Absorbing uncertainty

April 2, 2010

Aye on the shores of darkness there is light,

And precipices show untrodden green,

There is a budding morrow in midnight,

There is a triple sight in blindness keen. . . .

Keats 1818 sonnet To Homer

Three things, two good and one bad came together over the last few days:

  • Firstly Max Boisot and I were both speaking at a series of events in Hong Kong and that gave us a chance to talk about a wide range of subjects. In particular issues surrounding uncertainty. In general management science has sought to reduce uncertainty through a range of techniques: strategic planning, scenario planning, risk assessment etc. This is a problem with complex environments as it carries with it the risk of eliminating outlier events, ignoring mavericks and generally finding it difficult to pay attention to data that challenges received wisdom. Two key things came out of that conversation: (i) the need to absorb rather than reduce uncertainty, avoiding premature convergence; and (ii) To increase the interaction of decision makers with data rather than information; avoiding aggregation and summarisation to increase strategic capability.
  • Secondly I had a phone call with Dylan Evans of Projection Point. We’d had one of those interesting discussions in which a disagreement leads to a more interesting conversation. You can do this with mature individuals, the immature respond to disagreement badly. In the course of the discussion he reminded me of Keats’ idea of Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. It originates from a letter to his borther in 1817 and is picked up in several of his poems, most notably The fall of Hyperion. Now this isn’t a statement against fact and reason, its a recognition of its limits. Neither is an excuse to fall back to concepts of magic or mysticism; embracing uncertainty requires discipline.
  • Thirdly and depressingly I got an email offering to help me understand my team. It assumed that I was frustrated with employees who are not aligned with the teams direction, not to mention baffled by employees who simply can’t perform and finally impatient with my employees performance. The solution to all of this was to purchased the Extended DISC Team Report that would allow me to avoid reviewing 100s of individual assessments. I’ve reproduced the output of the report below. Now this is the very opposite of embracing uncertainty, its attempt to place all of your employees into little boxes, it ignores context and contextual performance and allows managers to abrogate the need for management. Mind you much HR practice seems focused on abrogation rather than assumption of responsibility.

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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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Abrogation not assumption

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