“first the word, then the thought,”

April 20, 2011

Yesterday the Institute for Government released a series of reports on policy making in the UK. What is interesting about these reports is they reference a need for policy makers to “reconceive their role increasingly as one of creating the conditions for others to deal with policy problems using innovative and adaptive approaches”. They make it clear that part of the policy competencies should include “understand concepts from complexity science”.

Both public servants and consultants exposed to complexity science will sense this is profound. The scope of the training problem from a pedagogical perspective is large but much more importantly the culture shift will be significant. The public sector policy approach is grounded in the presumption of causation. Notions of evidence based policy, program planning, and evaluation are all heavily structured around the assumption that causation can be known ex-ante.

Joan Miro whose works have been featured in recently in Brussels (where I saw a wonderfully curated show) and currently at the Tate Modern gives us insight into the nature of the challenge and insight into the wonder of emergence “The painting rises from the brushstrokes as a poem rises from the words. The meaning comes later.”

Public policy making has been about the thought and then the word so them introduction of complexity approaches will turn things on their head.

Public servants do speak of complexity and of course know it well in the form of the wicked problems which are increasingly a feature of their work. The conundrum for most is that the tools and practices are designed for ordered issues favoring complicated approaches. Complexity is still treated as a special case of complicated so the same tools are employed often with less than satisfying results.

I want to explore some of the challenges and opportunities for the Public sector to employ complexity over the next few days but wanted to start here with Miro and his wonderful invitation to enter a world were the outcome is not

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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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