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



Variety and Selection

wetlands and stream
Wetlands and Stream

Any system that generates variation and then has that variation culled through some selection method is an evolutionary system.

Both our change targets and ourselves operate in evolutionary environments. It is a platitude to say that all human organizations spend a lot of time trying to reduce variation of all kinds in every part of their structure, effectively to avoid change. Change is viewed as, at best, an unavoidable consequence of festering problems, and even when change is seen as necessary, there are elaborate ongoing fairly thoughtless internal processes that continue to try eliminating variation, even when that might help support a needed change. We all seem to do this on general principle.

Also, most human frameworks for thinking about the evolution of change include selection as the important part of the evolutionary process. Humans have deep commitments to the idea of progress and that outcomes of processes are more important than the processes themselves. That is one reason why we view our species as the pinnacle of evolution, even though we clearly aren’t. This view is so deeply held that it sounds ridiculous to claim that variation is more important than selection. But it is.

I suppose that such focus on the outcomes of our specific acts supported the social goal of the survival of families, tribes, and other social groupings. But, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb pointed out in Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto) it is the constant process of generating variety that allows biological evolution to roll along despite the historic elimination of every single species that evolves.

We should think of selection as an automatic unavoidable afterthought, a result of the limitations of physical reality. The real story is the relentless generation of difference and novelty and all the ways such variation occurs and increases.

As our tools of biological discovery have expanded so dramatically in the last couple of decades, we have discovered just how relentless the creation of variation is in our own bodies. Epigenetics, discoveries like “jumping genes”, and each of our unique gut biota point to a biological system that views variety as the indispensable basis of global biological continuation.

Well, I would argue that the same is true in our advocacy of self-determination by people with disabilities. Advocacy based change needs to spend more time focusing on the general creation of variety in the larger environment in which we struggle, and we need to get much better at living with and supporting change both in our advocacy organizations and in that larger environment as an accepted part of our everyday work. We often don’t look beyond the current advocacy goal, and we tend to neglect our scanning of the larger environment beyond what is necessary for our current goal.

The  only way to get better at change is to practice it. The anxiety we have over unpredictability is best overcome by getting used to the idea that change is expectable.

Next Post: “Practicing” Change

Novelty as a Change Tool

Page of novelty ads from an old comic book
Novelties as Change Tools

Every attempt to advocate for change in a target is an attempt to introduce novelty into that target system. Because we give such deference to plans and measurable objectives, we tend to restrict our view of the usefulness of novelty to whatever might be a part of our current plan.

But the ability of “newness” to support change goes far beyond the direct connection we impose on our change plans between our goals and our change activities.  An environment or atmosphere of potential change can drive our initiatives to greater scope and overall impact. That is, the environment can do a great deal of our work for us, if we will include it in our change plans.

Novelty has more impact if the target sees it disturbing the current system from multiple directions. A novelty seems more inevitable if it is supported from, for example, different levels of government, in many different media, from many different sources, and from many different stakeholder groups.

It is worth your effort to support such broad-based evidence of support for the change you want. While you can’t orchestrate such converging evidence of the potential for a change, you can make the most of what convergence there is by using social media, and you can provoke evidence of the importance of the change for which you are advocating by letting a broad audience of potential stakeholders know of the importance of your change work. The community of people out there who might seem too distant to support your initiative can, in fact, support it by making it a part of the larger environment that connects our disability community.

You might have noted that I didn’t use the term “innovation” to describe this effect of novelty on change. There is nothing wrong with the word (is there a collection of 10 letter profanities?), but it is deeply tied to ideas of control by the innovating organization, and it tends to view the audience (recipients) of the innovation as too passive to be a useful concept in our empowering and prideful change advocacy.

Next time I’m going to try to expand the potential use of novelty by tying it to some very basic concepts of how evolutionary systems do their stuff. After all, our many efforts to change the world around us are directed toward, and make us part of, a very large and dynamic evolutionary system.

Next Post: Variety and Selection


Two Strategies for Changing Systems

road split in two with two traffic signs
Two Paths to Travel

Organizations tend to travel two paths as they age. In fact, they typically have one foot in each path. These are the paths of Efficiency and Innovation. This two-path aging process is typical of advocacy organizations as well as targets. The two paths have very different implications for much of the decision-making that goes on in the organization, and we need to approach targets somewhat differently depending on how much the target invests in each of the two paths.

The Path of Efficiency

This path tries to accomplish organizational outcomes with the least amount of effort and cost possible. The upside of this path is the preservation of what are always scarce resources. The downside is that each step on this path makes the organization more brittle and less able to respond effectively to novel disturbance or threat. Brittle systems are efficient precisely because they simply do not change. If the distress from the disturbance is too great, brittle systems break.

It is typical, and only partially avoidable that systems become more brittle as they age. Once the brittleness is part of the organization fabric, actual efficiency takes a secondary place in the scheme of organizational management.

The Path of Innovation

This path tries to accomplish organizational outcomes with a workflow that is different in assumptions from the one currently being used. A typical reason for walking the path of innovation is that the mission of the organization has degraded over time, and a new way of organizing mission outcome effort is needed to change it. Other reasons for innovation include important changes in the organization ecosystem, new laws that affect the mission outcomes, changes in the culture of the staff as a result of simple changes in staffing, funding issues, and similar disturbances in the Force.

It is typical, and only partially avoidable that systems become less innovative as they age. Partly, this is because as any system ages, more resources must be put into maintenance and repair ( to maintain and repair efficiency, as it were). Innovation becomes more difficult largely because innovation demands slack in the system for it to be successful. Slack tends to reduce when repair and maintenance expand.

How Path Choices by a Target Affect Change Strategy

In Summary: Brittle systems need to be stressed and Innovative systems need to be nudged in a better direction.

In both cases, your targets need to experience novel disturbances. That means that your advocacy group or organization has to be good at innovating in your change tactics.

The use of innovative tactics is generally the introduction of novelty into the target, forcing the target to address that novelty one way or another. Novelty needs its own post.

Next Post: Novelty as a Change Tool


Aging Systems

Diagram of the adaptive cycle; includes visual description of adaptive phases, preparing for change, navigating change, building resilience in the transformed system
Adaptive Cycle

Everything changes, right? We have trouble remembering that even though we know it’s true. We tend to get stuck with our immediate experience, like having a picture of an old friend we haven’t seen in years. Even though we know the friend will be older when we meet, it is still a shock when we finally do meet.

A corollary to this is that complex systems not only change, they also age. Systems age in a way that supports their dissolution and recreation in another form. As you can see in the diagram, the adaptive cycle is a cycle, that never repeats itself, but covers much the same change territory.

When we implement a change strategy, we are interacting with a target (a complex system) that is aging more or less according to the diagram above.  We often organize our change strategies in a way that minimizes the impact of the ongoing (and largely unseen) changes on the outcome we seek. We do this, for example, by using the standard individual advocacy framework of threatening a potential system change in the target in order to secure a specific change for the person we are representing. Another example is the use of a lawsuit to effect systems change. A lawsuit is a way to frame what has been going on in the past to secure an advocacy outcome. A lawsuit usually assumes that the target will remain more or less the same for the duration of the change effort.

Sometimes, the always operating process of the adaptive cycle carries the target to a place that reframes the impact of our change strategy. This change might actually improve the advocacy outcome or (more likely) undermine our outcome. But since we don’t pay much attention to the process of aging through the adaptive cycle, we see the impact of aging as largely accidental (unpredictable), and outside our change plan.

If we could have some insight into how our target would evolve in its adaptive cycle, we might be able to both improve our advocacy outcomes and implement longer and deeper change plans.

But it is hard to do that precisely because we get stuck with our first impression, at least until we get surprised by the changes that have taken place in the target as we try to change it.

There is another way in which first impressions undermine our ability to see the process of a complex system adapting over time. Our advocacy groups and organizations are also complex systems, and they are also following some path in the adaptive cycle, passing along some place in the process of aging. And we also keep our first impressions of our change organizations until we are surprised by perceiving a change we didn’t know was going on.

To help expand our ideas of how the interaction of our complex change organizations and our targets produce different itineraries on the adaptive cycle, in my next post I will discuss two large scale processes that affect (more or less) all complex systems over time.

These are the journey to efficiency and the journey to innovation.

Next Post: Two Strategies for Changing Complex Systems



Systems Thinking: A Tool for Advocates

drawing of questions problem solvers ask themselves
Rich Picture for Problem Solving

Thinking about problems as systems of relationships has a very long history. I ran across it in the 70’s when I was trying to understand how change worked. Every 10 years or do, there is a resurgence of interest in systems thinking. It makes intuitive sense that seeing the problem of focus in the larger world in which the problem exists should make it easier to solve.

But systems theory is very abstract, and the history of the use of systems theory in problem solving is basically a path of trying to make it more practical. “Rich Pictures” (above) is one practical method, but there are a very large number of practical methods out there, and there is no easy way to pick one. Basically, if the tool resonates with you, you should learn more by using it. You develop the usefulness of systems thinking by trying to use it rather than by learning some specific magic-bullet method. Systems thinking is a way to frame advocacy problems and advocacy strategy, not a way to replace a leaky faucet in your kitchen.

Advocacy problems are part of a class of systems called “complex”. In complex systems. parts and relationships between parts are changed at least a little every time there are interactions. You can compare complex with complicated (like a 787plane) in which the relationships between the parts change, but not the parts themselves (a changing part is a red flag of danger). When we try to alter a target system because of a rights problem that we either heard about or discovered. we are trying to change the way the system works (and in the process we are changing ourselves). ‘

Hence, Complex.

If this description reminds you of an ecosystem, that’s because ecology is the index example of a complex system, and all complex systems share important similarities. I’ll be discussing some of those similarities in future posts.

Some resources:

Systems Thinking: from

Systems Thinking, Systems Tools and Chaos Theory: from Free Management Library

Next Post: Systems Age Just Like You and Me


Building Better Advocacy Strategies

(My effort to write the “Functional Psychopathy” post is running into problems. I know what I want to say, but clearly don’t know how to say it. So that one will need to wait for the future.)

wooden ship-building in gloucester harbor and kids building small ships
Ship Building

For some time I have been working on a series of four presentations to help advocates understand how change strategy can support, expand, and deepen their advocacy efforts. While it is hard for me to view them as final, I thought I’d provide them for review where they are now. The links are to PDF files of each presentation. The PDFs include both the slides and fairly extensive notes (one slide + notes on each page of the PDF). If you want an alternative format, send me an email at, and I’ll crank one out for you.

Mission 1, Mission 2: Why Our Change Advocacy Organizations Get Off Track

M1, M2

This presentation gives an overview of why strategy for change organizations matters at all. I focus on a very real issue (that all advocacy organizations face); how do we struggle with the problems that our core mission and keeping our doors open create? Sometimes both these missions mesh and sometimes they don’t. How can we manage the evolving relationship between our purpose and our logistics?

Making Our Lives Larger: Creating Effective Social Justice Change Strategy

What Is Strategy?

This presentation tries to revive the importance of strategy as part of our advocacy efforts. These days every plan is called a strategy. But useful strategy isn’t a plan. It is a framework for dealing with the two realities of change advocacy:

  • The future is uncertain and no matter how hard we try, we can’t predict it
  • We have scarce resources (funding, time, capability) and we still have to produce change

Strategic Frameworks: Tools for Creating a Specific Change Strategy

How Do We Create A Strategy?

Since real strategy building is no longer a standard part of non-profit change work, how do we build one? There is a long history of efforts to build strategies and a wide variety of meaningful frameworks to help. Pick the one (or more) that resonate with you and learn more about those.

Executing Strategy: Tools for Making Your Strategy Real

Tools of Execution

Once you have a strategy, how do you make it real in your advocacy environment? Again, there is a long history of methods for making what you want to be real. And Again, choose the ones that are most attractive you and explore them more.

Well, if something occurs to you, let me know!

Next Post: Systems Thinking for Advocates