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Entanglement: empathy via abduction

November 30, 2021

Nick fewings ka7REB1AJl4 unsplashThe last three blog posts provided the core scaffolding for what I have been calling the Estuarine framework (pending getting a proper name for it). I’ve got a lot of work to flesh out the summary I provided in the last post, and also connect it with earlier material including a key post on the subject of learning in anthro-complexity.  But overall I am increasingly thinking it is as, if not more important, than Cynefin.  In the main, all approaches to strategy derive in some way or other from Military planning based on political objectives.  That said the various non-military approaches have tended to ignore that most iconic of aphorisms namely No plan survives contact with the enemy.  In reality, while (to reference Eisenhower) planning is essential, resilience and the ability to rapidly adapt and change as events unfold is critical.  One of the biggest contrasts I’ve observed between military and corporate environments is the time spent in training and simulation in the former.  More on that, and the origination in the work of Moltke in my next post, working title: … the vicissitudes of events.

Key to any complexity approach to strategy is creating a system that can respond to the unknown.  It’s why, in the EU Field Guide, I advocated three critical actions to create a resilient organisation.  In all three areas watch out next week for the launch of a series of SenseMaker® Genba offerings for rapid take up of each of these.  We’re also doing some rebranding with an updated website and there will be a whole bunch of buy now implement any time in the next year offerings there to celebrate.

  1. Build informal networks to connect people across silos based on context-free trusted informational channels.  The Entangled Trios method was designed for that and is getting a lot of traction since I published the approach.  The Genba system for capturing lessons learnt over the last two years is one way to create purpose in that exercise.
  2. Mapping what you know at the lowest level of coherent granularity to allow radical repurposing of existing capability for completely novel purposes - the exaptive practice of the complex domain of Cynefin.  Done properly that also maps actual decisions and related information flow which can be used to contrast the reality of what goes on with the various process and other maps which define how things should be, and too frequently how senior managers think they are.  Again watch out for an offer on this next week.
  3. Creating a human sensor network of employees or citizens to provide real-time situations assessment and micro-scenario planning.  If you haven’t read yesterday’s post from Linda and Beth on citizen engagement do - it includes how to practice this at a government or agency level.  But in general, we need to have diverse sensor networks scanning and assessing the landscape to spot both opportunity and threat and as critically too know what our system can sustain.  Stress is a major factor in this still in Covid times and this level of micro-understanding is critical for sustaining the organisation, and the people who make it up.  We’ve done several projects in this space now and we’re bundling it up its a customisable product to launch next week.

So a longish introduction to summarise past material before I move on to the main subject of this post.  To be clear in these posts I am exploring ideas in their initial stage of formation and doing it fairly publicly to get wider engagement.  But I’m not going to pretend that all of the posts will be consistent (although they will be coherent) and I expect to modify them as I move through these explorations which will include revising the four Cynefin domain maps and extending them to five.

Entanglement to trigger empathy as a means of breaking path dependency

The understanding of path dependency has been around for a long time.  The QWERTY keyboard is not the most efficient way to organise keys, but once it became established its almost impossible to escape. The standard gauge in railway tracks is also frequently quoted, although whether than can really trace back to the distance between Roman Chariot wheels is probably more urban myth.  Understanding the way small things give rise to emergent structures which then create a form of downwards constraint is also key to a lot of complexity work - and small things can trigger the emergence of structures faster than we often imagine, with rapid feedback increasing the level of structure and degree of constraint.  If often means the worse solution becomes the dominant solution, often to the surprise of those around at the time.  I remember being castigated for committing to Windows as my development platform for Logistics software when I was in Datasolve because the received wisdom was that IBM’s entry into the field would dominate.  In contrast, the IBM PC made the adoption of much better technology difficult and so on.  The ability of a small thing to rapidly become the dominant thing in unexpected ways is a part and parcel of our history and my Flexuous Curves framework (a modification of life cycle theory) was designed to help people understand and how things could change.  That is also a part of the pantheon of Cynefin frameworks and associated methods for strategy and strategic engagement with uncertainty.

But one of the most pernicious aspects of path dependency comes in human relationships at all levels of engagement from family and friends to society as a whole.  A bad encounter, if not resolved quickly and reinforced by mutual suspicion can result in conflict that evades any attempt at reconciliation.  Now that may be justified, if someone has a track record of serial adoption and then abandonment of other peoples ideas and approaches it's reasonable to assume that pattern will repeat.  But at a different level if someone has very different political views from you it doesn’t, within limits, mean they are evil and should be banished to the outermost darkness.  I remember when I was organising the Labour Party campaign in St Albans many years ago I ended up having a close friendship with my equivalent in the Conservative Party to the point where we ended up getting together weekly during election campaigns in the Brocket Arms in Ayot St Lawerence.  Still one of the best pubs I know by the way.   We had a few points in common.  Firstly we both hated Margaret Thatcher, me for her callous indifference to humanity, he for her betrayal of one-nation conservatism.  We both also shared deep frustration and cynicism about what we had to do to ensure our respective voters bothered to turn out on election day.  Those are what I would now call points of coherence that we discovered and enabled people who should have been sworn enemies to engage.  We met at the Brocket Arms by the way as it was sufficiently far away from the constituency that neither of our committees would see us.   Come to think of it there was a similar pattern when I was Sabbatical General Secretary of the Student Union at Lancaster University when I and a Pro-Vice-Chancellor used to hold regular meetings at The Inn at Whitewell (probably the best pub/hotel/restaurant I have ever been too and it's still brilliant 40+ years later).  He had to deal with a Vice-Chancellor who was a liberal idealist while I had to corral various factions of the extreme left.  Both of us were pragmatists, both of us profoundly disagreed with the others politics, assumptions and background but we had multiple points of coherence around which we could conduct conversations.

Moving into the modern-day I remember doing a few months of field ethnography in Tea Party communities in the US and going back to Washington to argue that actually, in many ways they were socialists in the way that in a semi-rural environment they provided mutual support.   The work I supported as a student in Ireland during the troubles on peace and reconciliation contrasted with attempts at getting people together in workshops to facilitate an understanding of things in common (wonderfully satirised in Derry Girls).  We took small groups from both sides of the sectarian divide and dumped them into development projects in Latin America where they discovered they had more in common than they thought and conversations about sectarian differences naturally occurred without facilitation, at a time and place where that conversation would lead somewhere.  I could carry on giving examples; the approach of participative ethnography which I developed in IBM days involved acting as an apprentice to engage and understand the reality of the workplace; the attempt to make 20 of the top 200 in IBM act as cleaners and support workers in urban development projects in Yonkers for a week (they were up for it, it was sabotaged by the HR function) and many more.   The basic principle was that working with people would trigger moments of empathy that would allow a different conversation to emerge, one that would break the path dependency of education, class and so on,  To return to an earlier theme we need to act in order to allow difficult conversations to emerge naturally rather than trying to force the pace by ramming people together to talk in order to act.

In effect what we are doing here is to trigger moments of empathy in a different context from the day to day.   I got really angry a week or so ago with one consultant who published what appeared to be chick-bait post on social media claiming that all approaches to empathy were manipulative, and his new approach based on compassion should replace it.  It's all too common these days I’m afraid for people to try and create an artificial conflict in order to provide their solution - saviour complex.  Empathy is key for humans and it's about moving towards an understanding of an experience that is other than your own.

So why am I raising this in the context of a new theory of strategy?  Well in part because nothing new can arise if you have strong, and frequently perverted forms of path dependency.  Here we can pick up the complexity idea of entanglement and instead of just allowing it to happen, create some form of deliberative actions.  The Entangled Trios method reference earlier is one, but another is to entangle people’s narrative histories to trigger empathetic understanding separated from time and place.  That also means creating multiple plausible points of coherence, to increase the option space for some of them to bite.  Work on that is part of the next major set of developments in SenseMaker® if anyone is interested, core design complete and starting to look for real cases to develop it in.  It's at the heart of our ideas on citizen engagement in the previous post to this one.  Change doesn’t happen by macro-level extortions to be good, it happens in small micro encounters that disrupt the dominant feedback mechanisms.   This is of particular importance given the way in which social media reinforces differences that would not necessarily be sustained in a face to face meeting.  As I have long argued the internet is an unbuffered feedback loop and we need to buffer it with human agency and interaction.

In strategy starting to build databases of micro-observations and scenarios, only with multi-cultural interpretations of history (something that we have been working on for the last two decades) allows causal, or abductive encounters through abstraction with different ways of acting and thinking.  Critically this is with fragmented data that has not yet been subject to abstraction and codification, a process that is necessary for context but necessarily reinforced dominant patterns.  It's why in SenseMaker® we use high abstraction metadata, the better the enable adductive insights, to create unexpected and exaptive moments of discovery.  By building this capability into an organisation, especially if we use technology to support real-time interaction between humans and human (not algorithmic) interpretation of events and ideas, we create a system with high resilience, able to bring multiple forms of learning together in an instant without excessive mediation.

These ideas will be developed more in the near future and it's the heart of a planned discussion with Nora Bateson which you can register for, although places are going fast.  I’ll do my best to remember to come back here and amend this to add a link to the recording but I may need reminding.  I'm also aware I've taken a lot for granted in terms of people's understanding of abduction as a concept so more on that in a future post.

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