Review: Rights Come to Mind

Cover of the Book Rights Come to Mind: Brain Injury, Ethics, and the Struggle for Consciousness, which includes an image of the ConnectomeCover of the Book, Rights Come to Mind

I am postponing the post I had planned for today because of the publication of a powerful work that I have been personally  waiting for since 1971. The book is a rights-based, medical community narrative and argument to view persons with severe brain injury and alterations of consciousness and communication as human beings. It includes a single very detailed story of recovery that is used to illustrate the revelations of neuroscientific research into such injuries, with narratives of 40 other persons interwoven throughout the book. “Rights”makes an ADA-based argument that persons with altered consciousness because of brain injury must receive rehabilitation (both physical and technological) to restore consciousness and useful methods of communication with family, friends, and their community.

This might seem obvious to people in the disability rights movement, but there has been no more devalued group of people over the course of my adult life than people with consciousness-related brain injury. One need only watch the apparently annual rant by one of the doctors in “Scrubs” (a TV medical comedy!) about how their talents, training and personal value were being wasted treating people with dementia to grasp the ease and depth of the devaluing that occurs.

In the early 70’s, I worked at a small medical clinic that supported families with members who had severe brain injury due to many different causes. While most of the patients were children, there were a number who were older and who had disabilities related to consciousness and communciation (i.e., say from a motorcycle accident). While the support that the clinic gave to these people was not as sophisticated as is currently available, a number of these indiviudals recovered consciousness during the time I knew them. Their reports about what the coma was like covered a variety of experiences from dream-like to being aware of what was going on around the bed, but unable to respond. These experiences taught me that my ableist model of their subjective experience was not accurate and that surface judgements of capability devalued and so eliminated the possibilities for persons who were in comas.

However, my deep epiphaney in regard to people with brain injury, my understanding of the incredible superficiality that pervades our judgement of people with severe disabilities, came when the clinic’s OT went to evalute a 17 year old woman who had suffered a 20 minute cardiac arrest during an appendectomy. She had extensive brain stem injury from this event, and had all the hallmarks of flexion and contracture that results.

This was a few years before the clinical definition of persistent vegetative state became a generally used  label for people with the kind of injury to consciousness/communication that this woman had. In the simultaneously empty and obscure medical venacular of the time, her diagnosis was “akinetic mutism”. This means she couldn’t move and she couldn’t talk.

The parents of the young woman were there to observe and participate in the evaluation. Although they understaood what the medical team had declared as her current and continuing state until she died, they had noted a difference in the way she responded to males and females when they came into the room. They couldn’t describe this difference, and their perceptions of their daughter cognition were dismissed as unimportant wishful thinking.

The OT printed “Blink your right eye” on a card and held it up some inches from her face. She blinked her right eye. Then the OT printed “Blink your left eye” in front of her face, and she blinked her left eye.Thus, at least in my mind, the edifice of social judgement and pity/contempt for people with severe disabilities crumbled for me for the rest of my life, though my understanding of the scope of ableism has continued to expand to this day.

Some quotes from “Rights Come to Mind“:

Families face a pervasive nihilism with practitioners assuming a static notion of brain injury. Despite stunning scientific evidence to the contrary, the prevailing view in the clinic is that all brain injuries are immutable. From this perspective, it is preordained that the injured brain cannot recover and that the humane course is to pursue palliative care, to let nature take its course.

More worrisome have been reports of families urged to turn their loved ones into organ donors before their prognosis is clear.

One key barrier is health care financing and how we pay for rehabilitation.

(T)o date, these patients have been seen as invariably hopeless or worse, outside the human scope of such legislation as the status quo attests. They remain sociologically – if not legally – outside the regulatory protection of the ADA. The neglect and disregard continues, making the sad point that before this population is deemed worthy of disability rights, society needs to acknowledge even more fundamental rights of citizenship.

Although there is a very long way to go in securing the rights of persons with severe injuries of consciousness and communication, this book is the first genuinely public description of what has been developing in the research literature for many years. I am glad that I lived long enough to see this first step taken, and I hope some of you who read this will avail yourself of this remarkable literary experience.

Target Engagement as Context


Two hockey players in a fight
Hockey Fight

When an advocacy organization deals with the same target over and over, the relationship between the target and the advocacy organization gradually becomes a continuing context for change initiatives and it also becomes an inherent part of every change strategy.

The relationship can vary from simple agreement on where and when to have negotiation meetings to longstanding relationships that include deeper knowledge by both parties of the other, or even friendships that extend outside the advocacy initiative.

The traditional view of the advocacy relationship in the abstract is that the advocate adopts a position on an issue and the target counters that position with one of its own. The advantage of such an approach is that it is straightforward, and the position serves as the focal point for all advocacy effort. The disadvantage is that the position is likely to be a very abstract frame for what would actually have to occur to make the change real. We give up effectiveness in actually creating a solution for clarity of principle.

Advocacy and Engagement can develop a very complex relationship over time. Adversarial relationships often create collaboration and engagement on solutions. Remember that “War makes for strange bedfellows”. Traditional advocacy is usually seen as a purely adversarial process in which we defend a position, as in a court battle over legal and substantive rights. But even in court, some level of cooperation is required to hold the adversarial contest, follow the rules for speaking and arguing, etc. I noticed in my time as an advocate at MPAS, that we often used a strategy I called “bounded collaboration”. Basically, we would cooperate until some line was crossed. At that point we became adversaries.

Traditional advocacy is usually seen as a purely adversarial process in which we defend a position, as in a court battle over legal and substantive rights. But even in court, some level of cooperation is required to hold the adversarial contest, follow the rules for speaking and arguing, etc. I noticed in my time as an advocate at MPAS, that we often used a strategy I called “bounded collaboration”. Basically, we would cooperate until some line was crossed. At that point we became adversaries.

More recently, I have found that simply taking a position as an advocate has become less and less fruitful over the years, and that engagement of the other parties in the stakeholder environment is necessary to move advocacy along. Most policy implementation problems these days, especially in health and community supports, are very complex and contain structural problems that must be resolved before positional advocacy can work at all.  As an example:

Two models of creating affordable and accessible housing have developed (with many variations):

Segregated Housing: All housing units are part of a single building project with a focus on a single community (say, vets, seniors, poor, adults with disabilities), with supports provided in the building by a single provider.

Distributed Housing: Each housing unit is developed and built in the larger community. Supports are provided to the individual or family in that individual unit by a provider hired by the individual or family.

There are specific economic and control reasons why The System (and its subparts) has wanted to create and maintain segregated models of housing:

  • In the creation of plans for housing projects, it is much easier to propose a single site, with infrastructure, a single design of individual units, tax credit use, and the scaling of supports through a single provider contract.
  • There are economies of scale with a single site for maintenance and repair of individual units and the project as a whole.
  • It is much easier to hide and manage the unethical use of project funds in a single site because the number of stakeholders that must be managed to hide unethical use is smaller.
  • It is also easier to enforce control over tenants and sanction them for violations, both of formal and informal rules, making it easier to serve the interests of the managers at the expense of the tenants.
  • Scapegoating and bullying individual tenants into conformity is much more effective when you tie supports and loss of lease together. Failure to conform can result in loss of housing, a powerful threat.

There are also social/emotional reasons that perpetuate segregated housing and segregated community models:

  • Especially in the early phases of recovery, most people prefer to spend their social time with persons who are experiencing struggles similar to their own. The first goal in recovery is usually feeling safe.
  • The preservation of the feeling of safety, basically relief from pain whether physical or social, becomes self-perpetuating in the same way that any relief from any pain does. Not ever leaving one’s comfort zone becomes a permanent way of living.
    One accepts the abusive control that project managers exert as the price for feeling safe. One’s life becomes permanently constrained.

So, segregated housing supports segregated communities and vice versa.

One way (one of a huge number of variations) of “complementing” these two opposite models would be to always separate supports from residence, so that individual tenants can’t lose tenancy for choosing a different provider of supports or no provider of supports. Another would be to put limits on the length of time a person can remain in segregated projects, or deliberately create a framework of supports for all transitions. A third would be to make a transition from segregated to distributed housing a standard part of planning supports and skill building from the first day of tenancy in a segregated project. All of these would alter the dynamic of the Segregated Housing vs. Distributed Housing policy issue and the positions associated with these alternatives.

But to effectively change the complexity of such policy alternatives requires a much deeper understanding of the experience of meaning behind the target position. This understanding is only possible through engagement. It carries the risk, as all understanding of others does, that we will appreciate why the target takes a particular position, and this empathy might undermine our commitment to the principles that led to our advocacy position in the first place.

At the end of the day, though, we can’t make a false choice between commitment to our principles and our positions and the deepening of our understanding of our target of change. Empathy is not agreement or sympathy. It is the understanding that comes from seeing the world as our target sees it.

Next Post: Opposites and Complements


The Power of Enforcing Rules

Maximum speed limists map of US states from 60 mph to 85 mph (2000)

Maximum Speed Limits in the USA (2000)

Many advocates have noted that forcing a target system to follow the rules that it has created for itself can be a useful tool of negotiation. This is because many of the rules were set up to be used to defend the target against intrusion or critique, and were never intended to be used on a regular basis. When the target is forced to use its own rules without any choice on its part, the system begins to degrade not only in terms of its own stated purpose but also in terms of those things the target values above all. Such loss of control can make a target more creative about how it solves an advocacy disturbance. In fact, the basic advocacy technique of threatening what the target values unless accommodation to the advocacy demand occurs is a simple example of the principle.

I had a special education advocacy experience in the early 80’s that taught me a lot about what could be done by enforcing the rules. I fell into the solution accidentally and as a result of ideas from the families I was representing. I thought I would share it to illustrate how a target deals with a real threat to its inner workings.

I got a call requesting support for special education services dispute from a person who worked in a large special education system and had a daughter receiving services in a different county from where the parent worked. The family had moved to a different county because of the inadequate nature of the specific kind of services the daughter needed. But changes in the program had degraded the supports for the daughter and there was a real danger to her and the other students in the same classroom because of those changes.

The classroom had 6 students with very significant disabilities on the autism spectrum and some other disabilities that made the daily quality of care a huge concern. For example, one student had epilepsy that caused cardiac arrest and required immediate CPR when it occurred (rarely, but possible). Another student had such an inadequate appetite that, absent a well-structured eating program that was rigidly enforced, he would rapidly lose weight, effectively starving despite the availability of food.

Prior to the changes in the program, the class had a teacher deeply committed to students with autism, both by temperament and extensive experience, and two aides who had worked with all these children since they began receiving special educations supports in the local system. Because of the cyclical boom and bust of educational funding in Michigan in the 80’s, there had been a recent spate of layoffs, including the teacher and the two aides in this classroom. They were replaced by a teacher of students with emotional impairments, who had never worked with any student with these levels of disability and medical complications, and two secretaries with no experience as aides in a special education classroom. All 3 had bumped into the positions through the procedures of the local labor contract.

I tried simply asking for a restoration of the staff and got nowhere because the building program staff had no control over the implementation of the labor contract. Although the local building was well aware of the danger to the students, they couldn’t see how they could change the situation as it had evolved.

I met with all the families of students in the classroom, and we settled on a strategy of forcing the system to obey its own rules. I asked each family to create a schedule of what they thought would be an ideal program of supports for their son or daughter in 10-minute increments. They were to include breaks, meals, everything that they thought should be done during the day, and they should also list the right of the parent to drop into the classroom at any time during the school day to monitor whether the current activity was the one listed in the schedule for that time.

Each family would then ask for a new IEPC in writing. When they attended the IEPC, they were to hand the written schedule to the staff and say this was the only supports framework they would accept, and if the school wouldn’t accept it, the family would request a fair hearing. Since the schedule was entirely unacceptable to the school, the assumption was that they would refuse to implement the schedule, and they would hold a hearing for each family, a total of 6 hearings.

I went to the principal of the building, who had been sympathetic to the concerns of the families and frustrated with the lack of responsiveness by the system. I explained the strategy we were going to use and asked him to pass on that strategy to the ISD. I implied that if some solution wasn’t found, all 6 families would be going to their legislators and the press, pointing to the physical and medical danger to their sons and daughters. I also said I thought I could win one or two of the hearings and that the staff would have to put up with the visits to the classroom even if I lost 5 of the hearings. I understood that the current staff had no more control over the labor contract than the local school did. We hoped that all the uncertainty for the district that would result from our strategy would be enough to help the district put some thought into a solution that everyone could live with.

I understood that the current staff had no more control over the labor contract than the local school did. We hoped that all the uncertainty for the district that would result from our strategy would be enough to help the district put some thought into a solution that everyone could live with.

The district did come up with an equitable solution. The EI teacher got medical leave, and secretarial jobs were found for the two aides who had bumped into the class. The original teacher and aides were hired on contract for the rest of the current year and were rehired as full-time staff the following year.

I was astounded and surprised by this solution. I thought that I would be spending months in hearings, followed by continuing struggle and dispute, and the likelihood that at least some of the families would be forced to pull their children out of the classroom or forced to move to another county. The district solution was a very elegant one, that required no additional expense, no public display of the issues, no problems for either the current staff or the former staff.

Though I never asked, my suspicion was that the solution was created through internal negotiation so that the target system (the county special education program) could maintain the existing set of political, financial, social, and educational rules while nonetheless taking care of the problems that the families had raised.

I learned that it is possible to build win-win solutions even when the underlying system reproduction processes are the ones triggering the advocacy effort, and that it is possible for advocates and targets to collaborate, or in this case collude, when the advocacy engages the whole system and does not just argue a legal or a rights-based position.

Next Post: Target Engagement as the Context of Change


Roles as Targets of Change Strategy

clipart 4 sons of horus, egyptian god. The four sons are human, wolf, lion, and eagle
4 Roles (Sons) of Egyptian God Horus

Intersectionality is a term used by academic communities to talk about and understand how different identities interact in a specific person with their outside world.  Of course, we all have to personally manage our different identities and their intersection by ourselves every second of every day in the real world. This includes our work within organizations and our advocacy. Advocate is as much an identity as family background or sexual orientation.

Identities are roles. When we advocate on behalf of an individual we interact with public roles as they are performed for the target system of our advocacy. Although we commonly treat the roles (and judge them) as though they were real people, they are not. Judging a person by how they behave in a role is an error even if the behavior is bad.

Any target contains roles that work as an interface with the outside and other roles as inside reproducers of the target system. Both sets of roles are performances, but the interface is constituted of public performances and the core roles as facilitators of the system’s reproduction.

The design (whether conscious or not) of any target system tries to keep the internal reproductive roles separate from and insulated by using the public roles as the mode of communication with the outside world. The manager role (including using authority) is first and foremost designed to protect the reproduction of the target, and a core of the manager role is to only interface with the outside world through the system’s public roles, making it very difficult for advocates to expose the processes of system reproduction to public scrutiny and change. This is also the practice that makes managers gradually lose contact with the core purpose of  the system of which they are a part.

Even those who have the responsibility for reproductive roles are insulated from other internal roles by training and experience, reporting systems, politics, and all the other social paraphernalia of system life. We live in a time when these internal roles have become increasingly complex and specialized, and the reality that it is impossible to keep all the specialized roles needed for reproduction inside the target system requires outside contractors from highly specialized systems. The work of these contractors is also insulated from the rest of the internal roles through the specification of the contractual outcomes, and boilerplate that creates contractor liability for exposure of the system’s “secrets”. There is no better realization of this near-universal model than the modern system for making movies.

It is as though the secret societies of past centuries have been replaced by corporate systems which conspire to hide their brand of “self-maintenance” (i.e., world financial domination or whatever other goals a secret system might have) from exposure.

The recent call for transparency and the initiatives to increase it don’t eliminate this systemic secrecy. I think transparency is an effort to deal with the real possibility that too much secret complexity will grind any system to a halt. Insulated secrets are always less subject to evolutionary pressure and natural selection, and always more prone to that species of corruption that comes with controlling resources without outside scrutiny.

Hiding from competitive pressure (of which advocacy is one kind) preserves the core of the system, at the expense of its improvement or adaptation. Such hiding may benefit the people who abide in those hidden roles, but it degrades the system, both functionally and morally.

The basic technique of individual advocacy (threatening the reproduction of the core so that the goals of the individual will become a compromise solution) is based on this kind of understanding of the target system whether that understanding is explicit or implicit. But the companion of this successful form of advocacy is the failure to fundamentally change the reproduction of the target.

In my next post, I’ll give an actual concrete example of advocacy that started out using the basic technique but accidentally ended up changing a small part of the target’s reproductive roles.

Next Post: The Power of Enforcing Rules

The Core of Effective Advocacy Strategy

A Clipart Apple Core with red skin and what appear to be seed-eyesAn Apple Core

I’ve covered a lot of topics over the last few weeks. This post is intended to begin a new phase in this blog. If a strategy is a framework to deal with future uncertainty and scarcity of resources, then it matters what the focus of the strategy is, what aspect of the target  organizes the thinking about how to change that target. I’ll begin with an abstract statement of the core, and try to make it more concrete over later posts.

The core of an effective social justice strategy in dealing with a change target is to impact the processes that the target uses to keep itself going, changing these self-reproductive processes to make them more equitable, supportive, and productive of greater freedom and personal autonomy for devalued communities.

Whew! A mouthful…..


  • Most of the time, we try to impact the surface of an organization by advocating about a specific structural issue (policy, political position, practice). But the core of what any target does is keep itself as it is now.

    There is nothing passive about this maintenance of the status quo. Targets must actively use resources, capabilities, energy, etc. to actually do this. Though we tend to think of the status quo as not requiring maintenance effort (it is simply there), this is not true.

    While maintaining the status quo becomes more automatic over time, it still requires a significant proportion of all the time and resources the target has available. This is because all targets (for that matter, all of us) are beset by a variety of disturbances to their self-reproduction from both inside and outside. But, all this effort is often not obvious (in fact, it is deliberately made not obvious), and we don’t focus on it. We focus on public positions and individual decision makers. This is a strategic error, one of mistaking the surface for the core.

  • Put more bluntly, if you change the core of a target’s self-reproduction to promote better outcomes for your community, the organization is more likely to continue to do that.

  • You can’t engage these core processes by taking public advocacy positions, which is a typical technique. The battle over positions is a surface battle. Regardless of how that battle turns out, neither the advocacy group nor the target is changed at their core.

  • Remember that the main tactic used in individual advocacy effort is to threaten a systemic change in the target if they don’t go along with the individual advocacy goal. This approach is effective precisely because the target doesn’t want to change anything at the core.

  • Reproductive processes include governance, communication strategy, customer relation policies, bureaucratic workflow, target/outside world interface, and so on. Most of these are designed to reduce engagement with the outside world, to foster internal control over acquisition and use of resources, and to manage the political relationships both inside and outside of the target by minimizing the possibility of change. At the base of all this effort to manage the ongoing reproduction of the target is anxiety about loss of control. 

Often, the staff in the target organization are also divided between functionally surface roles and functionally core roles. The surface roles are performances; the core roles are the ones that make it possible for the organization to continue to be what it is. This reality has an impact on how we disturb the target to produce change.

Next Post: Roles as Targets of Change Strategy

How Advocacy Organizations Age

The Adaptive Cycle with 4 phases: Exploitation, Conservation, Release, Reorganization
The Adaptive Cycle

A Reminder Post before we go on:

Advocacy Organizations and Groups and their change strategies tend to age through similar phases (so can people, actually). This aging path is the default, and can be altered by conscious choice if not eliminated entirely:

Phase 1: In the early days, they are driven by passion for change, some level of general resources without many constraints, and the ability to create effective tactics faster and better than their target. Because of their target’s difficulty in responding well, they experience early success.
Phase 2: At some point, they hit a resource wall which is difficult to change. It can be funding, skills set, a more competent target, etc. This limit requires a strategic choice, whether anyone thinks of it as a strategic issue or just a crisis. In turn, this typically leads to internal conflict over governance, what to use available resources for, contradictions between public values and actual group or organization behavior, and a host of other issues with which I suspect all of you are familiar.
Phase 3: Out of this struggle, a consensus is built or forced, and those who don’t subscribe to the consensus leave, one way or another. The consensus is usually framed around the competency of the group’s operational skills, not strategy, and it tends to focus on reliable and expanding sources of funding and a complementary public face of success. There is, of course, a strategy in there somewhere. But it is implicit.
Phase 4: The group or organization stabilizes around the operational consensus, and continues. Because the new consensus does not reflect the original vision of change, the organization begins a long path in which the necessity of keeping the doors open undermines the stated mission. I think of this process as leading to a state of operational stagnation, in which the quality of outcomes are judged by the degree that they support reliable funding and reputation. This process of zombification can go on for decades and can span the entire replacement of staff, funding sources, changes in skill sets, and governance philosophies. Its stability is very hard to shift and tends to change only with a high level of corruption arising from the misuse of funds. As a former boss of mine said, “They never get you for not doing your mission. They only get you for misusing the money.”

Some Other Examples of Aging:

Creating and Maintaining the American Freeway System:
I grew up in Midland, Michigan, but the rest of my extended family lived in Detroit. Pre-Freeway, the trip to visit Detroit was 4 hours on two-lane roads traveling through many little towns. When the freeway was finished, our first trip was one hour and 15 minutes. Then repairs and maintenance started, and traffic use increased. Now, if there is no gridlock, the trip is 2 and a half hours. And it is getting worse as more maintenance is required.

The purpose of the freeway is becoming (more and more) an object for repair and maintenance and the money that can be made by doing that, and (less and less) a tool for rapid comfortable transportation.

New Humans: Brand new humans are full of possibilities, but as we age, we spend more time maintaining ourselves and less time learning and exploring possibilities.
Government: Programs start out with one purpose and gradually add rules and additional purposes until they sometimes end up doing the exact opposite of what they started out to do.
Large Corporations: When businesses start, they typically have one outcome-a product or a service. As they get bigger, they may go public and suddenly have shareholders who don’t care about the product, only how much money they are making. Often, the largest enterprises are only about money, and we find financial services corporations betting against their own customers in order to make money for individual brokers and managers.

The image at the top is a useful model of how complex systems adapt over time, and how they are replaced in the natural world. There are important lessons in the diagram for advocacy organizations and groups, as well as targets. and I will be exploring some of those in future posts.

Next Post: The Core of Effective Advocacy Strategy


The Future is Chock Full of Unintended Consequences


Blackboard with chalked written phrase, Unintended Consequences, that doesn't quite fit on the lines
Unintended Consequences


“We can control our choices, but we can’t control the consequences of those choices”
-Many authors in many contexts

Because strategies are often chosen in crisis, then frozen in policy, mission-related stories, governance, and other organizational infrastructure after the crisis has passed, the consequences of any strategic choice eventually become a day to day reality without requiring any particular awareness of those consequences on our part. Current reality becomes the focus of the organization, and how it got to be that way or what might have been if a different choice had been made is viewed as inconsequential. After enough time has passed, it is common for members of an organization, even the senior managers, to have no idea what their strategy “is” or how it actually developed. The strategy is “water to a fish”. It is there but it is everywhere, and can be safely ignored.

After the fact justification imposes a much more rational and planned notion of how the strategy came to be than was actually the case. Many times the How is not transmitted at all, and it is presented to the current organization members as a “fait accompli”.”This is how we do business.” This lack of reflection is reinforced by the use of operational plans and tactical responses rather than ongoing, open-ended, strategic conversation, as the guide for action by the members of the organization. Those operational plans always assume the current configuration of the organization as the unquestionable context for creating operational plans and implementing tactics. Even if the goal of the plan is to expand funding or organizational reach, the objectives are drawn from the current constitution of the organization. Only in failure do most organizations pay any attention to why they do things the way they do, and even then mostly to point fingers and assign blame. Moreover, the unconscious acceptance of the status quo makes even the detection of failure more difficult, much like the old metaphor of the frog and boiling water.

Because of this lack of strategic conversation and reflection, organizations tend to try to repeat their tactics and operational frameworks over and over again. After all, isn’t repetition the way to get good at something? But, all else being equal in the world of change advocacy, any repetition of a tactic or operational framework will be less effective than the previous one. Some examples:

  • Public Protest
  • Petitions
  • Shaming

Over the last half century, each of these tactics has become less effective. In the future they will continue to become less effective, all else being equal.

If all else isn’t equal, then a tactic can continue to produce good benefit. For example, ADAPT has successfully used direct action protest for several decades because the impact of people with significant disabilities blocking entrances with 300-pound electric wheel chairs has overtaxed the usual responses of law enforcement and elite power. Paddy wagons aren’t accessible, the wheelchairs themselves are impossible to move once they are shut down, etc. But the advantages of ingenious or creative uses of tactics are always temporary. There are no “7 steps to social change” techniques that will work forever.

In the big picture of social justice change, the major operational framework that social justice communities have pursued is some kind of legislative change, with community organizing as a close second. Today, we find that most of our legislative work is to stop the undermining of previous social justice gains. Where we are working for positive change, it tends to be either in communities who are trying to get basic civil rights for the first time or by pursuing small tweaks that certainly improve people’s lives, but don’t break new ground.

This is not to say there are no new ways of approaching social justice advocacy. It is only to say that the traditional approaches (actually, any approaches used over and over again) will  lose their impact over time and that this normal and expectable. To repeat, it is also inevitable.

This loss of tactical effectiveness through repetition is a kind of aging. Just as people age, so do organizations, social change tactics, and everything else that is real. In my next post, I’ll take a look at a model of the way everything ages.

Next Post: How Adaptive Systems Age

Strategy, Part 4: Another Real Strategy


A National Strategy for the Provision of Special Education in the United States

I was working with children who had brain injuries, including learning disabilities, in the early 1970’s, when there was an active discussion of what model to use in the federal legislation that would require the provision of education to all students, including those with disabilities. There were two alternatives being discussed.
The first was the use of a model that today would be called “wrap around”. The idea was that local resources would collaborate to provide services to children that included traditional education, family support, vocational and social skills support, etc.

The second was the model that was implemented and was the focusing of all responsibility for the educational support of students with disabilities on the local, intermediate, and state school systems.

In the parent community, this alternative was a no-brainer, since the apparent lesson of the civil rights era of the immediately preceding decade (the 60’s) was that civil rights laws had to be focused on a responsible party for litigation purposes, in order to enforce the civil rights framework of special education law. This notion was accurate as far as it went. With the 40th anniversary of the law, it is clear that litigation framed and clarified the meaning of the law to this day.

At the same time, it is also so clear that the current state of special education is a rigid, very partial realization of what advocates and parents had hoped for when the law was passed. Absent momentum for change like that which built and energized the parent movement in the early 70’s, the current law will remain as it is now only the subject of tweaking and puttering in the future. Of the values that supported the original, the only one that has deepened up to this day is the idea of expanding universal access to education, albeit to a weak and inadequate continuum of supports, and active resistance by educational systems to that value’s implementation.

It isn’t clear that the other alternative would have, on balance, produced a better outcome, but there is no question that it would have produced a very different education system, which is the point of this strategic discussion. If the wrap around system had been codified in law, I suspect our focus would be on collaboration agreements, and that it would be easier to perturb the system because of the number of local actors who would be actively and independently involved in the implementation of a set of supports for a specific student. It might also be easier to develop group supports that didn’t undermine the critical nature of customized support for a specific student.

It might  be interesting to consider a strategy of supports integration for students that used the framework of Medicaid covered services in a model like the Accountable Community Organization (ACO) that the Center for Medicaid/Medicare Services recently released. This model attempts to implement supports for issues in the social determinants of health along with other social supports, educational supports, and primary care integration. The goal of the model is to reduce health issue impact on life chances in non-health areas as well as health care for individuals and families in a specific community.

There are many more lessons about choosing strategies that can be learned from the choices that were made to implement special education, especially in financing and rights. But they would take up an awful lot of space, so I’ll put that discussion off to another day.

Next Post: Strategy, Part 5: Unintended Consequences of Strategies


Strategy, Part 3: A Real Strategy


Traditionally, a strategy is about ways, means, and ends. In operational planning mode, this means detailing the paths, tools, and outcomes, as in a logic model.

A real strategy provides more than this. It realizes a framework, not just for describing, but also dynamically coordinating ways, means, and ends, and providing guidance when the context of your effort changes-not dictating ways, means, and ends as a result of being somehow able to predict the future. After all, the larger world is always changing, and when it does, if we are faithful to our values and our hopes, we should support our change goals by shifting the relationship between ways, means, and ends.

Dynamic coordination means that you can change anything arising from your strategy at any time if the context changes (which it always will). Operational plans only allow you to tweak a way, a means, or an end, not fundamentally alter their relationships.

I’m going to take you through 2 genuine strategies. These two strategies were actually used in the real world, and they have all the complexity and depth that we should expect from our change strategies, even if the scope of our strategy will probably be much narrower than these. I will discuss one below and then describe the other in the next post.

The Allied Strategy in World War II:

You may have heard the phrase “unconditional surrender” as a description of the Allied strategy against the Axis in WWII. This was not just a slogan to mobilize citizen support. It was a strategy that grew out of the failure of the “negotiated settlement” that had ended WWI. In fact, the belief was that the settlement had led directly to the rise of fascism in Germany, and contributed to the rise of fascism in Japan and Italy.

Unconditional Surrender had profound consequences for both the prosecution of the war and its impact on all the participants. A reasonable guess would be that twice as many people died as would have if negotiation short of unconditional surrender had been a possibility. Ditto for infrastructure destruction, the number of people who acquired life-long disabilities, and the dramatic shrinking of social capacity that occurred in the Axis states. It is unclear whether the Holocaust would have been less humanly destructive, or even more so, had a settlement been allowed in, say, 1943. The industrialization of the US and the Soviet Union were dramatically accelerated by this strategy of Unconditional Surrender, leading directly to the Cold War. The race for nuclear weapons would have been slowed had the war ended in 1943. At the same time, it is possible that Germany would have acquired nuclear weapon technology had the war been foreshortened by a settlement.

My point is that this choice of a strategy has had real, concrete consequences down through post-war history to this day.

Strategy, Part 2: Fictitious Consensus


Inuit Caribou Figurine in wood
Inuit Caribou Figurine

In the first edition of Planet Medicine, by Richard Grossinger, he describes a tribal method to begin the hunt for caribou which has a fascinating connection to our modern approaches to building and maintaining consensus in the creation and implementation of complex planning (and also complex change).

The short overview of the ritual is that the shoulder blade of a previously hunted caribou is heated over a fire until cracks appear in it. The bone is oriented to map the hunting territory of the tribe, and the cracks are interpreted as the paths of caribou herds. A tribal decision about where to start the hunt is made on the basis of the information on the bone.

The ritual practice, in one form or another,  has been used by many different communities. The question that Grossinger raised was why the practice survived when there is no correlation between the map and the actual location of herds of caribou in the hunting territory.

He offered two kinds of possibilities:

  • The ritual solved the problem of how to get started quickly on the hunt when the actual location of the herds couldn’t be determined. In this environment of significant uncertainty, it was better for the tribe to start hunting right away and gradually discover where the herds were, rather than wasting time arguing among themselves about where to start. Certainly anyone who has been in a modern meeting trying to make a decision about a problem without enough information to do so will sympathize with this very effective way of producing consensus about doing something. Perhaps the most significant deficit of our modern approach to dealing with large uncertainties is the way social, political, and financial conflicts and their negotiated resolution eliminate any useful consideration of inherent uncertainty.
  • The second possibility was more subtle. Because the effect of the ritual was to have the tribe start their hunt in a more or less random place in their hunting territory, it was not possible for the caribou herds to evolve a defense against the hunting plans used by the tribe. The relationship between the tribe and its food source was kept stable by the ritual, adding a measure of constraint to a truly uncertain task.

Change advocacy as a social action framework is more like hunting caribou than it is like designing and building a nuclear power plant. There is significant uncertainty in creating and implementing change in Snowden’s “complex systems”, and when humans try to manifest that change, they will, by the very nature of what they are trying to do, engage in the social construction of some fiction to begin their change work. They will use shared values and their common commitment to outcomes consistent with those values to begin engaging with the target of their effort, learning as they go, evolving a plan of change through action, and, hopefully, achieving the change they desire by adapting their action to fit the constraints and ongoing evolution of the target.

We need to accept the uncertainty of what we do and the complex context within which that uncertainty lives if we expect to enhance our change effectiveness. In an environment of uncertainty, detailed pre-action planning wishes uncertainty away through the apparent detail and concreteness of the plan, creating the arrogance of the planners of Fukushima, who thought they could afford financial and political compromise in the creation of their fictional starting consensus.  Better to learn while on the path of change, than to assume that everything important is already known.

These last two posts have looked at the role of uncertainty in justifying an open, one step at a time, evolutionary approach to change. I have tried to emphasize this difference because of the astounding dominance of detailed operational planning as a method to secure a predictable change in our global culture. As useful as such planning is in creating complicated artifacts (like nuclear power plants), the failure of typical operational planning to include the lessons of an evolving environment brings immense danger with it. There is no greater danger than the assumption that because our social focus should be on the complicated artifact we are trying to create, the only relevant considerations should be the negotiation necessary to secure the beginning of the project. Social, political, and financial conflicts become the only “problems to be solved”. Everything else is in the detail of the plan.

Because of the dominance of operational planning as a substitute for a real strategy, I am going to take one more crack at framing the differences between this global  convention and evolutionary change action, by discussing one of the oldest distinctions in systems theory: The difference between Open and Closed systems.

Next Post: Lessons from the Casino of Life