Associations on Change and Letting Go of the Old

August 8, 2011

I’m looking forward to blogging on Cognitive Edge for the next couple of weeks, not knowing what to expect, and anticipating the resonance from the community. So I think I’ll start with a bit of philosophical autobiography and see how you respond.

One reason I was drawn to Cognitive Edge is the experimental spirit of both the methodology and its founders. As I work in innovation and change, I deal with the question of how to enable companies and people to try something out, to risk failure while learning something genuinely new. Complexity approaches fill the need for orientation in the process as well as or better than any I have encountered so far.

My blogging time for CE just happens to coincide with my yearly fasting week (no religious connotations, but rather a personal, neurological initiative), which provides a nice metaphor for change. (This, by the way, is the hotel:

Keynes has been on my mind lately, and his insight that “Our difficulty lies not so much in developing good ideas as in escaping from the old ones.” We can communicate new ideas and discover workable solutions, and then be astounded by the inability of organizations to take the necessary steps.

The cause, I think, lies in the body. We can think, feel and do nothing without representing it through sensation. Consciousness is a physical process, something quite contrary to the Cartesian thinking man. To think change is not to implement it. We must feel it for it to become real. Thinking of any kind which deserves the name is transformational, and as neuroscientists like Antonio D’Amasio show us, resembles much more a process of corporeal transformation than abstract ratiocination. That is why we must experience change physically, preferably though experiments which alter our perception of reality.

I notice that over the course of months that as I pick up on many innovative ideas and experiences, my head usually gets it pretty quickly, but the body lags behind. When one fasts, the habitual processes of digestion shut down. One drinks lots of water, goes to the sauna and lies in the sun (at least in hotels as lovely as the one we are in), in my case reads a lot, and the nervous system lets go of stress on a deep physical level.

Stress patterns are neurological processes that get locked into place as a response to dealing with the demands of a challenging life, and end up physically blocking our thinking. We succeed with our habitual patterns, for a time. But when the demands change, the patterns stay. After seven days without food, the patterns reconfigure (amazingly, you don’t feel hungry). Freed of the effort of digestion and the entrained processes is helps to sustain, the nervous system lets go. It is also a creative time. Towards the end of the week it is as if the insights of the last months finally get a chance to sink in physically, as room is made for a neural restart, and I go back to clients with a vitality that comes from the physical integration of new ideas.

I wonder what would happen if organizations understood change at this level, and acted on the insights. (Though I have no idea how that would look in practice, it would be fun to help design and implement.)

I’ll spend the next posts doing variations on the theme of change, given direction, I hope, from your responses and inquiries.

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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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