The Nuts and Bolts of Engagement

Various Copper Nuts And Bolts
Copper Nuts and Bolts

Engagement, as described in my last post, doesn’t easily fit into a standard negotiation, largely because the “enforcement” of the agreement doesn’t have an external accountability mechanism. Either the agreement is internally self-enforcing or it doesn’t work.

The cooperation of the parties doesn’t depend on punishment delivered by a third party, like the law, or a regulator, or a deity. An agreement that results from engagement lasts as long as the parties continue to experience the benefit (or potential benefit) and no longer.

Because engagement results in an informal (even invisible) agreement, it can be used as a way to make progress when more typical negotiation approaches would be impossible or would take too long:

  • Immediate agreements between enemies (as in my previous post)
  • As an approach between political opponents when public collaboration would have high political cost
  • When the explicit problem facing the parties is impossible to resolve publically in a time frame that would actually be of use to those parties

I am sure this all seems very abstract.

Well, it is.

While the examples I discussed in my last post are very concrete, they also aren’t terribly relevant to disability rights advocacy. I am going to go through an example in some detail using my next post that was the most complex special education advocacy case in which I was ever involved,  to give more depth to the abstract discussion above.

Today, I’ll finish this post with a discussion of another special education issue that taught me how important the scope and public nature of a conflict is in securing a workable agreement.

In the early 80’s, I was working for MPAS at the Caro State Hospital as a regional advocate for the six counties in Michigan’s Thumb. About half my work involved representing students and families in special education disagreements.

One case involved a student in late elementary school who had a learning disability that involved a problem with something called internal language. Kids begin to use language to organize their behavior according to the demands of the outside world just as soon as they have language. But using that language to organize their internal behavior is something that starts at age 4-5 and continues into adulthood. An example of a learning difficulty caused by developmental delay in internalizing language would be a student who does well at math until story problems are introduced. Because story problems don’t map the procedure for a solution the way math problems do, the student has to manipulate the story to tease out the solution procedure, using internal language in support of that manipulation.

Although supporting the development of internalized language had a basis in neuropsychology at that time, there was no such concept in educational psychology or the standard view of learning disabilities in special education. This meant that it would be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to win support services for this purpose for this student using the typical advocacy approach.

In particular, the local district was worried about setting a precedent that would trigger a “woodwork” effect of thousands of parents storming the district with torches and pitchforks demanding therapy for a delay in internalizing language. For another, it wasn’t clear to the district just how much it would cost or what specialty could actually provide that support.

What to do?

The district suggested using a method in the rules called arbitration instead of the traditional hearing. I looked into it, but couldn’t find that it had ever been used in Michigan (it may well be that our use was the only one). In terms of this student’s situation, arbitration had many advantages. For one, it was much less expensive and much shorter than a hearing. Also, the arbitration decision did not set a precedent that the district would be required to consider for every student in special education. These two realities of arbitration undermined almost completely the system concerns that the school had.

From my point of view, it simplified my argument that the support should be provided to this specific student. I could use the general special education principle that the school needed to provide supports to enable the student to benefit from education, an assessment that said internalizing language was the educational problem, and an easy to understand rationale for the actual support. All of this was straightforward. And the decision of the process was very agreeable to all.

In Michigan, arbitration has been replaced by dispute resolution using client-centered mediation, a much better system for a lot of reasons than arbitration. But the lessons I learned about negotiation have stuck with me through the decades.

Next Post: Invisible Purpose and the Uses of Misdirection


Contempt and Engagement

bullying word cloud

Contempt is the emotional/cognitive/social version of biological revulsion, that feeling you have when you see something that is tainted, decomposing, or mutilated. As such, contempt is universal. We all feel contempt. Generally, we express contempt out of fear or anger at the loss of power, or against some other kind of social threat. Also, people who believe that their control over others comes from their inherent superiority spew contempt around them continuously like the smell of decomposition on a hot day. In this case, contempt is a habit of delusional superiority and ignoring the environment and the people in it, like sneering unconsciously at the homeless as you pass them by.

Bullying is the specimen example of contempt, but there are many others. There is a sort of continuum of contempt ranging from the one percenter who doesn’t know the names of the staff who see to his daily needs to the screaming man in the street with a face so red and a sneer so deep that you are afraid he might have a stroke.

And behind every single expression of contempt,  regardless of where it is on the continuum, is the threat of violence. For all I know, the expression of contempt might have served in our past as a social substitute for overt violence. But there is so much contempt expressed in our world now, and its impact is so universal with the advent of the internet that I view it as inciting a constant and spreading low-level violence that is entirely out of our control, like a forest fire.

Just as our sense that food is tainted makes us avoid it, so the expression of social contempt ties a taint to a target, with social isolation and lack of accurate perception of the target as the ordinary concomitants of that expression.

And, of course, everywhere there is the experience of shame, lurking somewhere outside or inside is contempt. Think about how common shame is in our social matrix. That is a reasonable index of the amount of contempt.

Contempt has always been a part of politics. Political opponents are often targeted as tainted, using metaphors that point to spoiled food (think, “my opponent is a rotten bastard”). But the current level of mutual contempt across every part of the political landscape and the huge rate of repetition of expressed contempt that has become a constant din in our minds is producing significant social disintegration and it is undermining our ability to take any other political actions.

Contempt is currently the only viable way to organize politically at the national level, and it is the most effective way at every other political level.  The far right spent 50 years using contempt as an organizing tool, but it has only been with the advent of the online world that it has become singularly successful. There is no fundamental difference between the politics of “None Dare Call It Treason” and the national political agenda of the current Congress. The difference is the instant reach of the contempt.

And every other political stripe has learned that same lesson from the recent election. The winners are disintegrating into factions and the losers are unrelentingly demonizing their internal opponents.

Expressed contempt is disruptive of the current target all right, but it has no upside. It is the social version of an IDE. Its purpose is only to spread fear, anger, and hatred. The actual attack is secondary to that spread. If that wasn’t enough, there is no way to get rid of contempt or even reduce it. Right now, trying to reduce contempt is like trying to spray insecticide on a week old hamburger. You can kill the flies, but you can’t change the basic problem.

There is a way to replace contempt called engagement. The next post will talk about what engagement is. But I’d like to close this post with what engagement isn’t:

  • It isn’t being nice and polite to your opponents
  • It doesn’t require anyone to no longer feel contempt
  • It isn’t suited to the internet or meme based organizing
  • It isn’t “reaching out” to your opponents so you can neutralize or convert them
  • It isn’t accepting third-party analysis about why your opponents are the way they are.

Next Post: Engagement

How Does Disruption Work?

street pothole with garbage bag in it
Street pothole with garbage bag in it

Summary of assumptions for this post:

  1. Many of the institutions of our society are deep into the Conservation phase of the Adaptive Cycle. They are approaching the point where they will drift into the Release phase. This is a slow, but inevitable, process, and not anything like a planned revolution, though collapse during a Release phase might resemble one.
  2. Resistance=competition for existing target resources. While resistance is necessary and unavoidable, the resources that are the objective of resistance will not survive this release phase in their current form. To the extent that resistance is successful in changing who decides how to use resources (say, by winning an election), the “new boss” will be severely constrained by the institutional structures that conserve current resources. Power over current resources is always limited unless you accept the assumptions of that target system. In a word, resources embedded in an existing system are not perfectly fungible.

What is Disruption?

Disruption, like the pothole in the picture for this post, is an alteration of a target system that makes it harder for the target to fulfill its purpose. Unlike resistance, which provokes the allocation of target resources to defense and counter-attack, disruption requires the target to use more of its resources for repair, unpredicted maintenance, and restoration. Disruption has the effect of accelerating the evolution of a Conservation phase target further toward the Release Phase.

An “enlightening” overview of how disruption drives the evolution of a system is The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future. The breakdowns and pressures on our grid are not driven by political sabotage or organized “resistance” in the usual sense (sorry for the puns). The power outage model of disruption is a good metaphor for understanding disruption in general, because of the immediacy of the disruptive effects on all of those affected.

Although we usually think of disruption in terms of political maneuvering and violence, the Grid metaphor shows us that neither of these is necessary for the undermining of well-conserved targets. Their evolution has its own momentum.

John Robb (whose blog, “Global Guerillas”, is a great resource about the evolution of modern insurgencies and their tactics) authored a recent piece on the different kinds of insurgencies and the different moralities of disruption. In the post, he discusses three choices we can make about the kind of future we wish to pursue:

  • Trump’s successful effort to undermine the standard election process by paying no attention to the rules and focusing his entire effort on resonating with his supporters.
  • The counter-insurgency, gearing up now, to restore a mythical if recent past, and to resist the initiatives of the current administration.
  • Something John calls a Participatory Insurgency, like the 5 Star Movement in Italy using social networking and apps, and rapid and repeated voting to quickly evolve their response to events.

I think we would all like to see the third option become real, but John’s cynicism suggests that we are most likely moving toward a destructive version of a civil war between the first two kinds of insurgencies. I’m afraid that he is right. An earlier version of this similar pattern occurred around the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections.

Next Post: Operational and Tactical Dimensions of Disruption


Responding Strategically to Authoritarianism

A mash-up of the American, British, and Nazi flags
Our Future?

All warfare is based on deception.-Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu’s observation seems obvious. After all, even individual soldiers in combat do everything they can to deceive their immediate enemies about where they are, how powerful they are, what they are going to do next, etc.

Bu the reverse statement is also true. As the communication in any conflict becomes more completely deceitful, that conflict becomes a war, whether weapons are used, or firefights occur, or people die of wounds. And in a war, deceit is both forgivable and self-sustaining.

Forgivable because, for the participants,  the war seems to be about the continued existence of the lying community’s most critical values (or those of specific individuals in the community for that matter), and self-sustaining, because lying is like any other arms race, driving the combatants to some sink of end-point effectiveness. It doesn’t matter that there are no corpses on the field of battle. Everyone believes that they can become a casualty if they don’t lie well enough, and that they can experience ultimate victory over their opponent if they just lie a little better than that opponent.

Our current use of the weapon of lying is reaching its ultimate possible value, and it will have less and less effect over time. But it will continue to be used for a long, long time. And it is not at all clear that there is any alternative to lying within the system of our current conflicts.

Lying has become a basic parameter of our ongoing political, social, and financial discourse, and it drives the effectiveness of the entire agenda of global political, social, and financial elites, whether governmental or corporate. It is the context now, not the exception. Even the mildest of messages is tweaked to hide the negative implications and to make it easier to absorb. After all, only the message matters, right?

No more deliberation among communities over uncomfortable differences so as to arrive at some common step forward.

Our recent election is a good example of this truth. There are now bots whose sole purpose is to generate lies that are provocative so that people will expand attention and energy finding out more about them, and adjust their beliefs, perhaps ever so slightly, to accommodate the deceit.

Lies are a core weapon of this war, for all the communities involved in it.  And lies are a form of authoritarianism, as our world’s dictators have always known. Lies are the foundation of the more obvious activities of authoritarian governing, whether political, social, or financial. And no amount of tinkering with the algorithms of social networks will get rid of that reality.

It is not possible to undermine this self-sustaining system of lying from within the self-sustaining system. The only options inside that system of lying are victory or failure. Note also that the lies themselves don’t matter. What was viral today can’t be remembered tomorrow. It is the constant novelty of the lies that seeds their continuation, not the content. In the long run, it is this requirement for constant novelty that dooms the weapon of lying.

So what should be our response? I think we have to take the long view and build something that doesn’t perpetuate the current self-sustaining system of lies.

The core of building that new strategy must be organizing and community support, as has always been the case in dealing with authoritarian regimes.

But we can’t fall for the trap of organizing community and building social support in the midst of the self-regulating system of lying that has become our national and global arena of discourse. That would be like standing in a relentless hail of bullets, holding up your hand, and saying, “Stop Shooting”.

First, we have to create spaces within which community can be built locally  and support offered locally. Our engagement with that larger self-sustaining dynamic of lies must be truly strategic, so that we don’t get caught up in the kind of enormous waste of energy that we have witnessed recently.

We must substitute  foundation disruption for short term victory or defeat.

Next Post: Building Community Capability and Direct Social Support



3rd Time’s A Charm

Red smoke showing the wind vortex behind an airplane
Vortex Produced by Airplane

This is the postponed post, summarizing my recent posts on the necessity of introducing newness as the core of your change strategy.

  1. There is no mechanical, “7 steps to change”, procedure that will reliably produce strategic change, because targets of change advocacy are complex rather than mechanical systems. Complex system will respond to every effort we make to change them, changing themselves to counter our effort.
  2. Because of this unavoidable reality, our change advocacy has to introduce our targets to real novelty, innovation, newness-something they haven’t experienced before. The charge to a advocacy change organization is to continue to invent this novelty and make the target pay attention to it.
  3. When we introduce this true novelty to the target, they will begin to adjust to it. At some point, they will have adjusted enough that we will get little further change out of repeating that effort, so surprising to the target initially. If we continue to repeat our initially successful effort, we will expend more resources for less effect over time. This very common process often settles into a cycle of signal and response that can’t produce strategic change.
  4. So, it isn’t enough to come up with a single good novelty. We must keep doing that until the target produces outcomes that actually embody the values of our advocacy. This is hard to do, and requires a different approach to change advocacy from the approach we use in all our other organization management practices. Which is to say, people who are great at managing standard aspects of organizations aren’t necessarily good at managing strategic change efforts. (And vice versa.)
  5. As an example, efficiency management as a goal in advocacy eliminates our ability to produce strategic change in our target. We must accept the inefficiency of developing and using novelty in our change initiatives. And we must be quick about it.
  6. The most effective use of novelty is to trigger change in a target with something new, and then introduce another novelty before the target has adjusted to the first one.
  7. Doing this disrupts the target’s decision-making system and produces a sense of loss of control in the target’s decision-makers. In practice, this means that we introduce small novelties more or less as experiments, watch for the trend in the response of our target, and then immediately introduce another novelty modified to capitalize on that response. This also requires a much deeper understanding of the target’s decision-making than we usually have.
  8. This cycle of disruption is not just unique to the strategic change outcome desired. It is unique to the change of the target as it tries to adapt to our continuing introduction of novelty.

For a deeper view of all this, go through Cynefin 101. For a much deeper view, go through Dave Snowden’s Introduction to the Cynefin Framework.

Next time, I’m going to try to apply the ideas in these posts to the new context within which our disability community now finds itself.

Next Post: Responding Strategically to Authoritarianism

History As Cycle

Police Violence in Chicago 1968

The turmoil of American politics in the last week reminded me so much of the election of 1968, that I did a quick review of it to refresh my memory. What struck me after the review was not the differences, but how the flow of the change, both in the Democratic and Republican parties, mimicked the current election. There was even a fairly successful third party bid by George Wallace (much more successful than the current third party bids).

I was in Vietnam during the entire election, so my view of it was largely the highlights, rather than the details:

  • There was an insurgent, Eugene McCarthy, who ran against the Democratic Party’s establishment nominee, Hubert Humphrey.
  • There was significant disruption of the Democratic convention (much more than this year)
  • There was a surprisingly close election. Humphrey lost by half a million votes, and Nixon won the electoral college with 301 votes.
  • The biggest points of contention throughout the election were war and minority rights (race).

After the election, there were a series of political actions by the stakeholders that led to the implosion of the Democratic Party, and the elimination of an effective liberal political agenda for many years:

  • Progressives got rid of the then existing Democratic Party elites
  • They changed the system of  choosing the candidate for president (and the down ticket candidates) so that it would more clearly reflect the specific wishes of insurgent candidates, and prevent the marginalizing of progressive issues.
  • The progressive wing of the Democratic Party used this new system to nominate a very nice man who shared progressive values, George McGovern (note, not Eugene McCarthy).
  • Although Richard Nixon had promised peace with honor and the reestablishment of law and order, he succeeded in achieving neither during his first term.
  • Nonetheless he defeated McGovern by almost 18 million votes in 1972 and took the Electoral College by 520-17.
  • It wasn’t until the election of Bill Clinton on a centrist (not a progressive) agenda in 1992 that it was feasible to resurrect individual progressive issues effectively, and it was slow going even then.

It is obvious in stories surfacing now (though there is a huge amount of noise out there, what with social media), that the Democratic Party is going in the same political direction as it did in 1968.

Based on these admittedly abstract parameters, I would predict:

  • Donald Trump will fail to achieve the major promises of his campaign
  • The Democratic Party will nominate a candidate in 2020 who will embody progressive values
  • Donald Trump will be reelected by a wide margin in 2020.
  • Progressive values will wallow in the swamp for another decade

This question is not rhetorical: Why are these predictions wrong?

On another note, this election also “re-privileges” race (in the much expanded framework of identity politics and activism) and war (in a framework of war as insurgency, combining both terrorism and the Trump political campaign, an idea so foreign to most of human history that it wouldn’t be regarded as war by past generations-see John Robb’s latest) and reminds me once again that life is the creation and experience of meaning, with anything like truth well down on the list of importance for everyone.

P.S.: It is amazingly difficult to find pictures of the riot on Michigan Avenue at the August 1968 Democratic National Convention. This is despite the fact that even in Vietnam we saw video on TV and huge numbers of pictures of police violence. Conspiracy?  Where are they?  The one above was from pictures taken by Life Magazine at the time and was the only photo I could find that showed swinging billy clubs.

Next Post: Third Time’s the Charm

Plastic Electric Brain

Blue Plastic Brain on a pedestal with electric charges going through it
Plastic Electric Brain

I decided to postpone my post summarizing my recent work on the importance of variety as a basis of change advocacy because of a blog item by Jon Lieff, M.D. on new information about brain plasticity. In the post he referenced an overview article that he did a few years ago about brain plasticity. Jon’s articles are typically very dense and technically daunting, but this overview article was much more accessible and it triggered some thoughts from my distant past (well, 4 + decades ago).

Plasticity of brain function has become a popular topic in the last few years. There has been an explosion of websites and software that promise to improve brain flexibility. But there are significant problems with simple mechanical approaches to making use of the plasticity of our brains for new learning, and they arise out of a lack of appreciation of how it is that our brains learn and develop. Dr. Lieff’s article points to some of those with a clear overview of what research tells us, and the research is fascinating.

Plasticity is at the basis of all our new learning, even memories, and it is the reason why recovery works, whether rehab is effective or not, and whether our change efforts actually affect individual lives. So, though not usually considered in our change advocacy, engaging the plasticity of individual brains is an important component of success, and understanding how that engagement works is an important dimension of building effective change interventions.

When I began interacting with individuals who had severe brain injuries in 1970, the conventional wisdom was that recovery from such injuries was entirely up to the individual and if they showed no improvement in 3 months, they were a “lost cause”. Improvements after that time were described as “anomalies” or “miracles” and families of persons with severe brain injuries were told they were unrealistic outcomes and shouldn’t be considered. Over the decades, the time frame for possible improvement after brain injury has stretched out to the “rest of your life”, and the frameworks of neurological and neuropsychological rehabilitation and recovery have also dramatically expanded.

Even in the 70’s, there were those who felt that significant improvement was possible, and their way of thinking about this improvement was very different from the conventional medical view. As an example of that thinking, there was a general model of rehabilitation that said you should engage the individual in every kind of activity that might support the valued outcome and only fade supports after the person could do the activity well enough for it to be useful. This was the exact opposite of typical medical treatment, which requires failure in the cheapest solutions to an issue before considering the value of more comprehensive approaches.

So which one of these models do you think fits our growing understanding of neural plasticity better?

As Dr. Lieff points out, the larger the neural circuit engaged in the learning process, the better the learning outcome. You engage larger circuits by using more of the brain’s capabilities during the learning process. He points out, for example, that just squeezing your right fist while memorizing words and squeezing your left fist while recalling those words improved performance. And we all know of our personal support activities that improve our learning, such as listening to music (or for some, definitely not listening to music).

If you want an easily observed example of engaging the largest neural circuit possible to maximize learning outcomes, you need look no further than 3-year olds just going about their daily business. They automatically shift to engage the largest learning circuit they can.

The reality of plasticity has profound implications for how we approach, for example, building the ability to manage our personal symptoms of mental illness in our daily lives, and it also has implications about how we include engagement with individuals in our change initiatives. Are our change activities actually helping our targets to learn a new way of dealing with expanding the freedom and choices of our community?

I hope you will take the time to read Dr. Lieff’s summary, and reflect on how you might use the new knowledge to impact your personal and social change efforts.

Next Post: Another Try at the Summary of variety as a change tool.

“Battlefield Prep” for Change Initiatives

Man driving two cattle with plow attached to prepare for seeds
Preparing the Ground for Seeds of Change

In the history of conflict, there is a concept that involves preparing the arena of the conflict so that it is more compatible with your plan. It is called “battlefield prep“.  The idea is that your change plan will be implemented in the real world as it is, and that you need to understand that real world, and alter it to fit your plan as much as possible.

So our change plans have two sides:

  • One is the plan itself
  • The other is more general, and works to make the ecosystem in which our change plan will operate more accepting and supportive of our plan.

There are often specific changes that we can make in the ecosystem that surrounds our efforts to accomplish this, and there are more general changes we can support to make the ecosystem friendlier to our change objectives. For example:

  • Collaboration with partners who share the values that support your change initiative
  • Putting some energy into existing change initiatives that are complementary to your plan
  • Investing some time in small but highly visible direct criticism of policies that block your change initiative

In addition to this plan-connected preparation, we must also put in time and resources to mold the context of our change efforts so that it is more supportive over the long run. Some of the possible outcomes we might pursue include:

  • Our values are the best guide for long term change in the larger societal context. Altering the devaluing and stereotyped assumptions of the larger society and its sub-communities will make specific change initiatives more realistic.  The most effective way to foster better defaults is action that embodies the values and the public performance of those actions. Active memes, not just statements.
  • As an extension of this idea, the public performance of team and community based actions that embrace those same values help make people more comfortable with action that support specific change initiatives.
  • It is a reality in trying to change systems that initiatives from a single source are viewed as outsider memes and given less credence than the same messages coming from multiple social levels and multiple geographic sources.  The latter seem more like a wave of consensus than the former and have a correspondingly broader and deeper reach, Yet our assumptions about organizations make it difficult for us to share responsibility for change memes, and especially so the greater the geographic or social distance between our message and that of others. It is hard to see people we don’t know as allies in change efforts. We have to overcome this bias if we expect our initiatives to have more power. And we have to get to know allies that are geographically and socially distant from ourselves.

The idea that we can affect the overall reach of our initiatives by altering the context of our change efforts is a hard sell to most activists because of our automatic assumptions about the scarcity of time and resources. This is part of the same tactical action and operational planning view of change that we have all inherited from historical narratives that focus on the details of how change occurred and not the larger context, organizationally driven risk aversion, and the limitations of single community thinking. These same constraints on our change imaginations are now deeply reinforced by funding sources.

We need to embed our “tactical actions and operational plans” with bits and pieces that reach beyond our immediate goals and tamper with the trends and dispositions of the larger world which, in the end,  will determine the actual effectiveness of our expenditure of time and energy.

Next Post: Innovation as a Strategic Driver of Change



Getting Good at Change

Long line of ADAPT protesters moving down the edge of a Chicago street under construction, with police and media present
ADAPT Action Chicago 2007

Getting good at change requires practice, a lot of practice. The practice will occupy your lifetime, and you can’t practice effectively by yourself.

Because humans can project a future in the abstract, we often lose touch with the reality that,  like going from one room to another, we have to move through all the space between where we are now and where we want to be. No instantaneous transport. It doesn’t matter how powerful our vision. That power can only engage and motivate participation in the change. It can’t let us skip the steps between here and there.

There is a concept for this requirement that we don’t get to skip steps in a process of change. It’s called a phase space and the idea comes from physics (of course), but has been used in many other ways. From where you are, there are only certain moves you can make. If you want to get “over there”, you’ve got to pay the cost in time and resources for these unavoidable moves. No shortcuts.

We can make our efforts more effective though, if we work as a community and pursue important change at the same time as others in our community. In other words, real collaboration makes the limitations of phase space less daunting. But to make real use of collaboration as support for change, we have to give up some control:

  • We have to allow members of our change community to work in parallel, without constant feedback and control. This means mistakes. It also means we don’t punish people for mistakes, since punishment would undermine the effectiveness of working in parallel.
  • Instead of “master” plans, we work to make small inroads or steps in our change process and see how they go, modifying our efforts as we learn what works and what doesn’t.
  • We add redundancy to our efforts by sharing the work of small steps, so that change continues even when persons who have accepted responsibility for some part of the effort are lost to us for a period of time because of changes in their disability characteristic or because they have moved on. Learning parts of other people’s jobs is a great way to soften the anxiety around change, especially when it is combined with “no punishment for mistakes”.
  • We accept the unpredictability of change advocacy as a way to learn how we make what we want in our future.

We can also make ourselves more comfortable with change, especially around our change work. Organizational life has a large component of habitual behavior. It’s habitual because that is a more efficient way to get that particular task done. But habits don’t adjust themselves well even when the world has changed a lot and requires habit adjustment. An example is the inertia of software, where we continue to use an app because we have used it even when the software becomes increasingly useless.

Often, it is easier to transition from an increasingly useless current way of doing business to a newer one if you plan and pace the transition in pairs.

If we can introduce novelty into our work lives to build our skill at embracing change, we can also do the same thing in the larger environment to make our change initiatives easier to implement.

Next Post: “Battlefield Prep” for Change Initiatives


Practicing Change

two persons practicing fencing while others watch
Fencing Practice

(Lost in the UP last week; recently “rescued” by the requirements of work…..)

Everyone knows that people are afraid of change.  We know this primarily because we are afraid of change. This fear comes on us when change is threatened (there are specific parts of the brain that detect and react to threats):

  • People who hate their jobs nonetheless experience anxiety when change in that job is threatened
  • Rumors of change are treated as threats
  • Anticipating learning a new skill is often experienced as a threat
  • Past trauma can enlarge the arena and context  of life changes that are experienced as threatening

It seems that our anxiety about change arises from the apparently unpredictable consequences of actual change and our own doubts about our personal or organizational ability to manage it.


  • Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know
  • Curiosity killed the cat
  • Out of the frying pan into the fire

Inability to Manage:

  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew
  • Too many irons in the fire
  • The perfect is the enemy of the good

Advocacy and Change Anxiety

As we gain experience in advocacy action, we learn that it is much easier to develop a plan that seems to promise what we want, than it is to predict the actual consequences of that plan.

There is no better example than the crash of 2008. Quants were smart enough to design derivatives as a hedge against risk but were apparently not smart enough to see how derivatives would be gamed by their own financial community.

It is common for advocacy organizations to become risk-averse over time. This is especially a problem for managers of advocacy organizations who often bear the public brunt of unanticipated consequences and the punishment for organizational failures that have nothing to do with the advocacy mission.

But, to toss in one more common idiom, “practice makes perfect”.

If we expect to become more comfortable with change, we need to practice it. Obviously, we can’t “practice” big change plans daily, but we can practice small changes in ourselves and in our organizations as a standard part of organizational practice.

These small changes will, in fact, produce increased tolerance for change.

They will, in fact, create comfort with an incremental approach to change initiatives, where we try something and check out the results, adjusting our change plan as we come to understand the larger environment and the impacts we are having.

Like any other frightening skill acquisition process (public speaking, giving bad news, flying, and just the general fear of failure), you can gradually become more comfortable through small steps.

Next time, I’ll try to provide personal and organizational examples of small changes that can increase our comfort with change.

Next Post: Getting Good at Change