A sense of direction

October 25, 2015

I left the question of direction open in yesterday’s post; if evidence is an emergent property of a complex system then we are left with the question about how do we decide if things are going in the right direction or not and critically how do we measure performance and/or allocate limited resources? Remember complexity work is deeply pragmatic in nature; if you can only change the present then you have to accept the reality of that time and that includes measurement. Trying to simply abandon them is not possible and a form of delusional idealism – rather like the self proclaimed enlightenment of the jade guys who don’t seem to realise that there so called self-managed ‘cases’ are, ironically, dependent on a dominant and in some cases tyrannical CEO. It’s very comfortable to idealise future states based on highly selective retrospective coherence, but in practice it is hypocritical as it absolves you from making change happen now, in the current reality.

(you can probably skip the next two paragraphs if you want to go straight to the meat and miss my context setting description of mountain walking)

So while I was thinking about it last night my mind was drawn to my walk earlier in the week which involved both objectives, direction and change. I was in North Wales for meetings with Bangor University on the Wednesday evening and Friday morning leaving Thursday free. I’d been up the week before to run a three day course and had managed to sneak a dawn ascent of Y Garn with three of the delegates. That had wetted my appetite for the Carneddau round ascending Pen yr Ole Wen and then on via the two main peaks to descend via the Ffynnon Llugwy Reservoir (with the final farm track having the best views), or if time permitted, by the grade one scramble up Pen y Helgi Du and the gentle exit via Y Braich. A 6+ hour walk and some tough sections so at this time of the year it needs an early start but it is one of the best circular walks in Snowdonia.

The day dawned with wind and cloud cover but no hint of rain, but my start was delayed from 0900 to 1100 given some domestic issues which might have sent me home early. I parked near Glan Dena which leads to one of the most enjoyable ascents in Snowdonia. Following the path of a stream to the lip of the cwm then a great scramble up the ridge to Pen yr Ole Wen. I did the direct ascent from Idwal Cottage back in the 1970s and I haven’t been back to it since; unremitting grind up a slippery scree slope with few redeeming features other than the view. It went well but as I neared the top I met a couple who were now existing having been almost blown off the ridge to Carnedd Dafydc and were now exiting. When I got to the top I realised why as I was flattened by the wind. With visibility down to 4/5 yards navigation was going to have to be by GPS as the top of the Carnddau is a bleak place with multiple opportunities to follow the wrong path – for example the climbers path that can take you over the edge of Ysgolion Duon if you don’t watch it. If it had been two hours earlier and if I had been with others then I think I would have gone on. But time was against me and it was unlikely anyone else would be on the path that day. I’ve learnt caution when walking alone so I did the steep descent back to Idwal Cottage which was unremitting hell other than the views which were wonderful. By the time I got to the bottom the conditions looked to have improved on the top and maybe I could have gone on or picked a route with easier navigation and more people on Snowdon for example. But discretion is the better part of valour in the mountains and I think I made the right decision. Loading the photographs yesterday I realised there were advantages as the descent gave me some of the best mountain photographs I have taken.

The point of this somewhat discursive story is that I had a sense of what I wanted to achieve, I always had a sense of possible directions of travel and the ability to adjust what I was doing in real time. Also I knew enough for each context. On the initial descent I checked the GPS constantly until Llyn Ogwen emerged in the near foreground and I could navigate by sight. If something didn’t work or proved dangerous or impossible then I could make changes in real time. So given that let’s look at some of the ways we can set direction in a complex system and their advantages and disadvantages. This list is in no particular order and is not complete by the way, initial pondering only and expect a lot more in the blog, on Cognitive Edge courses and the book.

  1. Setting an ambitious goal that will align effort can work, but it is a high risk strategy and it requires a context where people are perturbed by failure or need and prepared to think very differently.  This of this famous quote from May 1961:  “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.”  Nine years is a long time but not long enough to relax, the Russians had stolen the lead in the Space Race, money was freer etc. etc.  The context permitted it, we know it worked, we (well some of us anyway) celebrate it.  But what about all the similar efforts that failed?  Context as ever in Complexity is everything but given a proper alignment of the stars (sic) it is a leadership strategy.
  2. At the other end of the spectrum we have the more stories like this, fewer like that approach that I have been advocating in which the affected community also determine the next step (which is very different from a massive leap forward) on a journey they after all have to take.  In the development sector that is going to be a co-evolutionary and slightly messy process with the various funding and government agencies but that is no bad thing.  Small steps easily reversed is a good strategy.  Also here engagement is higher and therefore resilience is more likely in the end solutions.   Failures will be small and easily rectified, disappointment less.  The visualisation we can do with SenseMaker® landscapes here as they allow the various parties to negotiate a direction of travel; continuous real time feedback informs us on progress.   Critically as we move forward then previously unknown paths may open up, or dismissed paths (as in my case on the mountain) prove more attractive in a very different context.
  3. The third area where we are working is heuristics, parables and managed habitual behaviour can also provide a highly adaptive and resilient sense of direction.  The link is to a previous post on this and an important one.  There is a reason that all major world religions teach through the paradox and ambiguity of parables, they are allow about bounding but not over constraining pathways.  Heuristics also and once a habit of practice is established then it is a form of assemblage/strange attractor which makes it largely self-sustaining in nature.  So not only effective but also efficient in the long term.  The point is to know what to do in the present which is more likely to lead you in a direction which can be adjusted, rathe than to precisely measure a complete pathway to an ideal future state.

Now of course there are more, and also all three of these can and should work together. More to do you but I would argue that small changes in the present within the framework of an ambitious but still directed future is both resilient and (critically) ethical. Deciding how things should be is to privilege the elite and lead to camouflage behaviour, wasted resources and a general sense of perpetual disappointed cynicism.

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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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