Change & the boxes we live in (Part 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

This is part 2 of a post about the threads I’ve found as I’ve been working slowly on my PhD. Those threads are the ones that make up the fabric of how we move through the world. I’m giving those threads a name, showing you how I think they are woven into the warp and weft of life as I suspect it will help when trying to use frameworks such as the 8 Pillars of User Research, or the Pace Layers Matrix. 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. If you want to catch up on what those threads are, please view Part 1.

Just a reminder: the boxes we move about in have edges that look like:

  • 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?
  • by my personal attributes — what skills and capabilities am I bringing to this? Do I have a disability? What power cards do I hold?

Inside the box, we have ourselves — the way we navigate the space we move in is heavily influenced by the 3As — agency, authority, and autonomy.

Remember, you can read more in Part 1. On to using our knowledge of these threads!

Making change happen

The 3As (agency, authority, and autonomy) are relational concepts — that’s why perception matters. If we take things back to my original reason for writing this up, when you come to use any framework such as the 8 Pillars or even the Pace Layers Matrix, the things they describe don’t reflect your sense of agency, authority and autonomy to influence change with respect to them. If we think about the 8 pillars, for example, what about your environment can you change? Digging deeper, if you want to influence the push back on the time taken to do good research, what level of agency, authority and autonomy do you have? If you work within a large organisation, and research operations is not in your job title, you might find your authority to talk to senior executives about changing their expectations is low. You may not even be able to entertain the idea of having the conversation unless someone grants you the autonomy to do so. Your agency here may stop you.

Or will it?

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’.
Referring back to my friend Tomomi Sasaki’s diagram she drew as she thought through my idea of the 3As. Note in the ‘agency and autonomy but no authority Venn, she notes that authority can be granted socially as your reputation builds.

Changing the box from the outside, from the inside

Something I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older, is that knowing the box, and the levers working around you can help you to gain what you need, even working within those constraints. Half the battle is being able to see the box as it moves, ghost like, around you. Who does have the agency? Can you influence them? Who has the power to grant you the authority? What are the consequences for acting as though you have all 3As? How many small moves are you willing to make, to influence enough people inside their boxes such that collectively, you exert your own power and develop your own dominant discourse? Stephen Covey’s Circles of influence also address the same thing. Communities like the ResearchOps Community are very much creating this kind of change — when we all state that ‘these are the boundaries now, these are the expectations’ (there’s those boundary objects creating momentum for change), we get to create an extrinsic force on the outside of the box.

Rebecca Solnit, in her essay on How Change Happens, states:

“We are building something immense together that, though invisible and immaterial, is a structure, one we reside within — or, rather, many overlapping structures…Though there are individual voices and people who got there first, these are collective projects that matter not when one person says something but when a million integrate it into how they see and act in the world. The we who inhabits those structures grows as what was once subversive or transgressive settles in as normal, as people outside the walls wake up one day inside them and forget they were ever anywhere else.

The consequences of these transformations are perhaps most important where they are most subtle. They remake the world, and they do so mostly by the accretion of small gestures and statements and the embracing of new visions of what can be and should be. The unknown becomes known, the outcasts come inside, the strange becomes ordinary.”

Now, she is talking about that seismic change that I was talking about at the very beginning of this post, but you can, and must apply it to your everyday. If we accept that we are remaking the world every day through ‘small gestures and statements’, then in any of our professions, we have at once all the agency, authority and autonomy we ever needed to make change happen. The variable may only be measured perhaps in time and effort. In research operations, we are making the entire user research/design research discipline re-think the value of that research, and of its capacity to be impactful — over time, and in the moment. We are doing that through our collective projects, the work we do together.

When I apply my 3As at work, as an individual, I’m applying them inside a complex system, where others also have their own perceptions of my 3As, and have their own too. It is possible, by influencing others to use their agency, authority, and autonomy, to make change happen, even when yours is low. It is harder, takes longer, but not impossible.

It all sounds so complex, how do I apply this? (argh, is this another framework I can’t easily apply?)

Choice, the elephant in the room

Before we apply these threads to any framework, I need to take a step back and point out that what we are talking about here, is choice. I very much take the position that there is no such thing as rational choice, and that any time we are talking about the choices people make, we must notice that their choices are constrained. Yep, you can see it, I hope. They are constrained by the box they’re in, and also by their relationship to it (via theirs’ and others’ perception of their 3As). It was necessary to point this out, because fundamentally, the problem I have with Stephen Covey’s Circles of Influence, is that he assumes an individual can simply make a choice. He ignores that many of us are working with constrained levels of the 3As, due to intersectional disadvantage, due to the environments we inhabit, the structures that bind us. Yes, he points to working with others whose circle of influence allows them to take action, but he largely ignores that he is effectively telling us that it is a folly to try to change the size of the box we are in. I think if we all took that to heart, then all the amazing things we’ve done throughout history that were the “accretion of small gestures and statements and the embracing of new visions of what can be and should be” would never have happened. We’d never have made it to the moon, most of society would not even be considered human for goodness sake. I’ll take Solnit’s path, and never give up hope. That’s not the same as being an optimist, it just acknowledges that our path is not yet written, and anything is possible.

So, if my choices are constrained, how can I use the 3As to influence change?

I can’t change your constraints, but I can point to what might be weak points in the box, and the ways we could use our 3As to make change happen.

Applying this in research operations:

  1. First, let’s look at the box. If we take the framework of the 8 Pillars and research operations as the box we want to consider, we already cover considering the environment as one of the pillars of things that need to be right to make scaling the impact of research possible. The structure can be things such as the type of organisation you work in (government, a bank, a start up for example), the size of the organisation, the way it is put together (hierarchically or flat) (the ‘organisational context part of the 8 Pillars), and the social influences can be things such as the way human centred design and user research is viewed, what’s expected of you as an employee (the ‘people’ part of the 8 Pillars).

2. The 3 As: Your agency is influenced by the size of the box described above, and can be moved with boundary objects — such as implementing a research operations function. As I noted above, this tells everyone that the box has changed, and also grants you the authority to make decisions about what and how you implement it. You may lack agency simply by having no budget for example, or lacking the right skills for the many, varied tasks undertaken within the ReOps function. Your autonomy is often going to be influenced by how big the organisation is and by the structure. Each of the 8 pillars will have different results if you were to put your 3As on a sliding scale across the pillars — you might have budget (agency) to buy tools for example, but you might have no authority to work on the environment pillar — to do that evangelism work that’s required to help researchers manage push back on the time taken to do research.

3. Applying the 3As across the 8 pillars: If you are reading this and working on implementing a research operations function, it is worthwhile working through the 8 pillars (use the Pace Layers Matrix to help you work out which parts of the pillars need implementing first), and assessing your 3As against each pillar. Once you’ve done this, you can see where you can effect change easily, and where it might be difficult. Importantly, you will know if it is an authority problem, an autonomy problem, or an agency problem.

4. Consider the people around you and their 3As: If you’re working in a space where you have no research operations function at all, you’re just doing it because you know it needs doing, then the next step is even more important. List out others who might exercise their 3As to help you. Where might they exert it? In changing the environment? The structure? The social factors that are constraining you?

5. A little help from friends: You already have the research operations community exerting influence on the outside, acting as a boundary object to indicate that change has happened already, time to catch up. Who within your organisation might help you use that Trojan horse?

Wrapping up

I hope this laying out of the threads of the fabric that you are adjusting as you work your way through other frameworks is a helpful adjunct to analysing how you might respond, and why, or why not an approach may be working. Notice the boxes you live in as you move through your day. Seeing these threads for the changeable things they are can help you to make change happen where you lack your 3As. It can help you notice the nuance in the 3As when you do have them to some extent, and how they influence your success or otherwise.

The moral of the tale is, although you make choices in a constrained world, we live in hopeful times. Rebecca Solnit again:

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.”

I hope that this framework might be used to understand that spaciousness, and in it, we can find the power to use that knowledge to make change happen. Whether in small ways in giving researchers what they need to do their jobs, or in larger ways, in moving the boxes we live in, to give us all what we need to thrive.

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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