P5: The Commanding Beliefs of the American People

  • Everything is Possible

  • Vast problems can be solved if broken up into pieces and addressed one by one

  • Ordinary men and women contain within themselves, individually and collectively, the constructive genius with which to craft such solutions

I would ask you to entertain some new ideas about the possibility of change. These ideas won’t work in the current system because of its unavoidable aging and decline, but they can be useful in creating our counterstroke.

I have quoted these  “Commanding Beliefs” from Roberto Unger, a surprisingly hopeful Brazilian visionary who has great admiration for the American social experiment, if not the current version.

These beliefs still resonate with all Americans, even if we have come to see them as too innocent to be useful.

Do these beliefs seem naive to you?

I think we have become trapped by our sense that the possibilities for change are either trivial or out of the question. This trap is conditioning from the oppression that has been built by the complex adaptive system within which we live.

Stop looking at the skyscrapers of power and money and politics-as-usual, and start looking at what is immediately around you.

Keep these beliefs in mind as we go through the rest of these posts.


P5: Within the Shell of the Old

A multi-colored (blue, brown, and white) spiral sea shell.
An Old Shell

One of the oldest ways of thinking about large scale change in a complex adaptive system is, “Build the new within the shell of the old”. It recognizes the need for change without requiring us to embrace either of the macro revolutionary strategies (change through total governance or breaking down governance and starting from scratch). It also requires us to genuinely struggle with how we use the current system as we move forward.

But building the new within the shell of the old is tough if we are to avoid the horrors of building from scratch or trying to force the existing governing levers to embrace radically new values. We have to balance what we are trying to create, with all it’s fits and starts, with the necessity of our continuing, if evolving, dependence on the current system for our everyday existence. Nowhere is this necessity clearer than it is for the disability community.

The current reality will undermine our ability to change largely through forcing us to repeat habits acquired over long periods of time.

To avoid these barriers, we need to have social networks committed to change, and we need to embrace a new set of assumptions about how change is possible.

(P4): Delivering the Counterstroke

Black and white picture of troops landing at Normandy moving out of a landing craft toward the beach.

In the same way that the original insurgency was a surprise, so too must the counterstroke be unexpected.

The counterstroke must be many places at once and in many forms since one of its strengths is that the insurgent is overcommitted to their plan of success and has lost flexibility, resources, and creativity as a result.

Each part of the counterstroke must be able to adjust its actions on the basis of what it finds in reality and not according to some uber-plan, like the one of the insurgent. It is the growing and unavoidable commitment of the insurgent to their preconceived plan and its evolving flaws and weaknesses that increase the possibility of the success of the counterstroke.

After a long resisted insurgency effort, the insurgent loses redundancy, becoming increasingly brittle and subject to catastrophic failure in places if hit hard enough.

The pressure of the counterstroke must be continued until all parts of the insurgent plan assumptions have been countered.

(P4): Blunting the Insurgency

A slide entitled

  • Brittle systems experience rapid performance collapses, or failures, when events challenge boundaries- David D. Woods
  • “Even if the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” –Yogi Berra
  • No plan survives contact with a disaster-in-the-making.- General Law
  • “Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth”. -Mike Tyson

The first response of a community to an insurgency is to resist. This resistance has the effect of blunting the insurgency.  In this context, blunting means stuff like the following:

  • Forcing the insurgent to alter their plan in small ways.
  • Making them expend resources and energy correcting their mistakes.
  • Wearing out the people who actually conduct the insurgency.
  • Forcing them to reveal their plans prematurely.
  • Forcing large-scale changes in plans that no longer are consistent with available resources or skills.
  • Forcing them to use equipment and approaches that are generally maladaptive.

Successful resistance has the same effect as all chronic stress. As the stress continues, it provokes a chronic maladaptive response pattern from the insurgent. The longer the stress continues, the more maladaptive the response.

But this doesn’t mean much if blunting is all that happens. It is an illusion that resistance can actually restore what was before if the original insurgency was significant.

(P4): The Strategic Defense

A map of Operation Barbarossa, the German Invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941

I believe that our disability community needs to engage for the indefinite future in what is called militarily a Strategic Defense.

The Strategic Defense is usually dictated by circumstances. The specimen example is the invasion of the Soviet Union by the German Army in World War II. The Soviet Army was entirely surprised by the invasion. For the next 18 months, the Soviets could do essentially nothing but defend and try to slow down the German Army, make the Germans use up their war materials, soldiers and equipment, and slowly prepare a counter-offensive. This counter-offensive was successful and began the long retreat of the German Army to its eventual defeat. A similar pattern had occurred when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 and is chronicled in fascinating detail in “War and Peace”. There is no better tribute to ruling class delusion than this novel.

There are other more complex examples. In the American Civil War, the Confederacy deliberately chose a Strategic Defense (basically because they had no culturally acceptable alternative). In the American War in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese chose an especially complex, drawn-out, costly, and dangerous version of the Strategic Defense, ultimately successful, but at a very heavy price.

(P4): What Is a Grand Strategy?

Benton's Detroit mural of small scenes of men doing various kinds of industrial work.

A Grand Strategy is the alignment of your means and ends in your strategy. This alignment requires a clear understanding of all of your resources (not just money or power). It also requires that your values actually be the source of your ends, if not the only source.

The best way to explain your Grand Strategy is as a narrative of some depth and detail. If there are problems in your strategy, they will best be identified as flaws or holes in your narrative.

The other advantage of a narrative as a tool for framing your Grand Strategy is that all narratives focus on process rather than a state. In line with the discussion about complex adaptive systems, a process view provides a deeper understanding of the possibilities and constraints of your strategy. Narrative as a process also makes it easier to see the need for altering during the process by using your Grand Strategy as a guide to change.

A Grand Strategy gives you a place to start in how your strategy deals with the stuff you can control and the stuff you can’t. It allows you to make use of the stuff you can’t control by choosing a strategy that gets benefits from the forces and constraints in the larger world that you can’t really change. Think about the difference between traveling downstream in a river and using its current or traveling upstream in a river and fighting its current.

We often have a grand strategy, but it is implicit and so we don’t see the contradictions in our vision. Articulating and rearticulating our Grand Strategy helps us to avoid outcomes that undermine that vision,

(P4): Some Examples of Bad Strategies

An illuminated medieval page of a beheading with a large audience.

There are two major revolutionary action frameworks and one default outcome:

  • Take over the levers of government and use them for good, in any way you imagine that as possible.
  • Destroy the social framework as completely as you can and start over again from scratch.
  • The default for broken CAS is one form or another of collapse.

An example of the first is Stalinism. An example of the second is Pol Pot. Also, Mao tried to do both more or less at the same time.

The default (collapse) is the typical way that overly complex and brittle systems become simpler (in this case simpler doesn’t mean nicer). Collapse can be anything from a slow cascade over centuries to a financial collapse over a few weeks. Or the asteroid that killed a high percentage of life on earth 65 million years ago.

The first two don’t work. We keep coming back to them because we still, in our heart of hearts, think that our world is a machine and that if we treat it like a machine, we can fix it in the same way we would fix an engine that isn’t working. Maybe we will use new parts and a great mechanic. Maybe we will trash the engine and get a new one.

The default ”strategy” of change produces real simplification, but no control over how the replacement evolves or develops. So, collapse is not really a strategy, but what we get when we do nothing or ineffective somethings.

Our world isn’t a machine. Every time we try to force a complex adaptive system into a complicated one we make the same error that so many others have made and continue to make. You can’t effectively change a complex adaptive system by treating it like a machine. When you try, you make the overall system worse.

Every time.

Also, it isn’t possible to create a complex adaptive system that works and you can’t do anything to make it work. Only an evolutionary context and a significant period of time can make a complex system. To repeat, the way evolution does that is by making a relatively simple adaptive system that works first and then allowing it to evolve.

I used the John Gall Systemantics reference in this post because it is the single best resource there is out there to gain an understanding of why our immediate ideas about changing or improving systems don’t work. If you read nothing else, follow the link to the summary of John Gall’s framework. John’s books are still available, but as far as I can tell, only in paperback.

You will see echoes of John Gall’s insights in the later posts in this series.

Part 4: What Is a Strategy?

A famous, large, incoherent systems diagram of Afghanistan Stability and Counter-Insurgency Dynamics. Impossible to understand.

The slide image is NOT a Strategy!

A strategy is not an operational plan, like the one you might put together for a grant using a logic model. Instead, a strategy is a way to deal with two unavoidable realities:

  • The inherent unpredictability of the future
  • The universal scarcity of resources for what we wish to do

The further we attempt to see into the future, the more uncertainty we face, and the more our decisions to commit resources will be wrong. We try in various ways to work around this reality.

One way is to reduce the scope of the changes we try to make, using such tools as logic models.

When we create an outcome that is easy to measure, we are contracting the possibilities of change, and undermining our ability to create change that is truly strategic, that won’t be washed out by changes and trends in the larger system.

Another way is to describe in some detail the changes we want to seek over the short term while using delusional thinking to describe the ones we hope for further into the future.

A third way is to ignore some or all the larger forces we already know are out there, but which we can’t quantify or parse effectively, or that we believe we can’t change.

And there are many more non-strategic assumptions we make to help us get through our day-to-day life.

Future Strategy: The Struggle for Disability Rights in an Era of Decline and Constraint

A large number of ADAPT members discussing strategy for their Action in Washington, D.C.
ADAPT Members Preparing for Active Resistance

I believe that the core of life is the creation and sharing of meaning. It is easy to forget this core when things are going along smoothly and we can ignore most of what passes before us without any great risk.

That time is past.

We live in a period of intense volatility, and we not only lack tools for dealing with such rapid and unpredictable change, we carry with us a set of assumptions about how our society works that might have been useful as rules-of-thumb in the past, but are no longer so.

In fact, these assumptions drive us to make poor choices, triggering changes and consequences we can’t predict, and forcing more poor choices on us.

The only way to manage this astounding level of uncertainty is to craft a strategy that will provide us with a framework for making difficult and tentative decisions over and over.

Nowhere is this change in how we make choices more important than in the disability community.

As all of you are aware, our struggles to build access, inclusion, and choice into our society have stalled and retreated at the Federal level because of the actions of the current administration. But, our progress has always been incremental and hard-fought, requiring persistence and a relentless commitment to our values over decades.

Now, while persistence and relentless commitment will still be very important, there are many forces that will actively work to undermine and destroy the progress we have made.

I want to talk to you about our struggle for rights in the larger context of long-term changes in our society that are now and will be constricting our community’s social and political capacity to innovate and expand freedom and choice for ourselves. The legislative and regulatory frameworks we have used for progress in past decades are currently eroding, and it isn’t clear that we can stop that erosion, much less reverse it.

In addition, there are large social forces that will make those legislative and regulatory frameworks less effective even as we succeed in defending them against attack.

In the future, it will not be enough for us to demand our rights. We will also have to create the social frameworks within which our rights will have real meaning and through which we can live fulfilling lives of choice.

We will not be able to depend on others for the success of these efforts.

Overview Over: On To the Feature Presentation!

Big Screens of young man showing his software in a Serbian competition.
On To the Deep Framework

I’ve made my last post in the FutureStrategy Overview. Obviously, the posts from the Overview will remain available for review if the going gets tough with the deep framework posts coming next.

The full presentation of the deep framework is 56 slides long and each slide is packed with notes, resource links, quotes and what have you. I’ll be reformating the slides so they work better in a blog post. If you have questions, you can put them into the comments and I’ll answer them.

Although I would be happy to do presentations on the ideas in this deep framework, the reality is that it is a long slog as a whole, and I divided it into a number of parts, each being a presentation in itself and running about two hours per part.

I hope some of what follows will prove useful to you and our community in the years ahead.