Breaking pattern entrainment

December 5, 2012

One of the most erudite of New Statesman columnists is Martha Gill, and that is a major compliment give that overall said weekly journal has more than its fair share of intelligence. In her Irrational Animals column of the latest issue she references a study by Woollett and Maguire who found that London Taxi Drivers found it very difficult to learn new routes in the area around Canary Wharf (pictured from 33 stories up) after its redevelopment.   Regular readers will know that The Knowledge involves years of training and familiarisation with the streets of London the net result of which is an enlargement of the hippocampus.

The point she is making is that deep expertise in a subject can make it difficult for you to learn new things when the field changes.  Thus the scientific communities rejection of clocks to measure Longitude and other examples.  In Cynefin this is called Pattern Entrainment and is a danger in the complicated domain.  One of my long standing admonitions is to many a management team is simple: If its complex bring in competing experts, different perspectives.   That does not of course mean any view.  There is enough diversity in evolutionary biology without having to resort to taking Creationism seriously.  

In the set of criteria for safe-to-fail probes (that I will be teaching later today here in Seattle, then in Boston next week) one is that some of them should be naive.   Now this does not mean ignorant, neither is it the anything goes nonsense that I attacked two days ago. In general my advise is to take someone (or some people) with deep expertise in a radically different area and get them to take a look at the subject.  Just taking some examples that I know personally through various levels of engagement over the years:

  • Deploying anthropologists with no experience of commerce to study Holiday Inns as they studied tribes
  • Using a Lutheran Litergical design specialist to improve knowledge flow between sugeons and nurses in an operating theatre
  • Deploying a Professor of Biology into the Engineering Faculty of Bath University.

Its a very simple and easy trick, taking expertise form one area and using it to challenge thinking in another.  The depth of the expertise used makes the challenge easier to accept.  Like most complexity techniques this approach changes the process and interactions, it does not attempt to change the motivations of the people involved.  That is one of the most important differences between complexity and systems thinking, and its based on the naive application of science to organisational issues!

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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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