and that’s awkward

November 15, 2012

I was chatting this morning with Daughter who is now in the first year of her MA in Anthropology.  The last five years have been a lot of fun as she has been studying in my areas of interest and in part expertise.  So there have been a fair number of skype and other conversations at various times of the day related to essays, concept papers and the like.   I suspect I will have to fund the PhD to allow the exchanges to continue in two years time!  She is starting to think about transnational migration and diaspora and for reasons that are not clear to me we ended up talking about some of the arguments between the some of the adherents of Marx and Foucault; a dispute I have never really understood.  I said that one aspect of the difference was the failure to realise that we had gone through an ontological phase shift in our understanding of the world.  When ontologies change, so too does epistemology.  Both the nature of a system and our awareness of that nature (they are not the same thing) result in a need to shift the nature of out acts of knowing or epistemologies.

After the call ended – she to bed, me to the guest laundry at the start of the working day in Singapore – I made a connection between that conversation and a tweet reference to an interesting blog post by Deb Lavoy who I met at KM World.  In my interactive session at that event I had taken the group through a simple method for creating safe-to-fail interventions and testing them for coherence.  If you are familiar with that read on, if not then check the link for a description.   The phrase in the post that struck home, and linked to the Daughter-discourse of the morning was this:

This is an ingenious, highly resilient process that rapidly explores the solution space in a low risk way, while maximizing the likelihood of finding success through the process of ritualized dissent. It's a magnificent and magnificently simple process (in theory), but may be a bit much for beginners. Not because it is difficult in deed, but it plays by a different set of rules, and that’s awkward.

Now I like the last phrase of this in particular, it plays by a different set of rules, and that's awkward.   This morning's Gaping Void cartoon that heads this post makes a related point.  When the world is shifting, then the new ideas and concepts are awkward as they represent, ironically, a new simplicity.   In multiple conversations with people in training and practice I have been telling people in varying ways not to worry, stick with it, its really very simple when you get it.   I know that was the case for me with Complexity Theory a couple of decades ago.  As I started to read up on it there was a degree of obscurity but it also excited my curiosity as it seemed to give a scientific explanation of common sense, something that was all too lacking in the corporate speak of knowledge management practice, especially in IBM.  It took some time, but then it all clicked.  Cynefin when through the first of a series of major changes and then I started the integration with Cognitive Science and the biological end of Anthropology.  

Its still evolving, but over the years people have commented that there is more cohesion to what at first seemed a disparate set of ideas. Now I think they are right.  Over the last three years I have felt that a lot of things have come together and simplified in the process.  Part of that is the praxis approach, allowing theory to interact with practice.  But the other important thing is that perception in the world of complexity has also changed.  The engineering approaches that dominated the last few decades have only partially delivered on their promise.  Concepts seep into the community from multiple authors and speakers, practices develop and change.   We then reach a point where we hit a phrase shift, and what appeared impossible before becomes the new simplicity.  

When those phase shifts come, and we are in the advanced stages of one now, then its time to seek out the awkward; not out of curiosity, but to survive.

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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.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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