January 28, 2008

I’m feeling slightly apocalyptic these days, if “slightly” is a qualification one can use with that extreme term. I suppose you might call it, not exactly a “crisis” of confidence, but certainly a heavy pause. And it’s around when our methods fail.

I think we tend towards apocalyptic thinking when things become too difficult, encumbered and fractured, when hope sinks, dragged down by the clutching hands of multiple failures.

This is because apocalypses both mirror our mood but also offer hope: they are dark and bloody, and they mirror the depth of entanglement we feel – but they also promise radical simplification. They promise a clean sweep, wiping out the wrongness, offering clarity in the separation between right and wrong. They offer extreme sensemaking.

I believe there’s a strong temptation towards apocalyptic thinking in much of what we do in the social complexity space, precisely because we humans naturally abhor lack of meaning and clarity, and if meaning (and its consequence, success) doesn’t come easily, simpler sensemaking mechanisms than Cynefin come into play.

This apocalyptic thinking may not be completely explicit, but it appears in the idea that organisations can be fixed or improved, that we can help them fix themselves, that through the alchemy of our methods we can divine the critical few things to focus on, that we as consultants hold special powers to divine right and wrong, to judge, to advise. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we always claim these powers, but this is the implicit power relation we enter into when we take work with a client. Which consultant never gave advice?

We are certainly claiming to offer them something valuable, otherwise why do we charge and why do they pay? What exactly is our compact with them? And even when we stand back and artfully refrain from delivering judgment by claiming the standing of mere mortals, we still play in the theatre of judgment, even more godlike in our aloof rituals of divination than if we tell them directly the answers they crave; and in a way we are then as irresponsible as the Greek gods, who meddled but never stuck around for the consequences.

Let me pin this down a little. We have recently finished a second cultural archetypes exercise with a client, two and a half years after the first. Things are much, much worse now (I’ll tell you more about it in my next post). In the course of the exercise, one of the participants turned round to us and said “What’s the point of doing this again? You guys made the archetypes so cutesy-cutesy the last time, nobody took the real issues seriously.”

I don’t think this is really a problem with the artwork for our archetypes. I recall the presentations the first time were hard-hitting and somber. But a method that should have given self-awareness and the capacity for change, gave a temporary and soon-forgotten way of looking at themselves.

This doesn’t satisfy me. We do what we do as consultants because we want to help as well as earn a living. We want to see productive outcomes. We know we don’t have magical powers, but we grieve when our magic doesn’t work.

So when we see everything done “right”, when we see well-meaning and committed people working hard in the right direction, it’s hard not to ask what went wrong (the question of right and wrong comes into sharp relief) and who’s to blame (the question of the righteous and the damned) and what can be done (the saviour). So we descend into Apocalypse.

The faint-hearted of you might want to know that I intend to take this two week stint to try and argue myself out of apocalyptic thinking, and navigate my way to a more constructive but no less human view of what failure means for us. If that’s too depressing a prospect, feel free to take a vacation until the next guest blogger turns up.

The more charitable among you may decide to stay around and help. If you do, just a slight word of warning: I’ve already done the “pull yourself together Patrick, life is full of ups and downs” thing. I want to dig seriously at what failure means for our practice, at how we respond to it, and at the temptations we need to avoid.

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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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