs
Text Version of Hand-drawn Cynefin Diagram

Because changing a CAS requires an entirely different way of engaging, we must develop new skills and new ways of perceiving in order to manage the losses we will not be able to avoid and to frame our future actions more strategically. These new skills are not mechanical procedures or recipes. They require ongoing engagement with the CAS and flexibility of response. These two dimensions of our CAS change strategy are the very things we have spent millennia trying to eliminate from our change plans, and our work to increase engagement and flexibility result from the rejection of the “system as machine” mentality.

This is not in any way a moralistic judgment. Unintended consequences don’t occur because there is some personal moral sanction being made by the universe that your actions are bad. Every time we create a short-term advantage for ourselves, we create an unintended and largely unperceived consequence somewhere down the tunnel of the future elsewhere in the CAS.

Humans are evolutionarily favored in devising and using short-term tactics to secure some immediate good. Before states were a reality (say, 7,000 years ago), this worked well for us generally. There was enough room in the world for our waste or mistakes to be recycled as we migrated elsewhere. The world would be “fixed” before we came back to the place we started, as it were. Now, over time, someone will eventually pay for our short-term thinking. Unintended consequences are triggered by all our efforts to stay ahead of the results of our current decisions. And, everyone else is doing the same thing. So, we or our descendants all eventually get burned by the distant actions of someone else. Our tweaks just make things worse over time.

The following posts will focus on one aspect of engaging CAS or another. The image in this slide is itself an engaging way to think about CAS.

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FutureStrategy Recap

The original double attractor that demonstrated the variation and complexity of weather. It looks like a pair of eyes with no path repetition.
Why The Weather is Hard to Predict
  • Twice and thrice over, as they say, good is it to repeat and review what is good.
    -Plato
  • Even if we remember the past, odds are good we’ll still repeat it.
    Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Reminiscence and self-parody are part of remaining true to oneself.
    -John Updike

After a half-century of progress in the advocacy by our community for the support we need to live lives of choice and freedom, our work is stalled. Many forces (together called the #reaction) in the larger society are contributing to this struggle. Changing any one of them will not alter the momentum of this steadily expanding global backlash. Recently, the effort to stop and reverse the progress the disability community has achieved has become increasingly public and has spread to every part of the political and support systems upon which we depend for the quality of our lives and the freedom to make our own choices about how we will live those lives.

The disability community has gradually become a part of the general response of many communities to the current reality, popularly know as the #resistance.

The resistance seeks to restore the momentum of change in the direction it had previously. However, the trouble with resistance is that the past can’t be restored to what it was so that progress can continue as it would have if the forces of reaction hadn’t fought against progress. As necessary as resistance is, it is not enough. Resistance can’t “correct” the complex adaptive system that is our society. Resistance can undermine the momentum of the reaction, but it can’t create a new basis for progress by itself.

While resistance can slow and disrupt the reaction, resistance is meaningless unless we have a strategy which we can use for a counterstroke when the reaction is sufficiently weak. Without that strategy, the result of resistance will be less capable (if less damaging) society, at least as far as our freedom and choice are concerned.

The counterstroke of the disability community must have two phases:

  • We must support the resistance to weaken the reaction because doing so is a tactical necessity for keeping us living our lives.
  • We must begin to build our counterstroke, a response that will reduce our dependence on the social system for those supports we need to survive.

This double-sided approach is FutureStrategy. If we embrace it, we will need to simultaneously try to extract as much support as we can from the society through the resistance, and we will begin to build our own supports, separate from the system and emerging from our local community, based on the system realities we face in each moment of this rapidly, and complexly evolving society.

The image in the slide is the original attractor model that Lorenz used in his discovery of the volatility of weather. I suggest you view it as a metaphor for the two-pronged strategy described here.

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Tools of FutureStrategy

A variety of Swiss Army Knives and other Multi-tools

Building Our Lives Together

If our disability community is to build and implement a sustainable strategy that preserves our lives and our freedom, we will need to build our skills to support the implementation of that FutureStrategy. These posts will outline some tools we could use to accomplish that.

The big picture is emphasized below because there is no simple relationship between a tool and the problem you are trying to solve when you are trying to change a complex adaptive system.

First, I’ll recapitulate a summary of FutureStrategy described in the previous blog posts.  Then, I’ll provide a crash course on how changing Complex Adaptive Systems is different from our standard ways of changing complicated and mechanical systems. Finally, I’ll pass on things I and other people have learned about the larger world of effective advocacy.

The resistance tools below will be drawn from three large scale categories:

  • Advocacy as an arena of the system change effort.
  • Organizing for change in and through the disability community.
  • Managing the Ecosystem of Targets in which our community will work for change. It is this ecosystem in which we must focus our strategy.

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