Keeping up appearances

February 2, 2021

Nothing pleases people more than to go on thinking what they have always thought,  and at the same time imagine that they are thinking something new and daring: it combines the advantage of security and the delight of adventure.

T. S. Eliot

I’ve decided to create an occasional series of posts around some of my favorite quotations and these will be characterised by no opening picture and a suitably enigmatic banner picture. I intend them to be short posts and they will therefore act as markers between more substantial, but maybe less meaningful or useful, posts and allow me to keep up a near-daily blogging cycle.   I may from time to time explain why I chose the banner picture, but not this time.  Quotes also act as linguistic aporia so I am also storing them on the Cynefin wiki for the common good. To a degree, a good quote would speak for itself but I plan to offer some reflections on each one. Today’s quote I use a lot and for good reason.  I recently tweeted it as a possible reason “why people adopt SAFe, 6, etc.” and it was much retweeted.

There are many and various ways in which organisations, and leaders in particular can fall foul of this quotation despite the best of intentions. And one has to have sympathy, there is a dominant trope about innovation and risk-taking coupled with the need for scapegoating when things go wrong.  People used to excuse purchasing decisions on the grounds that no one gets fired for buying IBM.  They were the market leader, if it went wrong no one would assume it was you, while if you bought a better solution from a small company and anything went wrong for whatever reason you would be hauled over the coals.  The modern equivalent is that no one gets fired for implementing a McKinsey report.  Seeking the protection of the herd is a characteristics that all apex predators in the market depend on.

But there is an evil side to this, and one of the ways to succeed to promise the earth and then one before the promissory note is called in.  Some Executives play the card of major restructuring proposals, with new investments in software that will take at least a year or more to complement and longer still to realise the benefit.  A blaze of publicity, augmented by the vendor follows and then they move jobs before they can be held accountable for the delivery.  Often to executive positions in the vendor, they have chosen, and that approach seems to apply to Government as well.

Both those practices, venial and mortal sins respectively, carry over into small consultancies.  Wrapping up something new in old language is one way and to my mind slightly more legitimate than wrapping up old methods and tools in an attractive new language.  We get a lot of that in complexity, where the language of evolution and emergence gets purloined to old ways of working and thinking.  Meg Wheatley has done a lot of that with complexity languages, and the consequences are to be found her own disappointment.  There are lots and lots of other examples here.  Talk innovation, practice stagnation is all too common even in thinking folk.


The banner picture is cropped from The Triumph of Death by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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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.

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