Change & the boxes we live in (part 1 of 2)

In the photo is a loom. It has thousands of threads in blocks of colour from yellow, aqua, pink, blue, orange, yellow, aqua, pink. The loom is wooden.
This framework is less about the loom, and more about the threads that create the fabric of what we do. Photo by Sergio Gonzalez on Unsplash

I’ve been working very slowly on my PhD thesis since 2017. I’ve not published anything from it yet, and yet I’ve been using my own model I developed from that work for a couple of years now. The model is for understanding the factors at play with regards to our ability to choose change. I’ve been applying it to my own work contexts, and it is starting to show me that it is standing the test of time, and that either means it is high level enough to be totally useless, or alternatively, I could be onto something. Obviously, I hope it is the latter…

This is a really long post, and so I have split it into two — what the threads of the fabric of our lives are (with regards to decision making), and then how to apply that knowledge. I will write a proper academic article on this, so if you love it, don’t worry, there’s a lot more to come. In the meantime, as a remote researcher, I consider this a test of my thinking. I’d love to know your thoughts :)

Why now? Five things are prompting this little blog about my model:

  1. My friend and fellow thinker on all things Pace Layers Matrix (PLM)(and more generally, ReOps), Benson and I are further developing the PLM for a workshop with the DesignOps Summit soon. We have been thinking about agency and we’re looking at Stephen Covey’s famous Circles of Influence, but noticing issues with it. Reminds me that ‘all models are wrong, and some are useful’.
  2. A friend working in digital transformation was reflecting on feeling excluded, which to me felt like organisational immune responses seeing him as an outside threat, and acting accordingly. Change is hard, and people showing that change is happening are often casualties of that discomfort.
  3. Another friend is going through having to advocate for himself in a very unequal setting — he is a person with a disability, and people with disabilities have to move through spaces just not made for them. If he wants the world around him to make space for how he experiences the world, he is expected to do all the work to make it so. Simply put, he doesn’t have the luxury of thinking about what he can change and only acting within that circle. He has to push on regardless. That we put the onus of that effort onto the very people who can least afford to put in that effort is, well, it’s a symptom of a lot that’s wrong in the world.
  4. Twitter mutual, John Cutler posted about having those same feelings of discomfort with the Circles of Influence, which prompted a reply about assumptions of agency, which, as a person looking at gender inequality and how people make decisions that move them towards a more egalitarian way of being, made me say YES.

The threads

The picture shows hand sewn basic stitch of a loose box — the four edges are ‘threads’ of ‘social’ (in pink thread), ‘environment’ (in green thread), ‘structure’ (in orange thread), and ‘personal’ (in blue thread). The ‘threads’ extend beyond the box to indicate they are to be considered a close up view of warp and weft of a piece of fabric. The background is white wool felt.
The warp and weft of the fabric — the factors that shape our lives are social, personal, environmental, and structural.

This model isn’t a framework — what I’m doing, is pulling out many of the threads I’ve found that make up the fabric of how we move through the world and giving those threads a name, showing you how I think they are woven into the warp and weft of life. This helps, because a common problem with strategic frameworks, or systemic frameworks, is that they are all set in a perfect world. I want to show you how I think we can tug on the threads and adjust them as we go, to make this change work easier.

The frameworks we’ve developed within the ResearchOps Community (What is ResearchOps, the 8 Pillars, Research Skills and Pace Layers Matrix) are great, but applying them is difficult, because you need to apply them to your own, messy reality. A framework cannot take into account your own personal agency, authority, and autonomy within the complex system you live and work in.

A framework cannot take into account other people’s agency, authority, and autonomy as they respond around you to change. Most change is difficult or uncomfortable, and people are people everywhere. We ultimately strive for comfort, even if it is holding us back. Change takes us out of our comfort zones. In my excluded friend above, I don’t think the people around him would even be aware they are excluding him, or that they are doing it as a response to change. It isn’t fair, or right, but part of the work of change agents is to expect this, and work to mitigate it where we can. Use that organisational immune response to our advantage if possible, by seeing it for what it is, respecting it, and working with it. I’d make a side note to leaders of change agents that this is the very stuff that produces a lot of burned out people. Don’t sit idly by and let this happen.

The concept of change indicates choice. Another important aspect of things like the Circles of Influence, is that it sees people as individual agents with the ability to make choices equally. This fails to take into account the very real power imbalances at play in the environment, structures, and norms of the society we live in. It is a framework of it’s time — written from a very neoliberal frame. Reading back on Covey, I think he’d have changed or updated his circles of influence today, when we are noticing more and more how much our actions are connected. In his preamble, he writes explicitly about how it was his connection within community that lead him to the book, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (in which the circles of influence is set). He wanted a deeper understanding of our places within the fabric of our lives. I just don’t know if he considered enough how his personal privilege shaped how he was able to move within his community — to shift from reactive to proactive. I’m prepared to be wrong :)

When it comes to my friend trying to create a work environment that actually helps him thrive, we talked through the terrible injustice of hegemony (i.e. the people who decide how the world is made tend not to be people with disability), and the loops and hoops those with hegemony put others through. We discussed Human Capital Theory, (which always frustrates me, again with the privilege!). We covered structural inequity, and the fact that private industry has the luxury of designing for the middle and working their way out, whereas government has to design for the edges. We talked about the potential in designing for edges — because surely all the really good tech advancements of the era have come from designing for accessibility (see Kat Holmes, Mismatch, and this taster on the 5 ways inclusion fuels innovation).* My friend pushed way beyond what Covey would consider his normal circles of influence, and made change happen, because he had no other choice. There is a wonderful twitter thread linked at the bottom of this post that highlights all the ways in which people like him make life easier for everyone when they do this. Doesn’t make it right to build this effort into how change happens. It isn’t ok that we put the onus of making change happen to the very people with (generally) the least amount of energy to do it.

So, onto naming and knowing the threads:

Boundary objects and the boxes we live in.

The picture shows hand sewn basic stitch of a loose box — the four edges are ‘threads’ of ‘social’ (in pink thread), ‘environment’ (in green thread), ‘structure’ (in orange thread), and ‘personal’ (in blue thread). The ‘threads’ extend beyond the box to indicate they are to be considered a close up view of warp and weft of a piece of fabric. The background is white wool felt. Inside each of those lines is a lighter coloured/similar coloured line. These indicate the ‘boundary objects’.
The warp and weft of the fabric are still shown, but inside them are another line — these are the ‘flags’ we use to find the edges of the box — for example, legislation is a boundary object that is a flag for us to know what we can and can’t do, what the structure looks like.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but we each live in little boxes (as the song goes). These can be too tight, or too big, and in each moment, the boxes change as we move through the world. Who you are, and how you move in the world is different if you’re a woman walking home on a dark street alone than it is when you are in your home tucking children into bed for example. You’re the same person, just the world around you and your context within it is different. That makes these changeable boxes hard to spot, and hard to work with. These boxes create change inertia, and also act to constrain us. Sometimes, it is worth pointing out, we quite like the constraints (like the ones that make sure we all drive on the same side of the road for example). The box isn’t bad per se, it just is. Sometimes, we struggle within the confines of them — you could have the potential to be the most brilliant scientist ever for example, but if you are born into a society that doesn’t support your schooling, or let you even have a bank account, then you are going to struggle in that box.

I remember several years ago, mentoring a now dear friend. He was struggling at work because he could see the change that needed to happen, and had the will and the skills to do it. He pushed and pushed until he couldn’t move anymore. I said to him, ‘you know, I think you’ve exhausted all angles, and I think it might be time to acknowledge that the box you’re in here, is too small for you now. You can acknowledge that and try to make yourself smaller, you could just sit in a tiny box being in pain, or you can take a leap and go find a bigger box, one that lets you stretch and grow’. He took the leap, and has grown and grown and nowadays, I can step back and see he knows exactly how much space he needs, and he makes choices that reflect that. Stephen Covey’s Circles of Influence work pretty well for him — as a single, well educated, middle class male, he has plenty of agency, authority, and autonomy, just by being who he is. That’s not to say he has unlimited choice, and he has barriers too — we all do. And I guess that’s the point.

But first, the box. What constitutes the edges?

The boxes we live in are defined by our environment (do we live in a city? On a remote island? Do we have secure housing? Are we largely safe?), the structures of our societies (is my society made for me, or someone else? Am I constantly met with barriers put in place by government just for being me?), by social norms (does my society ostracize me if I don’t present according to what they think of as normal? What is expected of me to be a good person? A good parent? A good worker), and finally, by my personal attributes (what skills and capabilities am I bringing to this? Do I have a disability? What power cards do I hold?).

Finding the edges of the box — boundary objects

There’s this marvellous thing called a boundary object — originally conceived of by Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer in their 1993 paper “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907–39”. They state: “boundary objects act as anchors or bridges, however temporary.” Further,

“Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual site use. These objects may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is a key process in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social worlds.”

Boundaries are how we see and understand (communally) the edges of the stuff I mentioned above, the environment, structure, norms, and personal attributes we live and work with. My thesis contends that once you can see the box and the boundaries, you can use them to elicit change (a.k.a.: ‘critical consciousness’)***.

In design, you can see this in the way we institute standards for accessibility for example. We say, ‘these are our expectations’ — this enlarges the size of the box — if everyone needs to meet that standard, then designers wanting to do better design also have a boundary to point to to help them influence the people around them that good design is always accessible, and that this is the expectation now.

In research operations, I’m using boundary objects on purpose, to show that the size of the box user researchers work in has changed. If we state that we want to scale the impact of the craft, then we are signing up for saying that the human centred research we are doing has value beyond being used just this one time. We’re indicating that we have expectations that we will find ethical ways to re-use research data. We are saying we will produce research artefacts that we expect to store and make available to others. That we expect to cite the research. That researchers will be given enough time and space to do good research. That’s a lot just by taking this small step.

The environment is still there, the structures, the social expectations, our personal attributes. The edges have just moved, that’s all.**

Movement and the discomfort

So what happens when you move the boundaries? We all know what happens in society when big boundaries change — de-segregation for example, de-colonisation, women’s equality, climate change. These are seismic, they are disruptive, yet the change we want to see is in a constant state of evolution. The reason for this is twofold (well, broadly speaking). Firstly, when you change one side of the box and not the others, there’s an imbalance — instituting a gender equality policy does not make society equal for example. Everything else has to re-adjust as well. If you change all sides, then we little people inside our suddenly bigger or smaller boxes will be as people often are when confronted with change. We move to fight, or flight, or tend and befriend.

What does that look like, and what are we working with?

There are two forces that push against us generated by the box itself — these are power and discourse — the hegemony that maintains the size of the box does so through exertion of their power, and by maintaining the dominant discourse that ‘this is the box, and this is how you must act within it’. You can see these as the inertia acting on the threads below.

Hand sewn basic stitch of a loose box — the four edges are ‘threads’ of ‘social’ (in pink), ‘environment’ (in green), ‘structure’ (in orange), &‘personal’ (in blue). The ‘threads’ are to be considered a close up view of warp & weft of a piece of fabric. The background is white wool felt. Inside each of those lines is a lighter coloured/similar coloured line. These indicate the ‘boundary objects’. There is a double-sided arrow going through the edges of the box side. This is inertia & momentum.
The warp and weft of the fabric are still shown, as well as the boundary object lines. Now we see a double arrow going in and out of the box. The arrow pressing in is inertia, the one pushing out is momentum. Both inertia and momentum can be caused by discourse and power. Boundary objects can also cause the same.

When that discourse changes, or when power is exerted through changing of the structure — via legislation for example, adjustments need to be made. These adjustments at a societal level are often incredibly painful. People with their own sense of how big the box is will be very loud about ‘the way things are’ (a.k.a.: epistemic vices***). They are sensing a change in the space within the box they are in, and trying to influence where it settles. In many ways, then, we all understand somehow that we ought to have some agency, authority, and autonomy when it comes to the boxes we inhabit. In many ways, this sense of self within the thing is how we make change happen. For the better, and for the worse.

The 3As

Now we see a close up of the inside of the box. Within is a person hand sewn with yellow thread. Around the person sewn in red thread, are arrows moving around the person. These are labelled ‘agency’, ‘authority’, and ‘autonomy’.
Inside the box is the person. Circling around them is their perceived sense of their agency, authority, and autonomy. It is worth noting that this can be viewed from outside the box as well, as people’s perceptions of a person’s 3As can be very powerful.

This sense of ourselves and others, I call the 3As — agency, authority, autonomy. To some extent, our actual agency, authority, and autonomy doesn’t matter — not as much as our perception and others’ perception of it. What these 3As do, is help us feel our ability to move within the box we feel we are in, and can also act as momentum for us to change the boxes we live in by pushing them outwards. Those of us with more room to move, because we perceive we have more of the 3As, are to a large extent, able to exert control over the size of the box. Hence change often requires people in power (those with hegemony) to make the change we seek. Or, it requires a lot of people with less of the 3As to do the same.

Why agency, authority, autonomy?

In my work on parenting and motherhood (note: I am specifically studying cishet parents), I refer to Amy Middleton’s paper on ‘Mothering under duress: examining the inclusiveness of feminist mothering theory’. Middleton contends that dominant ideologies of mothering are unobtainable and unrealistic. She asserts that ‘good mothers’ are socially constructed as “white, heterosexual, able-bodied, married and in a nuclear family…good mothers put the needs of their children before their own”. In essence, she argues that mothers are silenced by these expectations, and have their agency, authority, and autonomy taken away when we construct our notions of what good looks like. She argues for an empowered mothering that takes into account our differences in how we experience the world, and suggests that if we consider individual agency, authority, and autonomy with respect to the systems, structures and environments mothers find themselves in, we may arrive at a more inclusive analysis of feminist mothering.

Outside my field of study, we find similar approaches. Tagg also brings these concepts together in the paper Agency, Autonomy and Authority: The Ethos and Modernization

Human agency implies that the intent and design of individuals has some relationship to cause and effect in a larger social context. Agency is rationality leading to purposeful action, although it need not imply absolute dominance of the mind over will. Moral autonomy and authority flow, at least in part, from the exercise of agency. Only through the identification of will with action can the individual claim responsibility and autonomy. Again, autonomy does not mean separation from society at large, but a relationship with that society in which the autonomous, not alienated, individual influences that society and must answer to it. Herein lies the issue of authority as well. True authority, not authoritarianism, is the legitimate possession of influence and power; it is will and action directed toward morally proper ends. Yet, authority accrues only partly from within and is conditional and further made legitimate by nature and society.

So, agency, authority, and autonomy are a Venn diagram of our ability to move within the box we find ourselves in at any given moment. We almost always have some sense of all three, but each are highly variable and influence each other. My level of agency (ability to move within the box) is often influenced by the authority granted me, or by my personal skills and attributes, which in turn influences my perception of my autonomy. Likewise each influence the other. For example, as a white, middle class cishet woman living in Australia, I’m told I can do anything. I have limitless agency. This completely disregards that I don’t feel very autonomous when making decisions about my work, because those decisions impact my family. I might have the authority to make those decisions (depending on my relationship to ‘doing gender’), but the boundary objects of what I’ve come to construct socially as being a ‘good mother’ tells me I cannot use that authority to act autonomously.

The Venn diagram of the 3As is shown. The title of the image is: ‘What if you only had 2 of the 3As?’ Authority and Agency without Autonomy looks like ‘running in mud’. Authority and Autonomy with no agency is noted as ‘what’s the point? Lack of intention, lack of (positive) impact’. Agency and autonomy with no authority looks like an ‘uphill climb’ — but authority would be granted socially as reputation builds’.
My friend Tomomi Sasaki thinking through what the 3As might look like at each of the intersections following a discussion about the 3As back in 2019. Insightful as always, she notes what each might feel like.

Let’s have a closer look at the 3As

What is agency?

The Cambridge dictionary states that agency is “the ability to take action or to choose what action to take”. There’s a lot to unpack in that definition!

Emirbayer and Mische help us unpack it more in their 1998 article, What is Agency? The make clear that agency is temporally located, reflexive, intrinsically social and relational. It is reproductive and transformative social action. They state, “viewed internally, agency entails different ways of experiencing the world’ and that “agency is always agency toward something…viewed externally, agency entails actual interactions with its contexts, in something like an ongoing conversation.” (pg 973)

What is autonomy?

Again, the Cambridge dictionary states that autonomy is “the ability to make your own decisions without being controlled by anyone else

I would argue for a relational autonomy — the notion of autonomy resides largely within a liberal (individualistic) view of the world, and fails to takes into account that to be free means to be free in relation to something else. Our ability to be autonomous is constructed in each moment, by that box we happen to be in. At work, my autonomy is granted to me by my senior leaders, but I can never be completely autonomous (not even if I run the company! There’s always someone to answer to). If I am given a mandate by my position to, for example, implement research operations, then I have autonomy within the scope of that position. If I am doing research operations without this kind of acknowledgement, then my ability to make decisions about research operations is constrained. Possible, but heavily constrained.

What is authority?

Authority is the “moral or legal right or ability to control”.

Authority is usually conferred on us from above — by the law, by society, and at work, by our senior leaders. As a public servant for example, simply by having a certain rank, I am granted administrative decision making powers under the law. Generally, our authority exists in a hierarchy. Interestingly, however, authority can also be granted by peers. If my peers conceive of me as an authority on research operations for example, then that brings with it an expectation that I can use that authority if given the agency and autonomy to do so. Likewise, even if I have all the mandate in the world (see autonomy above), if my peers, the researchers, don’t accept my authority, then my agency will be low, regardless of the autonomy granted me.

Coming up:

In my next post, I will be writing about how change happens, and how the knowledge of these threads, and the forces that act on them can be applied in Research Operations. I’ll add the link here, once it is published. Otherwise, you can also subscribe to receive an email once it is published.

Here’s the link to Part 2

*Oh my gosh, I asked Design Twitter about the way accessibility and disability has influenced design for everyone’s benefit, and received so many wonderful resources so many, I may have to make another of my lists of resources types of blogs! Meantime, please check out the thread here. Many thanks to the loads and loads of people who responded.

**hint, if I ever tell you ‘that’s all’, it is my tell that I think that’s a pretty big deal, change is coming, and I’m hoping you won’t notice until it has already happened :) My personal M.O is that ‘from little things, big things grow’. Seems to work for me.

***many thanks to Raghav Agrawal for this one.

Many, many thanks to the following friends who read this and provided me with feedback, more rabbit holes, and generous insight: Thea Snow, Sam Rye, Raghav Agrawal, Benson Low, Aidan Budd, Mark McElhaw, Tomomi Sasaki. Your kindness and generosity in walking through these mental adventures is something I greatly cherish.

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researcher, counter of things, PhD student, public servant…into user research, information architecture, ontology, data. Intensely optimistic.

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Brigette Metzler

Brigette Metzler

researcher, counter of things, PhD student, public servant…into user research, information architecture, ontology, data. Intensely optimistic.

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