A practitioner’s viewpoint

February 1, 2010

It’s a little daunting to step up to take the microphone following on from Russell. I am, of necessity, going to focus more on the practitioner/commercial side of things. Having spent much of the past 15 months on narrative capture projects from around the world, I’m planning to share some of the thinking and some of the lessons from those in the next couple of weeks.

As a starting point – and in light of the fact that I’ve spent a day with Michael and Steve doing more in-depth and intense SenseMaker training – I offer this – some thoughts (not “lessons learned”!) from recent experiences.

My experience of SenseMaker has been around cultural understanding although we’ve chiefly focussed thus far on the research/pilot phases of the work, rather than the operational recommendations that stem from it. (That said, from the initial work we’ve done, recommendations ranged across a number of departments/disciplines/interventions – the methodology allowed us insight that wasn’t restricted to what we’d anticipated.)

Prior to projects in the past 18 months, while we’d used Cognitive Edge techniques, we hadn’t used SenseMaker. Facilitation had been the basis of much of the work, but the difficulty of “analysing” or finding patterns in mass narrative material had been an issue since Narrate started in 2000.

I’ve now worked running variations on the basic cultural/anthropological SenseMaker approach in seven countries with very different cultures and infrastructures – in Europe, Middle East, Asia and North America thus far.

Some examples of material that’s gone down well with clients:

  • Differences between countries – in the UK, respondents saw “justice” as being about deterrence or revenge (this in its own right surprised some, particularly that knife crime is more about deterrence than revenge) while in another surveyed country, the strongest perception of justice is around reconciliation (even among “internally displaced people”), and then on revenge when stressed.
  • Clear indications from data from school children that mono-cultural schools are more extreme/polarised in their thinking – potentially making them more susceptible to more brutal messaging such as racist/far-right/Islamist groups.
  • An absence of any perceptions that “Diversity is a good thing” – that groups forced to be multicultural appear to increase their resistance to that multi-cultural element. Recommendations (but not yet implemented) have revolved around letting groups have a stronger sense of identity, but increasing their interactions with other groups “not like me”
  • In terms of decision-making, we’ve been able to show an absence (in most regions) of analysis/argument as a preferred tool – we’ve seen instead reaction or reflection – from those we’ve been talking about introducing basic philosophy or similar into schools.

I’d emphasise, however, that while these are elements that our direct clients have picked up on, they’re still having a lot of resistance from other parties to their conclusions – in large part because the shift to a new approach will threaten someone else’s budget/status/job. The battles (of which I’ve only seen a few) are not inconsiderable.

To date, I’ve seen a variety of responses.

  • Senior people who “get it” and get excited, but then struggle to build it into their ongoing work and systems.
  • Social scientists who want everything pinned and nailed down (including regular or fixed conditions in which the narrative capture happens) and are determined to pick holes in the whole process. (A healthy challenge, but often a frustrating one.)
  • And bright researchers who are inspired by the approach and the software and are then too busy investigating patterns to take part in the rest of the meeting…

Government has been, without a doubt, the toughest – their approach can be that they are “outsourcing” the research and analysis, so they are less bought-in as a result of not having played with the software and data themselves. That has been my biggest learning – having data-users doing the analysis themselves.

I’ve got some current projects with the researchers actually doing much of the analysis themselves – and that feeding directly into recommendations. One country, for instance, has surprised the experts by being very strongly in favour of change, but without much sense of taking control of that change – the preferred strategy seems to be wait it out. Within that, there also seems to be little aspiration – most focus is on survival. And they seem least inclined to revenge where justice is concerned – it’s challenging some of their assumptions that young people’s motivations are about either status or money and that certain group cultures are about revenge.

For some current researchers, they’re (still working through the data) shifting from communications-led campaigns to looking more at reinforcing associations and relationships. It’s also, they believe, showing them what themes will prove most successful in generating attention.

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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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