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Ah-ha moments

February 4, 2010

The past week has been a major mix of approaches, headsets and sectors. I’ve run a masterclass on Internal Communications, been part of a two-day conference for the Medinge branding thinktank and done a day’s intensive training on SenseMaker with Steve and Michael. One of the things that always feels like a challenge is the difference between the Cognitive Edge world and the others. It’s easy to forget how different much of the world sees things.

In particular, twice this week I’ve presented the five domain Cynefin framework – only ever as a stepping stone to talk about bigger things. But each time, it’s been seen as a radical breakthrough. It happens all the time – unless it’s part of the conversations within Cognitive Edge, when it can feel so basic that it’s not even worth mentioning.

It’s always the moment when you explain the Complex domain that gets them. Finally, they can relax – there are things that are not predictable, that can’t be got at by more or deeper thought. So much of what passes for management thinking in organisations (and, historically, on MBAs) has sat firmly on the Ordered side of the framework that it’s easy to think that that is all there is.

My own experience at IBM and PA Consulting in the 1990s was of frustration that I couldn’t “deliver against the plans” in the world of public relations. There was always some factor that I hadn’t predicted or one that increased in influence to disrupt things. Believing that everything is, at most, Complicated meant that I was either a) too stupid or b) too lazy to think it all through properly. And that seems to be the honest experience of many people in communications and, to a lesser degree, marketing.

The revelation that there is a legitimate world called Complex, where causality and predictability are not pre-plannable or repeatable, comes as a profound relief.

Of course, they then start to try and deal with it using the same old Complicated tools – what’s the answer? what should we do? who’s done it before? – but it opens the door, it’s then a matter of reminding them of small differences producing large changes, of non-predictability that leads them inexorably to Probe-Sense-Respond.

As these things go, it’s often the most powerful element of any conversation with potential clients – the piece that opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

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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.
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