Confusing symptoms with cause

January 27, 2008

An interesting set of presentations down here in Tampa, Florida over the weekend. More reflections over the next week, but one of the things that came up in questions reminded me of the transformatory nature of complexity thinking. Someone asked me how you created the trusted environment prior to engagement. My response (including some follow ups) was two fold:

  • that trust is an emergent property of the process of engagement not a precondition. You can’t design for trust, and attempting an overt discussion of the issue in most organisational environments just produces linguistic conformance; picking up on management and facilitator language and replaying it. Accordingly rather than talk about the idealised or desired qualities of the conversation, you need to create environments and interactions where it is more likely to emerge.
  • that trust was not the same thing as being open to others ideas, it could include the ritualised attack or criticism of ideas or the assumption of a contrary position for the purpose of increasing the range of perspectives taken into account. I Use ritualised dissent to great effect for example. Groups work in parallel on the same issue and then a spokesperson presents the ideas of one group to another, received in silence. They then turn their chair and their ideas are subject to severe criticism to which they are not permitted a response. Multiple rounds of this increases the resilience of any plan or analysis and avoids the fragility of premature or unthought consensus.

Now this is not conventional wisdom in idealised forms of facilitation. However it uses complexity principles: increasing interaction to break down existing assumptions, preventing premature convergence, increasing the diversity of agents. I could go on but then this would become a 101 complexity course.

The trust question is a classic confusion of symptoms with cause, just as creativity is a symptom of innovation not its cause, so trust is the symptom of interaction over time. If that interaction is not testing, then the trust is fragile. If the trust is simply the result of few contextual exercises (throwing yourself backwards off a brick wall is the classic) then it is temporary. Focus on the process, rather than trying to preset emergent outcomes and you get a more sustainable solution,

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