Engage through entanglement

October 9, 2022

OIMG 2336ne of my brighter ideas in recent times was the formalisation of the Entangled Trios approach and associated methods.  It wasn’t a new idea, the origins trace back to my early work in Knowledge Management and the second major article using the five-domain version of Cynefin:  Complex Acts of Knowing.  That paper focused on the role of informal networks in an organisation and more especially informal, trusted collaboration rather than formal communities of practice.  It was one of the first papers to take on board complexity theory to knowledge management and as such, it has ended up in the top ten cited papers in its field, which is gratifying.  But despite the citations, the dominant practice is still formal rather than informal.  The method ended up a key aspect of the EU Field Guide, one of three main practices required to ensure that you have a resilient organisation, one able to respond to unanticipated and unanticipatable future states.  The denser the informal networks, the healthier the organisation.

The immediate prompt for this post is the need to write a proposal for one of my favourite clients (no names no pack drill) on how to achieve organisational change.  I use that as a catch-all name for ‘change’ in general.   I was on a conference call walking through Vienna Airport a few days ago advocating a very different approach from the conventional one and I agreed to write it up.   I’ve been stuck on this and a few other tasks today so finally decided to write up the generic approach as a blog post (it is my medium, and I find it easy) and then create something more client specific as a follow-up task in the morning before I head out to Florence and an interesting two-day session on issues of flow and Lean – which will pick up on my last post on Estuarine Mapping.  I’ve written a lot on this subject over the years by the way – most recently earlier this year in the “Control in the Shadows’ pair of posts.

Now we are all familiar with the conventional approach to change.  Senior executives supported by the OD and other functions within an organisation determine an overall strategy and a set of associated goals, challenges, targets and the like.  The idea is that the wider organisation will then pick up on these and make them real through changes in practice.   For the purpose of this post, I will not challenge that process and it is the day-to-day reality of change initiatives anyway.  Given that in complexity we deal with how things are, not how we would like them to be, it would be hypocritical to do otherwise.  In my next post  I’ll link Estuarine Mapping to this to suggest an alternative approach but for now, let’s take the top-down direction as given and aim to make it work.

Change initiatives are a real issue in a modern organisational. The complex nature of the world we live in means they are necessary, but most organisations are in a state of change fatigue.   So we end up with a dilemma, we need active engagement in our programme. But we are under pressure not to increase the time burden on overburdened staff.  So we end up with a token workshop to two where everyone agrees that change is necessary but no one really does anything. It’s all too easy to agree something in the intensity of a workshop or meeting but the level of sustainability is a different issue.

The reality of change is that, if it happens, it is manifest in the water cooler conversations and day interactions of people talking with friends and close colleagues.  Formal reporting tends to tell senior management what they want to hear, not what they should listen to.  So if we are really to achieve the change we need to take action at the micro-level of those conversations between friends and close colleagues and also monitor the impact at the same level.  That means a much broader engagement that is possible in a consultative process, but we also have engagement fatigue so this isn’t going to be easy.  But one thing is clear, simply peddling back on a conventional approach will end up with the worst of both worlds.

We do however have three things going for us if we have the courage to do something a little different and the good news is the risk is low; if it doesn’t work Senior Management is unlikely to be blamed, at least they tried.  They are:

  1. Working in small groups with different people appeals to human curiosity without creating stress as long as the numbers are between three and five
  2. In any organisation, there are massive bureaucratic burdens that can be removed if, and only if, employees take on smaller tasks distributed over time
  3. Micro-observations are easy to capture and avoid little risk to participants, they are not evaluating or making a political statement just reporting things as see them

So to play on those characteristics we have three approaches that work, one a method the other a tool

  1. The Genba version of SenseMaker® allows people to record as voice, picture or text any experience and interpret it into a signification framework which is all positive, ( risk reduction).   In the past, we have worked with military patrols to replace an end-of-patrol report with real-time observational capture and sales-people to get stories before and after each client contact rather than a politically correct retrospectively coherent report at month end.
  2. Entangled tops allow us to link and connect people across silos in a short-term, part-time exploration of complex issues by working virtually or physically with people who have different perspectives and experiences.  Including new employees increases the effectiveness of this technique as even cyclical senior staff feel some obligation to those who are just entering the rat race.  I’ve also used students on a work placement as that always gets peoples’ collaborations
  3. With the self-signification of material in SenseMaker®, we can provide real-time reporting back of patterns in multiple observations to those engaged in capturing the material and allow them to comment on it and its meaning – breaking the survey-analysis-reporting-communication linear cycle at the end of which no one can remember where things started anyway and the context has shifted.  Short cycle real-time feedback is key to effective change

So overall the process of change is fairly simple and organic and we can describe it in three stages

  1. Make a clear commitment to wanting to involve people not as subjects of a change initiative, but as active agents in making the new goals and objectives real to people’s day-to-day lives.  Commit to sharing data on an aggregating basis before you form conclusions to allow people to engage in interpretation not just be subjects
  2. Identify something that people do not like doing or something they want to do which hasn’t been permitted and offer it as an incentive to engage in the process.  Seek volunteers, not conscripts, you only need 5% or less of the workforce to engager a viral effect to take place. Make the offer – engage in the process and you no longer have to do X, or you will now be permitted to do Y
  3. Set the whole thing running and promptly post the results, especially if you as a senior executive changed your mind as a result of the feedback.  Push out requests of opinions and ideas that take no more than a few minutes to respond to (SenseMaker® Genba is set up for that) and again report the results.  Start of issue requests for more stories like these, fewer like those and respond to ideas.  Think about ad hoc incentives as needed.

You also have the side benefit that this all gets you ready for distributed decision-making, a key aspect of resilience but that is for a future post.

The bramble bush picture is significant, entangled systems produce delicious fruit

The opening photograph of Blackberries was taken on my recent final sprint to complete the South West Coastal Path in September this year.  One of the benefits of walking in Autumn is that the bushes provide sustenance!  The banner photo is cropped from an original by Julietta Watson on Unsplash

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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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