Elevator pitches, the world cafe and the fog of war

October 6, 2008

One of the many aspects of a modern management culture that I have never really understood, although I have learnt to live with, is the Elevator Pitch. You start to discuss a complex issue or problem with a group of managers, dealing with the conceptual and practical aspects then suddenly some bright spark asks for the Elevator pitch. This is generally a senior executive with the attention span of a teething three year old but without the conceptualising capability of the three year to take on board novel or difficult concepts. So the expectation is that you should be able to take said complex issue or problem and explain it in words of five syllables or less between the first and the (lets be generous) fifty-fifth floor. Any subsequent failure is to my mind more the fault of the context set by the questioner than any ability of the interrogation subject. However its the harsh reality of life so I share below my elevator pitch when asked to explain complexity. I also had a lived experience of a world cafe today and realised, through the fog of frustration (yes there is a reference to Carl Von Clausewitz and its deliberate) that a world cafe is in effect a series of elevator pitches with limited information transfer between stage.

So lets start with the elevator pitch on complexity, I normally start that by saying that there are three different types of system which have to be managed in different ways, two are familiar the third is not.

  • Ordered systems in which the level of constrain imposed by managers, or by the nature of the environment means that all agents (an individual, an idea or a group of some type) have to conform with the rules of the system. This is the sort of space in which you use engineering techniques and implement ERP solutions.
  • Chaotic systems are ones in which all the agents (and there are lots of them) are unconstrained by the system This means we can understand them though statistics, probability distributions and the like. Organisations tend to treat markets as if they were chaotic, with each consumer making independent decisions.
  • Complex adaptive systems (CAS) on the other hand are ones where the system lightly constrains the agents, but the agents in turn modify the system through constant interaction. The system and the agents co-evolve which means they are (i) inherently unpredictable and carry higher levels of uncertainty than ordered or chaotic systems; (ii) they are highly sensitive to starting conditions and minor fluctuations, with unexpected and rapid change an inherent aspect of the system; (iii) they are subject to two main dangers, firstly retrospective coherence (with the benefits of hindsight they look like they were ordered in nature) and secondly in managing them you need to avoid premature convergence (coming too quickly to a solution or applying best practice). Historically we have managed these systems through a combination of gut feel and inspired leadership; or to be brutal luck.

By now you are on the 20th floor and hopefully you have got the follow through meeting. If you only have 14 floors you can cut out the elaboration of CAS properties. Less than that, well fix the lift (oops, elevator) so it stops between the floors. I you get more time

Of course if you have more time then you can start to talk about treating a complex system as if it is ordered produces excess stress in the system and catastropic failure. Using ERP systems and process engineering in services for example. Excessive bureacracy will produce denser informal networks as people strive to make the system work despite itself, until finally adaption fails and the susstem (and often the organisation) plunge into the turbulance of chaos.

So that’s an elevator pitch, it works for me hopefully it will help you. However its no substitute for a deeper conversation or a good argument. I had that experience today. We had a world cafe which comprised a group of people talking about complexity in the generic sense of the world, and the editorial board of E:CO talking about complex adaptive systems. An interesting tension that will continue for the next two days. in Augsburg. In the first round the editorial team were together and had an interesting conversation on the non-complex aspects of the process into which we were about to be lounged. In the next round, we left our spokesperson and split up into other tables. I got into an interesting discussion on the differences between complex and complicated systems and found a series of very interesting arguments on the effectiveness of things like value statements and self-organisation. The problem is, that what was needed was an elevator pitch. We had just got to the interesting part when we were moved on again to repeat the process.

Now I do think the world cafe has a place, as do open space techniques (of which more in a future blog). However they are designed for consensus rather than dissent or in depth discussion. I realised about half way through as I did yet another elevator pitch on CAS that this was the only thing that the format could cope with. Thereafter I held at that high level, and told some disruptive stories and threw in a metaphor or two for good measure. All of that was useful (at least to me), but it was also limited in nature. This was the speaker pre-day before the main event and there might have been an opportunity to really dive deep on some interesting questions. Now this only became evident towards the end so it is no fault of the organisers who did an excellent job. However it did suggest a heuristic to me for future use. If the necessary level of the subject is that of serial elevator pitches (and it often is) with the need to build concensus rather than allowing active dissent, then the world cafe works. In other circumstances it would be contra-indicated and instead of clearing the fog of war, would prevent the sun rising to burn off the fog (terrible metaphor but it is late at night).

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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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