Antonyms for sense-making

September 21, 2006

One of the sense-making techniques I have used over the years is to take two words which are commonly used as synonyms in common day speech and make them into antonyms. That is to say, I take two words which are used interchangeably, and establish a difference between them. Now english as a language allows you to create an opposite by the addition of a prefix, and we do this with unorder, in order to contrast it with order. The ones I currently use I list below with some short hand explanations; it includes some antonyms that could never be taken as synonyms by the way. I hope you find them useful, additions welcome.


efficiency :: effectiveness
Efficiency is about stripping away superfluous functionality so that you only have what you really need left. This is great if the context does not shift and has dominated re-engineering and six-stigma approaches. Effectiveness involves introducing a requisite degree of inefficiency so that the system as a whole can be more resilient and adaptive. Focusing on effectiveness is appropriate where the context is, or may shift before you can re-engineer your system

stability :: resilience
In nature, and for humans any system which is stable is not resilient and vice-versa. If a stable system is disrupted it may never recover, while a resilient system has more recovery capability but may cost more/appear to be less controlled.

exploitation :: exploration
Structures with little variety and low levels of dissent and good at exploting what they know, but poor at discovering new things. If the level of dissent goes up and variety increases then the structures increase their exploratory capability, but at the cost of being able to exploit it.

rules :: heuristics
Rules prescribe actions and their compliance with them can be objectively measured. Heuristics in contrast have a degree of ambiguity and can adapt more readily to a shifting or changing contexts. Heuristics are more commonly known as rules of thumb, and can cover a much broader field such as knowledge management in a few phrases, whereas rules would take a book. Rules can also be contrasted with habits, and with ritual.

regulation :: habits
Regulations (rather like rules) constrain a space. habits (and rituals in some aspects) create a pattern of behaviour. In Cognitive Edge we use ritual and habits as an alternative to regulations in issues such as health and safety and crisis response management. Its easy to forget a regulation or ignore it but habits become instinctive.

dilemma :: paradox
A dilemma represents a choice between two incompatible alternatives, the most harrowing example I know is in the film Sophie’s Choice and to be honest, although it is brilliant I don’t think I can watch it again. Dilemmas are used in some types of systems theory to force diversity. Paradox on the other hand presents a contradiction which is not a choice, but which forces you to think about the problem in a different way. For example, in KM: If you tell someone they must share their knowledge they will hide it, if you tell them they can keep in private they will share it. Another example comes from narrative: if you ask people to tell the truth they will lie, if you tell them they can lie they will tell the truth.

For those interested this supplements my earlier blog on aspects of complex systems.

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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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