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Always do the scary thing.

May 28, 2009

You know how it is with advice – you love to give it and avoid taking it. However, on a CE course I was given some advice which has proved invaluable to me time and again.

Dave had just done his compelling spiel about complexity and all the CE tools to deal with it. I was contemplating a gig I had scheduled for later that week, with a client group who were undergoing a merger within a university context. An introverted research unit was being merged with a sales-oriented unit which taught advanced medical skills. I had a nice, safe plan worked out for the day. With my newly opened eyes, I could see all my planned approaches would have them operating on the ‘ordered’ side of the Cynefin Framework, whereas the reality of their current situation was that everything they understood about their working lives had just been blown apart with this merger. They were living in the complex and chaotic domains.

Dave breezed by and threw out one of his one-liners. ‘Why give them the Cynefin Framework, get them to address one problem in each of the 4 domains, then do social Network Stimulation with them?’ Why not indeed – apart from the fact that I only just found out what Cynefin and SNS were five minutes ago, and didn’t feel like committing professional suicide just now.

A gentle, bearded giant who was one of the course participants, and clearly had an IQ the size of a couple of football fields, leaned over to me and said five words ‘Always do the scary thing.’ I hardly heard another word from him for the rest of the course. However, the seed had been planted.

With an uncharacteristic rush of blood to the head, I decided to give it a try. Later that week, my client group enthusiastically populated the Cynefin Framework with post-its containing all their current issues and challenges. They used domain-appropriate strategies to figure out how to deal with them. Very liberating stuff for them, suddenly it all looked manageable.

In the afternoon I set up the SNS. Given that they had spent time in the morning looking at issues, they were very tuned in to a) self-organise into small mixed teams of people they wanted to work with and b) select an issue that they wanted to sort out. They quickly identified KPI and rewards, the boss was on hand to agree to the rewards asked, and the whole thing was resolved in a remarkably short period of time. One tip Dave gave me that was very useful is this. If you are working with merging groups, make it one of the guidelines for SNS group formation that each team should have two thirds membership from one merging entity and one third membership from the other entity. This saves deadlocks – it worked a treat.

So my advice to you is ‘Always do what a gentle giant tells you’.

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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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