Experiment on your friends

February 9, 2010

My first two Future Backwards facilitations were done small scale, for friends and for free. They gave me the confidence (and the ability to talk convincingly about it) to go out and try it with real live paying clients – next up was a central Government department.

Whenever I pick up a new tool that I think will work with clients, the first step is to try it out low-key, low-cost and low-commitment. That way I take the small stumbling first steps out of sight of clients that might object to mistakes on their dollar. And when I do finally run them externally, I can bring all that I’ve learned to the project.

It’s not unusual for recently graduated Cognitive Edge course participants look around for opportunities to shadow people on pre-existing projects. That’s one way of doing it, but I don’t think it’s terribly effective for anyone involved:

  • Clients wonder who the extra person is in the room – are they paying for them or are they (the client) providing free training to this individual
  • Consultants have another (unknown) quantity to manage in the room. The extra person may be useful in some exercises, but will need monitoring and support. If it’s an easy client relationship and an easy process that’s fine, if there are tensions or novelties there, it just ratchets up the stress levels.
  • Apprentices (I use the word deliberately) watch and absorb, but it’s often difficult to ask questions in the situation. Unless there are problems with the exercise, there is less learning available, other than trying to copy someone else.

Instead, far better – and easier for current practitioners – is to find a small project to cut one’s teeth on and ask for advice/help on the project. Lessons are easier learned through one’s own mistakes than watching someone else’s successes.

Apprentices traditionally were given basic projects to go and complete on their own, get feedback and only then observe masters and practitioners at work, when greater understanding put what they saw in a meaningful context.

And, speaking for myself, I’ll happily help and advise people in running their initial projects, but won’t bring them on-board to come into a client. Not until I know more about them and have a positive relationship with them.

So, having taken the long way round, I’d suggest to anyone who’s recently learned Cognitive Edge techniques and want to put them into practice, first try your local community – who do you know that is already thinking about some future planning (or should be) – offer to run a Future Backwards for them. (Mine were an internet start-up through a friend and a local school putting together a vision.) Look for the opportunities, then go to a current practitioner for advice/conversation about it.

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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.

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


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