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


The Strategy Disconnect in HCBS Advocacy

A chain breaking apart

I am part of a large work group negotiating a rough consensus about how Michigan should implement the CMS HCBS Community Services Rule. This set of requirements for services to people with disabilities through Medicaid is the most far reaching effort to change the quality and impact of supports since the closing of institutions in the 70’s.

What makes the HCBS Rule so revolutionary is the guiding principle of its implementation: The life possibilities and experience  of persons receiving supports should be the same as the possibilities and experience of people without disabilities.

The implementation of this rule will occur over the next few years, and there are many, many practical issues with altering the way supports are currently structured, planned, funded, and implemented.

There is a disconnect between the way a civil right is supposed to operate and the way that we actually go about realizing that right in practice. The CMS HCBS rule highlights this disconnect very clearly.

Civil rights were originally developed as an expansion of the notion of property rights. It appears as though this had to be done in order to make civil rights palatable to American courts. Broadly, property rights were intended to protect contracts (and estate inheritance, a kind of contract between generations). So the focus was on the specification of the meaning of language in a contract, and the preservation of the property interest from fraud.

And, in fact, much of civil rights advocacy whether in courts, fair hearings, IEPs, etc. is an effort to negotiate a final version of a contract (between family, student,  and school; between landlord and person with a disability, and so on).

But the meaning of a civil right to the person who “has” it and the meaning of that same right in an ongoing advocacy process is different, and it is this reality that leads me to describe the HCBS implementation process as having a disconnect.

I realized this disconnect when it became apparent that many stakeholders in the implementation process for HCBS view the implementation as a negotiation over terms, albeit a new one (or as it is often called by providers, a “fad”). Their ideal outcome would be a negotiation that allowed them to behave and be paid in exactly the same way they do now.

But, from the perspective of a person who might benefit from the implementation, the terms have a very different meaning. The rights being discussed are only incidentally about what providers can no longer do in restricting the person’s access to the full community.  HCBS implementation has the ability to open up an unrestrained vista of choice that maps to the one that all citizens expect.

All of the counter arguments to such an opening of possibility are arguments that devalue the ability of people with disabilities to benefit from such possibilities (hiding the true agenda of maintaining current payment relationships and workflows).

The fact that there is a larger “meta” strategy underlying HCBS implementation to open up these possibilities doesn’t change the requirement of negotiating as though we were creating a contract for how supports will be done. But it does re-frame what is at stake. All of our lives are a mixture of what we would choose to do if a broad range of possibilities were available, and how others work to restrict our choices to the ones that benefit them rather than us. The disconnect in the meaning of this negotiation underlies the long struggle of people with disabilities  to realize their self-chosen lives and the efforts of others to stop that.

We will see how far the HCBS implementation reaches toward that goal of equity in life possibilities. But that common goal will remain the harbinger of a truly free disabled community, and nothing less will ultimately be acceptable to all in our community.

Next Post: Functional Psychopathy

Part 3 Cont’d: Examples of Epiphanies

Tile showing a man moving from earth into the celestial spheres
Medieval Tile:  Moving from Earth to the Celestial Spheres

In my last post I tried to frame what I brought to the experience of social injustice gained from the communities in which I was raised. But the actual experience of social injustice and the experience of trying to prevent or resist it are far more powerful ways to develop the meaning of social justice and the motivation to pursue it as a calling.

All people who work in social justice go through such epiphanies that expand and deepen their commitment to, and understanding of, a calling to social justice. And every single one of those people has an entirely unique path. Some elements of mine (not special, just illustrative of how pursuing a path brings on epiphanies related to that path):

  • Personal Disability Experience: A core of any social justice calling is your own experience of stigma and oppression. I was well aware before adolescence that my thinking and mood weren’t normal, but because they were predictable I was able to imitate others and do an adequate job of passing. When I became a teenager, my first serious depression occurred along with massive social anxiety, and I understood that I was seriously disabled. At the same time, a friend of mine, who I knew was a person with a developmental disability was carted off to Lapeer Hospital. When I asked why I was told that his family didn’t think he would be able to handle junior and senior high school. I took this to mean that I too could be institutionalized if adults decided I couldn’t handle school emotionally. I hid a great deal in order to avoid institutionalization. I ran into this friend at the Michigan Arc 50th Anniversary  Conference, and he was living in his own apartment and instantly recognized me. I had a notion that he had been crushed by a system of oppression, but he had found a way to live the life he wished. A very good lesson indeed.
  • Murder at a Fiesta: When I was 15 I worked in a Catholic youth group project with migrant family crop workers in northern Bay County. Our job was to support young children (under the age of 6 or with a disability) in schoolwork. One reason was that migrant families had to come up north before school ended and not leave until after school started. Another reason was to keep young kids out of the fields and the sun.At the fiesta in early July to celebrate the end of one kind of crop work, two young men had an argument with several others. One pulled out a revolver and fired it, missing those arguing and hitting a young man in the heart 30 feet away, killing him.
  • Television of Beatings of civil rights protesters: Like many others, I was shocked by the abuse of civil rights protesters  in the mid-60’s. It was visual proof of what civil rights activists had said was the case. This vision of oppression was cemented by the killing of 3 civil rights workers.
  • Military Experience: I witnessed a large amount of racially based discrimination during both my training and combat experiences. I also tried to do something about what I saw, but was barely able to dent it. But, I saw organized efforts by black soldiers to resist that were much more effective.
  • Fred Hampton: A couple of days after I came home from Vietnam (mid-December, 1969), I read an article about the police raid that killed Fred Hampton in Chicago. There was a small black and white picture of his bed, clearly and deeply stained with his blood. I can still remember that picture though the details of the raid have faded.
  • PWD and Family Support Experiences: In the early 70’s I worked with people who had very significant brain injuries from a wide range of causes. Their families had kept them out of state institutions, and there were no supports for either the families or the person with the disability. The most important lesson I learned in this work was that persons with severe disabilities continued to develop and work for their own development largely unsupported by their environment. This was mostly due to our inability to see their actions as attempts to engage with their world and learn about it like the rest of us. I had to learn (as did the families) a deeper way of seeing so that I could support their efforts to become more. There was a real struggle involved in this learning, but it became easier and easier over time. Now I see this drive to have a larger life in everyone.
  • Advocacy experience: There are far too many lessons from my work as  an advocate at Michigan Protection and Advocacy to narrate them here. Perhaps the most important for my current work and my understanding of social justice was the realization over time and through experience that the most important drivers of oppression and devaluing are habits of thought and work, and that most people (just like me) can come to a deeper understanding of the need for and power of self-determination and choice.
  • Seeing the disability rights movement catch fire and grow: Once I understood that everyone in the disability community was struggling to become more, I could see it everywhere. Social networks (most especially including peer groups and peer work) are now taking that struggle out of the realm of the solitary activist and making it more and more a struggle through mutual support and mutual learning.

I am able to see our common work to expand the possibilities of our community far more as a force or a flow now than I could when I was younger. Even as our community faces renewed efforts to eliminate us from the social stage, we have become far more capable of asserting our right to be as we are, and to pursue our personal and community growth as we see fit. The struggle is far from over, but we are far better prepared to embrace it. My epiphanies may have less impact on me as individual events than they did when I was younger. But now they are occurring all the time, expanding and deepening my appreciation of the gift that is the struggle for social justice.

I am going to take a short break from posts about change strategy to finish work on a couple of ideas.

Next Post: The Disconnect in HCBS Advocacy


Pt. 3 Continued: More About Epiphanies

Lake of the Clouds at Dawn
Lake of the Clouds at Dawn
(This post kept getting longer and longer, so I decided to break it into 2)

My commitment to social justice as a set of values and a calling grew slowly over the first 3 decades of my life. I think the path I followed would be recognized as similar by many people, and I believe my experience illustrates the characteristics of personal change through epiphanies. Because I know my own path well, I’ll use it to illustrate the value of supporting epiphanies as part of a larger change strategy (bottom-up strategies).

Because epiphanies re-frame meaning for the individual (regardless of how many people share a particular experience),  they always remain individual in their impact. We are used to thinking about the meaning of events as impacting all participants i the same way. Of course, events don’t do this. Each person experiences an event in a way particular to their personal history and current state of being.  However, whatever the individual character of the re-framing, it affects the general system of meaning for the person sometimes for their entire life. It is this long term impact that lends strategic impact to epiphanies, though not at all like top-down victories discussed in earlier posts.

My parents came out of the depression and World War II with a commitment to equality that was typically American. They grew up in a working class neighborhood and my father was the first (and for a long time the only) person in that neighborhood who went to college. When he went to work for Dow in Midland, it was as part of professional upper middle class community and my parents found the ready devaluing of working class people offensive since it painted our entire family as inferior. They taught us that this was immoral and unacceptable.

Because of this personal, family base, Catholic social justice history made sense to me and expanded my idea of who should be able to use freedom and justice to forge their lives. The advent of the civil rights era also educated me to oppression I had not perceived before. But more important than education were the actual experiences I had as a person with a disability and as an ally to oppressed groups.

Next Post: Part 3 Cont’d: Examples of Epiphanies

Systems Thinking, Pt. 3: The Other Side of the Change Coin.

flower blossoming gentiana_asclepiadea

In the last post, I talked about top-down advocacy as an effort by advocates to change the form and content of the struggle for rights. Victories by advocates are subject to continuing  struggle as those who benefit from the status quo try to counter or undermine the victory. This cycle may result in expanded rights in the long run, but it requires a change from the innovation needed to create an advocacy victory to defending victories  won.

Bottom-up advocacy is an animal of another kind. It too produces innovation and can expand our understanding of the importance and potential of expanded freedom, but in specific individuals rather than law, rule, or policy.  This bottom-up advocacy is the experience of epiphany.

An epiphany is an experience that reveals a large scale framework of meaning to a specific person. This new framework of meaning doesn’t alter our past experience, but it can alter the meaning of our past and much beyond the apparent scope of the event that triggers the epiphany. An epiphany is often described as a revelation. It demands the reformulation of what we thought was the case. Epiphanies, small and great  and of various kinds, are a normal part of the human developmental experience. Yet, while advocates use the result of epiphanies to mobilize energy and work for top-down advocacy victories, there is a curious lack of organized effort to produce them (except by psychopaths who lead cults). We don’t have to look too far to understand why.

Politicians (very much like cult leaders) often use their speaking and motivational skills to mobilize people generally to support the politician’s personal interests (an election or a specific legal effort). The experience of campaigning to win an election or change a law can be an epiphany, but the change in the person that occurs is not about the election or the change in law. It is about the sense of expanded possibility that results from the experience. There is no guarantee that an event will dramatically expand the sense of possibility for a person. After all, that change in the sense of possibility is occurring in the heart of a single individual, and depends on the uniqueness of their development and personal experience.

I will talk about actual epiphanies in my next post. For that post, I will try to make a distinction between true and false epiphanies by using examples. The distinction has much to do with whether the epiphany reveals to you the expanded possibility for your life from living through another (a person, a political or religious entity, a book, generally some belief system) or changing how you view your possibilities and those of others whose experience of oppression is like yours.

Next Post: Pt. 3 Continued: Some Examples of Epiphanies


Advocate’s Guide to System Thinking, P. 2

Painting of River Rapids in Winter

Rapids in Winter

In my last post on Systems Thinking, I tried to point to the reality that any advocacy problem pops up in a flow of circumstance. We single out the problem from the flow because it attracts our attention. But we often fail to see the connection between the problem we experience and the flow that produced it.

When we do notice the flow as part of the problem, we tend to think that we need a top-down solution to it. Examples of top-down solutions are changes in policy, rules, and law that prohibit what we think of as the circumstances that led to the problem. In fact, this description is the typical definition of “systems advocacy” in our community.

Now we all know that changes in policy, rules, and law don’t stop similar problems from popping up. Rather, these changes give us hooks we can use in our advocacy to challenge a particular example of the problem. Which is to say that the changes make our advocacy easier.

Also, we all know that these successful changes trigger a response from the targets of our advocacy to game the new rules, to find loopholes or workarounds that reduce the need for target change. In turn, we respond by challenging this undermining of rights.

The dance of advocacy, as it were.

This dance is the core dynamic of top-down advocacy. As an advocacy tool, it has its strengths and weaknesses. One aspect of it that is unavoidable is the adversarial framework it entails. It seems that it is through challenge and response that change occurs and it is through gaming that targets challenge our successes. We might hope that the target will learn some basic lesson about rights, and I think that individuals within the target system do learn such lessons, but the dance reinforces the idea that argument or some other method of power use is the only way  or the best way to challenge oppression.

It seems to us that, since oppression was constructed through the use of power, we must use power to overcome oppressive flows. And, it is certainly true that those who use power to dominate and exploit others believe this and don’t give up that power willingly. But success in a struggle of power always leaves a residue of those who will not submit to your victory, and will immediately begin to fight against your victory generally through new methods, often ones we have not seen before.

The dance then runs something like this:

  • We challenge oppression. We do so by using innovation in our offense to  challenge our target.
  • The target responds with a defense of the status quo, largely through the use of the power it has already accumulated and secondarily through the inertia of the current flow.
  • We achieve some measure of victory. Almost immediately, the change roles of advocate and target begin to shift.
  • Now, the target is using offense and innovation to undermine and counter our victory.
  • We, in turn, are using defense to protect the victory that often required some real sacrifice on our part.
  • And so on……

In the larger window of history, I think a case can be made for overall positive change in this long dance, but as the modern civil rights movement has discovered in its half century defense of the Civil Rights Act fo 1964, it ain’t easy and you can’t take any victory  for granted ( this idea that the status quo always has an advantage over change is the weakest assumption of any defense-based strategy). There are important differences between offensive and defensive strategies. Just because we are good at offense doesn’t mean we are good at defense. Mostly in fact, if we are good at one, we are bad at the other.Yet, the dance of advocacy requires both sets of skills.

Next Post: Systems Thinking, Pt. 3: The Other Side of the Change Coin.



Advocate’s Guide to System Thinking, P. 1

Circular diagram of system modeling techniques

Systems Thinking Diagram

In the ordinary run of advocacy, an Event happens which is a violation of the rights of a person to freedom, choice, or the denial of some possibility in their life. We notice the Event and respond to it with an advocacy strategy designed to counter or reverse it.

But, as Gene Bellinger points out, events don’t just appear out of nowhere. They are the result of complex processes, and if we don’t respect the complexity that produced the event, we will trigger unintended results through our apparently obvious advocacy strategy.

This is the core of the difference between systems thinking and standard approaches to identifying and reacting to problems. But systems thinking is abstract and it isn’t taught to us when we are young enough to easily absorb it.  Instead, we are taught to view processes as objects. So the Event is divorced from the flow that produced it. And so is our response to the Event.

Imagine that you own an old house in the country. You have a “Michigan basement”. Rain tends to flood the basement. Because flooding doesn’t happen all the time, you don’t necessarily feel driven to do something permanent about it, but it is annoying. You have to do something about it.

Some options:

  • You can just wait for the basement to drain on its own
  • You can bail it out with a bucket whenever it occurs
  • You can put in a sump pump
  • You can dig a deep hole in the basement so that the flooding has less impact on most of the basement
  • You can remodel the basement so that it is sealed and no longer floods
  • You can support drought in your community so that flooding happens less often
  • You can put a huge dome over your property so less rain ends up in your yard and your basement
  • You can hire someone to do any or several of these things for you

See how advocacy is like solving any problem? The majority of options in any problem-solving effort are similar regardless of the problem:

  • You can ignore the problem
  • You can try a minimalist solution
  • You can try to prevent repetition
  • You can try to interfere with the process that leads up to the problem so it doesn’t happen to you
  • You can try to alter the entire system that makes this problem possible in the first place

Your choice has consequences aside from the effect of the solution on the problem. It has costs in your time and money, maintenance of the solution, solution failure, unintended consequences, and so on.

A solution is a choice, not just a choice from a menu but a choice embracing all the consequences of that choice whether you know them or not. Like most any problem-solving effort, advocacy is a commitment to a future that is uncertain. It is, in other words, a strategic choice, whether we treat it that way or not.

Let’s remember the definition of a strategy:

A Strategy is a framework for dealing with future uncertainty and scarce resources.

There is no privileged choice in the menu above. There is only the choice that fits your circumstances.  Systems thinking is a way of managing how you assess any advocacy choice and how well it might fit your circumstances.

Next Post: Advocate’s Guide to System Thinking, P. 2