agreeth not …

February 3, 2012

No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old; if otherwise, then both the new maketh a rent, and the piece that was taken out of the new agreeth not with the old. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved. No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better.
Luke 5:36-39

Its been a busy week in Washington with a packed agenda and an overdue article occupying any free time so posting here has taken second place. However today saw a lunch with old friends Alicia Juarrero and Mike Lissack along with a new friend Stuart Umpleby of GWU. Mike, at a meeting in Bedfont Lakes many years ago told me I had to read Alicia's Dynamics in Action, and that book along with conversations and work with Alicia (one memorable project in Singapore) have contributed a lot to Cognitive Edge. The constraint based definition of complexity and safe-fail to give just two examples. Conversation ranged from plagiarism to politics but we also focused on a common concern: the growth of acceptance of complexity thinking is to be welcomed but far too many people are now leaping to use the language without really thinking through or understanding the implications.

At some stage in the conversation I suggested that too many people were putting new wine in old wineskins, but thinking about it I realised that while that is true, we also have people putting old wine into new wineskins something I will expand on in a minute. Now that passage from the bible is one of my favourites, and one I quote a lot.   Way back in the 70s when I worked for SCM I devoted two years of my life to organising a whole conference around it in Manchester at new year. We had the then General Secretary of the WCC, Herbert McCabe OP of fond memory and many others in Manchester. Caroline, now married to Barry Garner MP (back in those days he was Scottish Secretary of the SCM) designed a rather neat logo of two intertwined cupped hands holding wine which was both contained and spilled. It was a great event, culmination of two years work and I got over emotional at times. It also saw my first introduction to Nurofen as well, donated by a Franciscan; its funny what you remember.

Either way to return to the subject. I think we have several different problems, or types of behaviour:

Putting old wine into new wineskins
There are a whole group of people who find the language of complexity attractive, given their prior ideological position. Self-organisation, emergence, natural systems and so on, coupled with some wonderful images and the raw science all make this a form of validation of past practice. For this group natural systems are often held to be of high ethical worth, although they tend to talk of deer in sylvan glades while forgetting the cockroaches.. Self-organisation is seen as an alternative to control, rather than as a compliment and there is general lack of appreciation of constraints and their role in enabling evolution. Nothing changes in terms of what this group do, its just the language around the practice that changes.

Putting new wine into old wineskins
This is a more subtle problem, where people understand that complexity is different, but wrap it up in conventional language to make organisations more comfortable. They fail to realise that new language leads to new thinking and that using old language will simply allow novelty to dissipate. I think the motivation here is often a lack of courage, or an unwillingness to commit. That is OK with some changes in theory, but not in phase shifts, or paradigm changes. A major problem here is that it ends up in the same place as the earlier sin, with no real change no learning.

Now I am not criticising people in either category per se, I think we are dealing with missed opportunities more than maliciousness. I do however criticise those who just sweep up complexity theory along with any other bright things they find attractive and put them together in a sort of potpourri of interesting things, generally thrown together in a powerpoint slide set with lots of quotations and pictures but little thinking through of the implications.

Its also important to remember that old wine has value and new wine needs to mature. If you want to take radical new ideas and thinking you have to allow them to mature and develop, the interaction of theory with practice to develop something with taste (and I use that word deliberately with multiple meanings). The old wine still has value, but the new wine is maturing. What we need is people who know how to store it, decant it and guide people into different pathways.

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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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