And on a day we meet to walk the line

March 4, 2012

The title of this post is from my all time favourite poem by Robert Frost, and the picture is of a wall created by my ancestors at Barbury Castle taken last weekend.  The opening line of that poem is Something there is that doesn't love a wall but it concludes Good fences make good neighbors.  I have often used this to illustrate what I see as a key need, namely the need to make distinctions between things.  Now those distinctions can be between the authentic and inauthenitc, betwee true and falsehood or between good and evil.  They can also be, as they are in Cynefin, between equally valid but different states.  Sometimes boundaries are hard to make, the social pressure to accept anything is strong, but they are necessary.  There is a school of thought that privileges consensus over debate, but down that path lies a failure to learn to gain meaning.

Now my thoughts on this were brought on by one of those interesting debates that arises from time to time on the internet.  Chris Rogers of Informal Coalitions took issue with some of Jurgen's comments (I share those and can add some as well as agreeing that I mostly find Jurgen's posts interesting).  In the course of debate he was referenced to my work and responded.  We then went through some exchanges establishing where there were misundertandings, and as is possible with mature debate, moved to defining some of the key differences between our thinking.  Once you get there progress is possible but too many people in this field lack the maturity to get there.  Part of this of course is confidence, the longer you have read and thought about a subject the more comfortable you are when your views are challenged.

I do not intend to summarise that debate, its worth reading.  However it did lead me to think about some basic distinctions between people thinking about complexity and its applications to social systems.  Thinking about it I identified three, all present in the exchange with Chris; on two we stand in agreement on one we differ and that difference is important.  So what are they?

  • A distinction between those thinking seriously about complexity theory and its applications and those who are simply picking up the language and using it as a fashion accessory.  This is an authentic/inauthentic distinction and as a result is a dangerous one as it could lead to complexity going the same way as knowledge management: interesting ideas damaged by their hijacking for a technofetishist appraoch to codification and information management.  One can see the same danger with CAS, in particular the confusion of self-organisation/emergence with what is in effect Anarchy.  That is one illustration but there are others.
  • Then we get the serious difference (and this is authentic-authentic) around the uniqueness of human complexity and that in nature generally.  To use Chris's words: complexity theory is too often imported directly from the physical/ natural world into organizational settings is misleading and unhelpful. I similarly agree that human beings do not have a single identity and that they are not rule-following ‘agents’, as implied by unalloyed Complex Adaptive System thinking. As you say, this places us on the opposite side of the fence from most others who write and talk in this area.  For that reason I call our approach congitive complexity and contrast it with computation complexity, or if i am feeling more polemical: modelling mania.
  • Finally another authentic-authentic distinction between myself and Chris.  I see order as something that human systems are capable of creating, and the Cynefin framework reflects that.  Chris on the other hand sees all human systems as complex but I suggest you read his latest comment (4th March 11:38am) rather than any summary I could put forward.  There are also hints of a related differene, and this is a much wider one, over my expression (per Juarrero) that meaning exists in the relationships between things, and the relating idea that myths are agents and constraints in human systems.  Chris follows the western (or more acurately anglo-saxon) norm of privaleging individuals.  With that there is a debate about conversation which extends to Stacey and others.  But that is for another day.

So creating boundaries allows us to progress, either by rejecting the inauthentic and trivial, or by isolating properly held differences to advance understanding.  More of the latter might help reduce the need for the former!

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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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