Consulting in the Time of Corona (virus)

March 2, 2020

In the past 2 weeks, I have been called into a few urgent conference calls with partners and clients. As a response to the Corona virus, and it’s spread, many of them (and ourselves) included have had their projects impacted. 

In-person meetings, workshops and executive interviews have had to be cancelled, postponed and rethought. The calls in question, were all about shifting tact from these in-person consulting sessions, to utilising SenseMaker® instead. One of our partners in China shared that his entire organisation has had a work-from-home mandate put in place after one of his colleagues in the Wuhan office tested positive for the virus. He had contracted it from his wife who is a doctor in a local hospital. Whilst the in-person sessions of their digital transformation engagement have had to be put on hold, the decision is to move ahead with the SenseMaker® engagement to collect information on overall digital awareness across the client organisation. 

Another client is a government agency who asked us to help them rethink a 100-person workshop engagement that had been set up to map the identity formation of new citizens. We are now considering the implementation of SenseMaker® to do broader sensing with over 3,000 people instead.

SenseMaker®’s ability to collect the type of information that is required for consultation of workforce and population makes it attractive when traditional consulting is not viable, and at scales that allow for data collection over a greater diversity of perspectives. The global emergency has caused lots of inconveniences, and impacted human lives and economieimages. Emergency measures, however, seem to have forced new realities along – with China’s carbon footprint reported to have been cut by 25% due to a change in patterns of commute and industry, and companies rethinking how digital technology can be used to replace travel, this event might just nudge us along in how we rethink the future of work in general.

The title I chose for this post is a play on the title of a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera. It was a pun that came to me during the calls with partners. I have always loved the book for its intoxicating prose. In the story, the 2 central characters exchange love letters over a period of time, and whilst circumstances pull them apart, they get together again in their old age and learn to reconcile their lives after spending 50 years apart. I did a quick Wikipedia search when I was thinking of putting this blogpost together, and the 2 of the core themes of the book, uncannily enough are:

  1. Narrative as seduction:

From Wikipedia, “It is also made evident by the fact that society in the story believes that Fermina and Juvenal Urbino are perfectly happy in their marriage, while the reality of the situation is not so ideal. Critic Keith Booker compares Ariza’s position to that of Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita, saying that just as Humbert is able to charm the reader into sympathizing with his situation, even though he is a “pervert, a rapist, and a murderer,” Ariza is able to garner the reader’s sympathy, even though the reader is reminded repeatedly of his more sinister exploits.”

Narrative is seductive – and where utilised appropriately, stories have the power to shape perspectives, and impact on decision-making. As our colleague, Beth Smith, put in a recent presentation in Malmo, SenseMaker®’s ability to collect both quantitiative and qualitative data means that we have the ability to provide the “storieScreenshot 2020-03-02 at 11.08.29 AMs that tug at the heart-strings, and the numbers that untie the purse-strings”. We are mindful however, how misleading narrative alone can be, without the appropriate context and filtering. That’s why the meta-indexing of the narratives are critical – and more critical than that, is the distribution of the power and cognitive filtering through which the indexing is done: the person who shares the
story also indexes it. Perspectives and interpretation are distributed across larger populations so there is less ability for people to exploit the general patterns which emerge from the data. When we interpret the data, we start from the patterns. This allows us the ability to make sense of up to thousands of stories without falling prey to the seduction of individual narrative.


  1. Narrative as deconstruction:

From Wikipedia, “The novel examines romantic love in myriad forms, both “ideal” and “depraved”, and continually forces the reader to question such ready-made characterisations by introducing elements antithetical to these facile judgments.”

In complexity, we have to avoid premature convergence and also refuse the temptation of overly simplistic categories or explanations. Contradictions and paradoxes are part and parcel of working in complex adaptive environments. To borrow and adapt a phrase from F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of (complex adaptive) intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”. With many clients in recent years, we have increasingly been making the suggestion of exploring the use of asymmetrical policy, as complexity comes with it more nuance, and the need to respond to asymmetry.

SenseMaker® is designed to capture data that is non-linear, for a complex world that is similarly non-linear. Instead of a bell-curve, we have to assume non-normal distributions.

Consulting in this day and age requires us to rethink the relationships between things, and even more so, between the consultant (I hate this term) and the client, or client space. The Corona virus has caused a disruption to the environment that forces the question along. 

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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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