February 1, 2008

The final horseman of the apocalypse is Death (though he is not the last of the apocalyptic signs). At first glance, he seems almost superfluous, with Pestilence, War and Famine preceding him.

I think the reason why Death comes last is that he is sovereign and self-determined. When apocalypse strikes, it’s already too late to look to the root causes of strife, aggression and apathy.

Only Death determines when he’s had enough. He will continue until he is sated. He must run his course. In the Book of Revelation we are told that he will continue until he has taken a quarter of living things, but we can expect that the mathematics of doom are not so precise or predictable.

This is bad news for consultants. It suggests that failing organisations have an intrinsic momentum to their cascade of failure that will resist any amelioration or cure. It needs to run its course, there is no single, simple thing you can do to fix it – or even multiple, complex things you can do.

Death preaches futility. And of course, if we are one of those already snared by famine, he is right.

But here’s the sticking point, where the darkness of apocalypse starts to show a hint of light. Death doesn’t take everyone. In apocalypse, Death is ungovernable, but it is not absolute. That is the first thing I want to say about Death, where we start to see that apocalypse gives a fraudulent frame of view.

There is a point in the depressive phase of bi-polar disorder where the tide begins to turn. Speaking of one such turn, Vincent Van Gogh wrote “Well, even in that deep misery I felt my energy revive, and I said to myself: in spite of everything I shall rise again, I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing, and from that moment everything has seemed transformed in me.”

From extreme apathy and despair, there is a sudden twist into incredible lightness, creativity and hope. In the spring of 1888 Van Gogh painted a series of paintings of blossoming fruit trees at Arles; they are absolutely radiant with this sense of post-apocalyptic joy.

Apocalyptic thinking is bi-polar, and we tend to it easily in working with organisations that are struggling mightily with their dysfunctionalities. If we are consultants, however delicately we do it, we sell the vision of heaven – or the vision of those radiant orchards at Arles. It’s hard for us not to, because we have to persuade people to pay us, and we have to persuade ourselves that we can do a good job. Those who are tiring of the struggle with blame, resistance, apathy, incapacity and despair – ie the ones who share their stories with each other and with us – paint pictures of hell.

If we know that Death is not absolute, that apocalypse doesn’t tell the whole tale, in fact that it often submerges the subtleties of the full tale, there remains some hope. In all of the organisations I have described, there are good people doing great work, there are strong characters being forged, wisdom being nurtured, talent being honed, relationships built. If we find ourselves entangled with an organization that sees itself in apocalyptic terms, we don’t have to play the apocalyptic game. We can’t do magic. We can’t deliver heaven. But we can do something. So in my next posts I’d like to talk about that hope.

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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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