20 years on, some memories

September 11, 2021

The love of wicked men converts to fear,
That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both
To worthy danger and deserved death.

Richard II Act V Scene i 59-68

I thought through this post, keeping notes on the iPhone as I walked from Salcombe to Torcross on the South West Coastal Path.  I was passing around Gara Point just after 9 am and starting to appreciate that I was probably on one of the most delightful sections of coastal walking I have come across.  Twenty years ago I was driving around the M25, just coming up to the M40 turn off on my way from Heathrow to Warwick University when news of Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower of the World Trade Centre came through on the radio.  Earlier there had been reports of a plane crash in New York but the second Tower being hit removed all ambiguity about this being a terrorist incident.  Half an hour later the Pentagon was hit and I pulled over to send out a stream of messages.  I had just flown in from Washington and my team, and many of my friends who I have been working with on a DARPA program were still there.  It was a week before I knew they were all OK.  I finally made it to Warwick University where the full horror was unfolding over CNN on screens in the Warwick Arts Centre.

I was there to give a lecture on knowledge management to a kick-off meeting of IBM salespeople.  One of those rah, rah events that are part and parcel of being in a large company.   I was just over halfway (although I didn’t know it at the time) into my seven years with IBM and I was in demand within sales and marketing teams. Knowledge management was a major strategic effort back then with Chief Knowledge Officers appointed to the board.  My Complex Acts of Knowing was still a year off, but I had by then produced two CBI handbooks on the subject and around two dozen articles on what became known as Organic Knowledge Management.  Larry Prusak and I between us held a very (and embarrassingly so) percentage of IBM’s measurable through leadership and either of us could help IBM close large sales by offering something that was very different from what people expected from Big Blue.  So this was a big event and I had returned overnight rather than staying on for an extra day to recover given the importance of the Warwick address.

I expected that the event would be canceled, but it wasn’t and I was told I had to go on stage regardless.  Remember I didn’t know if close colleagues were still alive or not and was close to telling them in no uncertain terms to f*** off (something I did do to a very senior IBM General Manager some years later in Sydney and made a good friend in consequence) but I eventually agreed and decided to focus on the criticality of knowledge and understanding to handle the consequences of what we were seeing on the screens around us. I started with the standard stories to weave the audience into the narrative and then progressively became more serious over the hour I had allocated.  Interesting Anthony’s I come to bury Caesar not to praise him speech which I had delivered in the school play several decades before was on my mind and I used a very similar rhetorical style, using repetition with changes in tone to shift the audience.  I didn’t know then that the events of 911 would trigger a series of events that would ultimately result in the creation of Cognitive Edge and SenseMaker® and the wider use of Cynefin.  I think, like any intelligent person, I realised that nothing could ever be the same again after that day.

The project we had been running was on how did you get people from radically different political backgrounds to have a rational discussion about a current policy initiative.   Yasmin, Sharon and Cynthia were all involved and the final critical workshop was the one that concluded successfully on the 10th of November 2001.  We had a team of historians from very different backgrounds and went through the whole of US history (which is episodic by the way, not a flow) and created situational archetypes from those actual events.   Archetypes are a key method in the Cynefin pantheon as they represent a filtering device that allows for different conversations to take place.   Out participants went from downright hostility to rational discussion and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.    As I left we agreed to set up a call in a couple of days to put in a bid to get to stage two.

After 911 that all changed and I was very shortly back in Washington as one of the leads (along with SRI from Merlo Park and Laz/Steve/Dennis all formerly Pacific Sierra Research) on the Genoa II project working for Tom Armour and under the overall direction of John Poindexter.  The focus moved to weak signal detection and human terrain mapping and that project continued after I left IBM.  Many a story there about the contractual morass that is IBM and how we overcame it not to mention a range of nightmares ager the contract was made a key person one – so it moved with me when I left.  That then all morphed into the Singapore IRAHSS project and the rest is history.  There were all sorts of side effects of that work – lecturing at West Point, arguments using Roman History in the Pentagon and more or less monthly trips to Washington DC with some memorable meals/arguments in Sweet Georgia Brown’s when Palentir was being founded – that partnership did not progress.  I ended up on a DoD think tank and a whole load of other contacts and conversations that much occupied my Mother’s (a good South Wales Socialist)concern for my soul whenever I was home.

I think the whole of that period and all the work which arose taught me to be far more cautious in judgment than I had been before and also the realise the seriousness and implications of what we and many others are doing with technology, for better and for worse.  I have not attempted the discuss the wider implications of all that has happened since, or to reflect on the multiple personal and collective tragedies of the day and the aftermath.  Many others have done that better than I could ever do.  I felt the need to acknowledge the event and to remember what happened to my own team around it.

The quote from Richard II I leave you to interpret.



The banner picture is cropped from an original taken six days after the tragic events of 911
and is used under the terms of a Creative Commons License.

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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