(P3): Other Examples of Weak Constraints

Stylized figures of generic viruses, bacteria etc.

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

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

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

Legal WC:

  • Complaints
  • Fair hearings
  • Lawsuits of various kinds

Political WC:

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

Financial WC:

  • Public Funding
  • Resource Allocation
  • Financial Disparities

Systemic WC:

  • Threatening Governing Constraints
  • Introducing Novelty

Organizing WC:

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

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

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(P2): A Cognitive Anchor for Understanding Constraints in Advocacy

The notes for the slide or post describe the components and interactions of this diagram. No shorter description would be effective.

The use of constraints in advocacy requires a different view of them than our day-to-day understanding. The above model is not a complete one for understanding constraints, but it has the advantage of being concrete and simple.

The basic idea is that the strongest constraints are the ones that a target system wishes to protect most carefully. I have put them well inside the “boundary” of the system to imply that. The System Boundary is “Active” because it is always interacting with the weak constraints that stabilize its overall activity.

The weak constraints are on the boundary. Even though they are weak, they are still integrated with the target system to some extent. The target prefers to keep these weak constraints unable to materially affect the target’s activity even though they can’t simply eliminate the weak constraint interaction with the target system. So, the target system “manages” weak constraints to keep them predictable and less able to affect the Strong Constraints.

The simplest way to think of the role of weak constraints in “ordinary reality” is to view their individual constraint activity as a roughly repeating cycle. The target system manages these weak constraints by managing what it believes is the specific weak constraint cycle. The goal of management of weak constraints is to minimize the costs of management by reducing the effects of the weak constraint on the target system.

Being real constraints, the weak constraints are not entirely predictable. As advocates, we can also intentionally change the activity of one or more weak constraints to destabilize the target system in ways the target can’t anticipate. This successful destabilizing requires the target to respond in ways outside its normal routine, creating a leverage point for advocacy. We use this leverage point to coordinate and enable our effort to change the target in the same way we use our knee, for example, to pivot for a shot in a pickup basketball game or use our hands to alter the coordination of knitting needles to produce a particular knot.

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(P2): Safe-to-Fail Experiments as Weak Constraints

Strange yellow and black bicycle with a perfectly square frame and no brakes.

The idea of Safe-to-Fail Experiments was developed by Dave Snowden as part of his Cynefin framework. The technique is a way to learn about a complex adaptive system without triggering unintended consequences that are out of your control (See the link above.) But the concept of using probes to learn about complex systems is useful in many other contexts, most notably, in social justice advocacy.

Most advocacy is premised on the idea that there are legal constraints on the behavior of target systems, and that these constraints can be used to change the behavior of the system. In other words, advocacy can use procedures repeatedly to create change. Implicitly, we only need to understand the legal constraint under which a system operates and the change procedures (complaints, lawsuits, etc.). We don’t need to understand the politics or history of the system we are trying to change, all of which are, of course, other kinds of constraints.

But we do need to appreciate these aspects of a system before we can hope to successfully change it. This is because even the most apparently logical procedural path of some bureaucratic machine is, as we all know, a little “Peyton Place”, more complex and messier than the bones of the procedure would suggest.  Which is to say, all bureaucracies are Complex Adaptive Systems using much of their available energy to prevent disturbance from creating change through forcing them to modify existing constraints.

From inside a bureaucracy (or any large organization, including for-profit corporations), creating change must involve experiments too small to trigger annihilation of the experimenters or the CAS, but enabling you to learn something useful about the systems dispositional trajectory, about its system of constraints.

Safe-To-Fail is also a useful tool for changing that most personal of CAS, yourself.

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Part 1: Changing Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS): How Exactly?

A slide entitled Wrangling Complexity, with stick figures working on computers to manage a network shown on a large screen.

There are two problems with the Title Question: How and Exactly.

We automatically use machine model beliefs and operational planning to build and implement change. Such an approach is largely inadequate for a CAS.

Any CAS has mechanical aspects and we can delude ourselves into thinking that because we can change the mechanical aspects with operational planning, that we should be able to change the whole Kit and Kaboodle that way (as in, for example, “you can only change what you can measure”, and similar sophistry).

It ain’t so.

As the slide image suggests, changing a CAS is more like wrangling (cats, say) than standard measurable outcomes based operational planning would have us believe.

If our old standard tools and operating assumptions don’t give us the control we seek, what will?

Well, the bad news is that nothing will give us that amount or scope of control over a CAS. The good news, as unlikely as it might seem, is that we can change the way we approach CAS and be effective.

A CAS is a “dispositional system”, not a mechanical one. A CAS tends to move in directions, but because of the interaction of its parts, there are no guarantees about where it will end up.

Changing a CAS is like approaching a cobra to take close up photos. You can get those photos, but you need to be circumspect to avoid getting bit.

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(P5): Recovery

A circular wheel entitled
Wellness Wheel

Recovery is a specific framework of mutual support that has general use in building our counterstroke and embracing the values of personalism as our framework for eliminating belittlement.

Recovery focuses on individuals building personal control over the parts of their life (variously called symptoms, barriers, or processes of oppression), using natural supports and mutual support networks to build these recovery skills.

There are many techniques and concepts for creating recovery skills, and some are included in the resources in the post. But at its base, Recovery is about creating a personally customized response to what prevents you from living a free life of choice, using your own knowledge of yourself, your creativity, and the experience of those who support you. The particular tools you embrace to support your recovery journey are less important than that those tools speak to you, and make it easier for you to go forward.


a series of identical doors made of wood
Which One?

FutureStrategy is my framework for the disability community to use in developing both our resistance to the current degradation of our living conditions and life possibilities and as a way of thinking about how we might build a different future.

FutureStrategy is a detailed perspective on the possibilities of where we are now and where we might go. It isn’t a magic talisman or 7 steps to total success. There is no simple answer to the problems we face now or in the near term. If we want a real solution, we will have to create one.

Simply stopping the attacks we face now will not restore what was. Our society is headed in a direction which will cause great pain for the disability community (and everyone else), and that direction was set a long time ago. We can make things better or worse in the short run, but we can’t reverse the decline of our society completely.

As a first step in describing FutureStrategy, I will be going through an Overview presentation that I developed, using a slide format to talk about the basic ideas, one at a time. The slides will include notes for each idea and I will publish them on this blog.  I will also include occasional posts about other issues that illustrate the ideas of FutureStrategy as they arise.

In a few months, I will begin to publish material from a second presentation, a much longer and deeper one, that expands and details the ideas of the Overview. I will make these available through a subscription service called Patreon so that I will be able to fund my work on these ideas. There will be tiers for the subscriptions, including one that allows access to all the blog posts for $2 a month. The other tiers will include various materials and a podcast.

I hope you will consider subscribing, and I would like to know what you think of the material I publish in the next few months from the overview presentation.

I would also be able to do the presentation in person for a group if you think that would be useful. Email me at wayofthefan@gmail.com if you become interested in a presentation after you see the slide-based posts.

A New Path

a daylight path in the woods strewn with many surface roots complicating the path
The Way Forward Is Not Simple

I have been trying to understand change (both ongoing and intentional) since an epiphany I had in late 1970. Although I was always interested in change as a part of my personal framework of meaning, most of my effort to learn about change has been motivated by my membership in, and my commitment to, the disability community.

Over the last year, I have been trying to frame what I have learned so that disability advocates can make better use of these ideas to actively respond to the large-scale degradation of social, political, and financial life that American society is currently undergoing. This degradation is not just a result of the current administration, but a longstanding trend in our society that has paralleled and sometimes contextualized our successful rights activism.

This degradation is beginning to overwhelm our historically effective approach to rights advocacy, an approach based on what were reasonable assumptions at the time. These assumptions are gradually being corrupted, undermining our previous ways of building personal autonomy and freedom of choice.

While we must resist this degradation, resistance will not be nearly enough to preserve our community’s values. There will be no going back to what we considered stability.  We will need to simultaneously use whatever remains available to us in our larger society, resist the agenda of degradation that is the current reality, and create something new.

Very difficult to actually pull off.

We need a strategy. We need a larger way to think about what we face.

We need a strategy. Not an operational plan or a logic model or an advocacy tactic, or any of the other things we regularly and wrongly call a strategy.

We need a real strategy!

What a Strategy Is and Isn’t


Matching Needs and Opportunities

A strategy is not a plan like the one we make for a funding proposal. That is an operational plan and includes measurable outcomes and a (usually) cynically specific set of steps for reaching those outcomes.

A strategy is a framework for thinking about two realities we can’t avoid in our advocacy work:

  • The future is always unpredictable
  • We only have limited resources (people, technology, energy, money, spirit)

If the future was predictable and we had more resources than we could ever use in 100 years, we could create an operational plan and achieve our goals every time.  All we would have to do is get good at writing logic models.

But the reality isn’t set up that way.  Because of the mismatch between how we are required to plan and reality, we often scale back the outcomes in our operational plans to make sure we reach them so that we can continue to get funding or praise or organization and personal stature. Avoiding failure is more important than depth of impact.

This is a reasonable response to a system and a society that believes change can reliably be produced like candy bars in a factory. So, once you have the right technique (the right change plan), you can crank change out forever.

A strategy allows you to create variability in the face of the unexpected. Operational plans suppress variability in the name of predictable outcomes. However useful predictable outcomes are in seeking funding, variability is the way you survive over the long term.

The best example of using variability to keep playing the game you want to play is evolution.

Evolution isn’t about creating the perfect organism, though we tend to interpret it that way because of our basic human narcissism. Evolution is about generating variability so that no matter what happens, life will continue.

The hummingbird and the flower have evolved to match one another so that need and opportunity become a single integrated process. The results of this evolutionary matching (the outcomes of the plan as it were) aren’t in the organism, they are the relationship between organism and environment.  This relationship (an outcome in the larger strategy of evolution) is a complex system that ages over time. Every complex system (including our advocacy and the targets of our advocacy) is the expression of a kind of operational plan, the same kind that we often confuse with a strategy.

So, evolution is a strategy and each expression of its framework is an operational plan. All operational plans eventually collapse. But the evolutionary strategy continues.

So, how do we build a strategy?


Change in an Aging System

Two fish vowls, each with water and a single goldfish, with the goldfish in the left bowl leaping out and trying to reach the bowl on the right
Leap Of Faith

I am going to talk about two very different examples of how complex systems age and then draw some lessons for our disability community advocacy efforts. First, I’ll talk about system aging as a general process.

Introduction to System Aging

If you think of a system as a bunch of connections between islands of activity, system aging is the way the connections between the islands grow and change over time, as well as the way the islands of activity change because of those connections.

The general rule is that making a new connection will be driven by your immediate needs and opportunities. Maybe you forge a connection with a farmer so you can have a regular supply of vegetables.  Once the connection is forged, it gradually becomes a constraint. If you decide you don’t like the farmer anymore because of her politics, or the farmer dies, it isn’t easy to break the existing connection and make a new one with someone else who can provide you with vegetables.

You make new connections because there is a match between your needs and some opportunity, a fast process. But changing those connections once they are there is a slower, more resource-intensive process, and may not be possible at all.

Over time, aging systems accumulate constraints that are very hard or dangerous to eliminate. In early growth, there always seem to be ways to get around these self-imposed constraints. Over time, the sheer number of constraints makes it harder and eventually impossible to reverse or efficiently alter a connection. The constraints also become so complex that you can’t predict what will happen if you change just one, much less the whole system. This is the reason behind “unintended consequences”.

Large numbers of hard-to-change constraints are what I mean when I describe a system as brittle. When a brittle system is disturbed (say by advocacy), it is hard to tell how the system will change. Because of this, the specific breakdown of a system is always unpredictable, even though we know that all complex systems will break down eventually.

Aging of the Car System

Cars have changed a lot since the end of the 19th century, and there are endless lessons about how complex systems age in the large very complex car system (vehicles, manufacturing, unions, corporations, roads, fossil fuel, and other power systems, financing, government regulation, automation, safety, culture-driven choices, music, art, etc.).

For example, we are caught in a never-ending process of maintenance and repair of the roads over which we drive. I suspect it would be much easier and cheaper to “fix” our interstate road system if we could just get the entire road system to disappear all at once so that we could start over from scratch. Because such a change isn’t possible, we have to put up with the constant and unpredictable aspects of maintaining the roads in a permanently less usable state than they were when the system was originally built. Short-term amazing, long-term permanent pain-in-the-ass.

Today our cars are as complex as they have ever been. There are many ways to look at how our cars got here, but I think of it as the “car system” trying to change all the pain points of using cars over time without getting rid of the fundamental “driver” of the car system, the internal combustion engine that uses fossil fuels.

We are now closer to having commonly available transportation that doesn’t require that engine (electric cars). Once the cost of a basic electric car drops toward $20,000, the simplicity and ease of maintenance of this future car model ( estimated to last one million miles) will drive the old internal combustion version out of existence except for collectors. This collapse of every aspect of our current car system will happen at least as fast as the one that replaced animals with engines (mostly in one generation). The impact will be vast and largely unpredictable in detail, even though we know it’s coming.

Aging of the Legal System

When I was a full-time disability rights advocate, I came to understand how our legal system grows more complex over time. It is an important question to ask how such a manifestly over-complex system could be simplified, and the answer, unfortunately, is that it can’t.

Because the parts of the very complex legal system (say for example lawyers) make continual personal connections with the law during their training and in their practice, it becomes increasingly difficult for those parts (lawyers) to change those connections even if it would be a good idea for them to do so. Only laws that no one uses or supports can be eliminated. If there is any significant group of legal system members that don’t want a law to go away, it is just about impossible to get rid of it. Instead, old laws are replaced by ones that are almost inevitably more complex (have more connections) than what they are replacing. The trend is both clear and apparently uncontrollable.

I think that in many areas, the law has already become so complex that the best practitioners in those areas largely ignore the actual complexity in their day-to-day work unless there is some opportunity for short term profit (not just money). In other words, large chunks of the law are simply deprecated or excluded from use over time, and the complexity of legal specialization is always increasing. See plea bargaining for a clear example.

Currently, unlike the car system, there is not a legal system replacement, though there are some seeds of a replacement. The legal system will become less and less functional and more and more incapable over time, just like the freeway system, as each part seeks its own profit in the short-term without thought to any meaningful simplification. Not unlike the progression of dementia when there is no effective treatment.

Advocacy in an Aging System

One of the hardest lessons I have learned as an advocate and activist in the disability community over almost half a century is that every victory in our cause eventually becomes a constraint on the realization of our most cherished values. Our progress in disability rights is not a series of single achievements building on one another, but a set of gradually aging cycles, where each cycle actively interferes with the creation and realization of the next.

Although our victories don’t seem to become real very quickly to us, they do in comparison with the slower process that makes the victories more complex and increasingly time and resource intensive to use. Special Education, as a system of rights, is a great example of this process from its creation in the mid-70’s to its almost mummy-like status now. This trend of requiring increasing resources (time, money, training, people, spirit) to get something useful out of what was once a genuine victory is the heart of why we must come to grips with the reality of system aging.

If we keep doing what we have been doing, we will get less and less of what we are already getting. Eventually, we will get nothing meaningful from what was once a victory.

We need something new to guide our advocacy for the future. We need a strategy.

How Complex Systems Grow and Age


All is Growing and Aging Around Us

Like people, all complex systems grow and age. After all, we are complex systems ourselves; it should be no surprise when there are some similarities in the way all complex systems grow and age.

As we advocate for ourselves and our community, we tend to focus on the immediate issue that is blocking our efforts to build choice and autonomy. All these blocking issues are important targets for resistance, but the sheer number of these issues tends to distract us from the larger and slower changes that are taking place in our society.

Not paying attention to the way our society as a whole is evolving and aging means that we face more and more complex, difficult, and unexpected issues that block our rights agenda over time. Even as we win over these barriers, if we do nothing to change our relationship with the larger context, we find our victories undermined, or later reversed, and novel threats that never occurred before raise their heads, creating targets needing resistance we hadn’t imagined as possibilities.

So, even with all the demands on our time and energy, we need to use some of our time and energy for understanding the larger and slower changes that will affect our ability to advocate well.

There is a pattern to how complex systems begin, grow, peak, and break down. I will use a forest as a model for how this happens because we all have experience with the changes that take place over time in forests.

Let’s assume there has been a forest fire, and that the land where the forest used to be is now ashes and burnt trunks. All the large animals that survived have left the immediate area and the future for this forest is fairly open.

  1. Since the land is more or less empty of competition, pioneers will begin to use what’s left, including weeds, insects, and some animals that maybe haven’t been seen in this forest for a very long time. Pioneers can more readily use the nutrients that are left after the fire and they tend to grow, reproduce, and die faster than most plants, insects, and animals. For example, maybe they can make better use of sunlight, which was hidden by the large trees before the fire.
  2. One of the things that pioneers do is gradually alter the existing nutrients so that plants, insects, and animals that can’t live in the empty landscape right after the fire can now use the “waste” products of the pioneers’ activities. Over time, new living things gradually take over the land, slowly making it harder for the pioneers to compete well. This process of replacing the pioneers goes on for a long time and has many layers. As each successful set of plants, insects, and animals comes to live in the area, they out-compete to some extent what was successful before.  This process allows the new species to tap into the growing complexity of the forest resources, making the forest more complex and creating more places for living things to grow and thrive. A well-developed example of this phase would be a tropical jungle where there are a huge number of species and places for species to live.
  3. At some point, the ability of the complex system to keep growing and conserving more resources and becoming more complex passes a peak. When this happens the complex system begins to undermine its own ability to continue growing by the very same activities that up to this point have helped it grow. Instead of becoming more flexibly complex, the system becomes more brittle. Like all of us as we grow older, the forest becomes less able to rebound from disturbance or disease. This brittleness means that the forest can be broken down more easily and since the brittleness slowly increases, it is only a matter of time before some disturbances cause a significant breakdown.
  4. This breakdown is called a release (that is, a release of resources from where they were stored). The release in a complex system can involve many different processes. The more brittle the system, the more kinds of disturbances can trigger such a breakdown. I used a forest fire as the disturbance that caused the release in this example, but there are lots of changes that can produce it. The release eventually results in the beginning of a new cycle, a new forest, that will be similar to, but also different from the one that existed before the fire.

The four phases can be thought of as a cycle:

  • Pioneering
  • Growth and Conservation
  • Old Age
  • Release

This cycle (called an Adaptive Cycle) applies to more than forests. For our work in making our disability community advocacy more effective, it applies to the larger social context in which we advocate.

And right now, the larger society (the context) that we seek to change is past the peak in its adaptive cycle. The most important implication of this reality is that the context for our advocacy will become less supportive of our traditional advocacy efforts over time. This will happen, not because of any particular trend or political ideology that we can somehow correct, but because our society is aging. Things that were once easy will slowly become more difficult. And, what we think of as the causes of this more difficult struggle for choice and autonomy are actually effects of this larger slow process of change. I will try to give more detail about how this occurs in a later post.

The impact of this reality is that our ordinary way of choosing and pursuing advocacy goals is gradually becoming less and less effective and requiring more of our declining resources for these smaller successes.

The Resilience Alliance