Change through small actions in the present

August 21, 2015

2740716264_5b28122a58_o.jpgI wrote my first post Towards a new theory of change some weeks ago, but life has been frantic since then so this is my first blog post following that initial set of thoughts. I am now in the second week of a trip to South Africa and today is the first time I have had a couple of hours free. Not just work I have to admit but also hospitality. A part of the trip involved two fascinating sessions in Stellenbosch, working with their Complexity Centre, reaching provisional agreement on a series of partnerships with my new Centre for Applied Complexity. Those sessions also involved some brilliant conversations, some fuelled by Cape wine, that encompassed some genuinely original trans-disciplinary thinking of which more in future blogs.

I’ll be speaking on the subject of change this coming Monday, and if anyone out there wants to contribute some narrative around surviving in a VUCA world then your contributions would be welcome over the weekend. VUCA, for those not keeping up with the latest management fads, stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. I find it a little problematic as it doesn’t use complexity in the sense of complex adaptive systems and (more importantly) it tends to focus on VUCA elements arising from an unknowable future, where the unknowability is seen as problematic. Now from a true complexity perspective, the future is inherently unknowable, and a lot of the problems people have come from either trying to make predictions or getting themselves all het up about the need to predict. But that point aside it’s a useful entry point to thinking differently about management, although it too easily becomes an excuse for inaction or analysis as a substitute for action.

In contrast with trying to get a handle on the unknowable, I have long argued that exploring the evolutionary potential of the present is a key aspect of managing uncertainty. In addition, the wider engagement you can get from various actors for change, the more sustainable or resilient the solutions that emerge. A third point is that description is more important than evaluation in managing the present. In general, the more you evaluate the more you start to close down options. If you can hold at the descriptive level for longer then you get a wider range of intervention possibilities.

So where we are looking at culture change (to take an example), we first map the narrative landscape to see what the current dispositional state is. That allows us to look at where we have the potential to change, and where change would be near impossible to achieve. In those problematic cases, we look more to stimulating alternative attractors rather than attempting to deal with the problem directly. Our method is the look at the narrative landscape and then ask the questions What can I (we) do tomorrow to create more stories like these and fewer like those? The question engages people in action without analysis and it allows us to take an approach that measures vectors (speed and direction) rather than an outcome. The question also allows widespread engagement in small actions in the present, which reduces the unexpected (and potentially negative) consequences of large scale interventions.

Over the weekend I am going to work on a typology of such interventions ready for the Flourish conference on Monday, and I will publish them in a follow up to this blog. A part of that is trying to get the ideas behind Nudge Economics to work by nudging rather than yanking; a comment I will explain in that future post.

Photo credit via Flickr to Jeremy Pullen

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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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