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Arizona: Managing the situated now

November 9, 2010

Final session of the Phoenix conference and I have a brief to provide a What do you do next summary in twenty minutes. To remind you the theme is complexity, and in yesterdays session I’ve completed the basics of complexity, Cynefin and SenseMaker®. Now I should have summarised my notes at the time, but that afternoon I picked up the new camera and the following day the trip up to the red rocks of Sedona called. Couple that with jet lag and I needed to sleep! So this is a summary written up over a week later, but I have dated the post to match the presentation day. This all assumes some knowledge of Cognitive Edge methods and tools.

So here goes:

  1. Start with the Cynefin framework, using a representative group of stakeholders. Ideally use the four point method I described in The Origins of Cynefin . In an ideal world you would use SenseMaker® with a set of strategy focused signifiers to create the core material used in this construction.
  2. In a large group event (not the same thing as open space, I will post on that in a few weeks time) or a small workshop if necessary identify current issues and opportunity areas that are complicated, and create traditional projects to handle them. For everything in the complex domain create a minimum of three fail-safe experiments and make small investments to see what works. Any experiment is tested for coherence using ritual dissent. Forms available here if you want some more structure.
  3. Language is key, you need to get a general understanding between complex and complicated. The Children’s Party story can help, so can the magnets metaphor. Definitions linked to narrative examples from the organisations own history and perspective on its futures make this real, and the four points method allows that to happen. You don’t use third party cases – ever.

In all your planning you need to remember the three heuristics of complexity management:

  1. Work with finely grained objects, both information and organisational
  2. Distributed cognition is key, and its not the same thing as distributed decision making
  3. Disintermediation, the decision making has to be in direct contact with the raw data, perspective of the whole is key, complex systems cannot be disaggregated

Abductive research techniques such as SenseMaker® make this easier, and you need people to understand the difference between induction and abduction. If abduction is too abstract try exaptation, if that is too hard go for serendipity. But you have to get people out of linear concepts of causality and inferring future action from retrospective coherence.

Remember the four steps for any action:

  1. What can we change?
  2. Out of that list where can we monitor the impact of change
  3. From that list which actions might lead to success, or though failure teach us something about the system
  4. and the final check – have we got an amplification or dampening strategy ready for each

Now that gets you to a short list of realistic things to do, avoiding idealism is key. Its not about where you want to be in a few years time (in other than the most general terms), its about managing the situated now. Remember co-evolution and that co-evolutionary processes cannot reverse. Anything you do will impact on other things, options are closed off or opened up by engagement not by study.

Other Cognitive Edge techniques that are linked to this are:

  1. Cynefin dynamics, shifting and moving problems between domains so they solve themselves
  2. Modulator mapping (this needs SenseMaker®) but allows risk measurement and lots of other interesting things (harks back to the magnet metaphor)
  3. Social network stimulation is a great started project and general utility
  4. Using games where people fail (and therefore learn more), managed by people not governed by computers
  5. and of course SenseMaker® which is the first software strategy tool designed specifically for complex adaptive systems (but I would say that wouldn’t I)

OK it took me longer than twenty minutes, I wish I had recorded it but ……

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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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