Don’t prescribe sainthood

February 2, 2017

One of the many things that has always frustrated me about too many organisational change theories and practices is the assumption of sainthood. A model of the organisation, or its leaders, or the ideal employee or whatever is created. Normally this is soon loose assembly of platitudes that no one can disagree with. This is then set as the ideal model, the goal or target and programmes are then initiated. Given that the ideal and the real rarely coincide this means that such programmes fail, increase cynical responses to future initiatives and generally mess things up. Any model of a human system based on sainthood is doomed.

Interestingly if you look into military models then the assumption is that they have to deal with what they get. Rituals, training, practice mean that ordinary people become extraordinary in context. Such approaches start with where people are and seek to make things better. The point about an average is that it is an average, it is not possible for everyone to be above it. The other key thing here is that the context is key. Everything in a complex adaptive system is context specific not context free. So in some contexts the ordinary can be extraordinary regardless of innate or personal qualities. Creating that context may be more effective than trying the configure a human unit.

When I first worked in Personnel and Training (my first industrial job) the Personnel Director was an ex Major in a retirement job. He knew how to handle bureaucracy and legal compliance, but he also understood people; what was possible and what was not. He didn’t get swept up in the jargon of the modern Personnel function. There were four of us in that department, with some contractors as needed. These days the same organisation would have a Personnel function three times that size, plus an organisational development function, plus leadership and so on. I wonder at times if the professionalisation of the Personnel function hasn’t created its own work, rather than responding to real need.

So maybe a little less of the sainthood, more understanding of sin?

3 responses to “Don’t prescribe sainthood”

  1. Michael Hill says:

    Hear, Hear! I watch the professionalization of Battle Rhythm and Planning and meeting cycles of death and wonder how two of us on the staff used to do the work of dozens now when back then we had to share computer time. Doesnt semm like they execute that much better but they’ve got flash, standardized slides. Did we just go in a good direction and say “that’s far enough for today” or is it memory bias (everyone’s the hero of their own life story)?

  2. David Wofford says:

    Thanks… I have thought for years that the entire HR function in companies needs revamping — and the US laws around personnel, which do not treat people like Saints. Instead nice clear rules that nobody can follow…

  3. Michiel Boot says:

    Very nice post Dave. To call this phenomena Sainthood is the nail on the head as it combines the assumed dominance in a context from a social and a cognitive perspective.

    I am puzzled about how to make a sound statement about the nature of a context. You could argue that a statement about the nature of a context is based on an observation from someone who puts him or herself in an outsiders position. If that’s the case, each statement could be biased the observer’s beliefs, which could be unrelated to the insiders-world. Even an insider could make an observation (from a temporary outsider position) which is not shared by other insiders, because the statement can come from an unconnected identity which is only accessible to him or her. This gives rise to the methodological question of how to get a sound statement about the nature of a system which can be used for an intervention strategy. Hope you can give some clarity on this.

    I can imagine that sainthood consultants could be convinced that their interventions work in every context. But even this notion originates from somewhere – maybe in their education, in which they were taught that the World is causal and that orderly measures (or best practices) can have great effects. I am not sure if you agree but Sainthood principles seem to be widespread in academic education. And not only there. Some people can be really stubborn and be convinced that simple measures based on linear causality can make anything great again.(…!). So, in this case: what is ‘context-free’ when focussing on human interactions? Is not everything born in a social context? Maybe ‘context-strange’ could make for a better term?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts

About the Cynefin Company

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.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


Social Links: The Cynefin Company
Social Links: The Cynefin Centre
< Prev

Options in uncertainty


In my last couple of posts I have been talking abound boundary conditions in Cynefin. ...

More posts

Next >

Facile or felicitous?


I realise up front that there is a danger that this post may be misinterpreted. ...

More posts

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram