Flexuosity untangled

November 14, 2020

Screenshot 2020 11 14 at 09 26I’ve always been fond of wolves, something that is probably due to a childhood spent with Kipling’s Jungle Book and the Just So Stories. I’m still proud of the Leaping Wolf Badge I obtained as a cub scout, although reading the link I think standards have dropped over the last few decades!  So its no surprise that a How Wolves Change Rivers link on social media attracted my attention, as did more detailed scientific papers as I started to play with a new idea for understanding the strategic context in which novelty is possible some years ago.  My management career and master’s thesis were dominated by thinkers such as Michael Porter mitigated by the more human orientation of Henri Mintzberg.  The former and most of its many derivatives were wrapt up in the engineering metaphors which were starting to dominate the period all of which assumed a context-free approach to strategy.  This really started around four years ago when I recounted my work in Data Sciences in creating the Genus programme utilising Moore’s idea of Crossing the Chasm to allow context-specific understanding of both service offerings and sales strategy.

In short, I have been looking to develop an approach to strategy that is more based on geomorphology and bio-diversity.  In that first post, I introduced the idea of a flexuous curve to describe the form of what I was developing.  I suggested then that a name for this might be the F-Curve but then started to use the idea of an Apex Predator in most presentations.   I’ve been concerned about that title for some time given some ill-considered antagonism to the ‘Predator’ word, and the fact that there are many legitimate strategies with different biological metaphors.  So as of this morning, while I thought about context framing I’m running with Flexuosity for the moment.  Both flexuous and agile translate as ystwyth in Welsh and there are links to cyd-destun.  I think we could teach people to pronounce those but I wouldn’t mind a native speaker clipping in here as I may be out of my depth on the meaning.

Now the idea has developed, as ideas do, through a mixture of reading, conversation, and presentation over the years.  I still have some more work to do here, in particular going back to a bunch of notes from HTLGI sessions with biologists over the years and the like.  The F-Curve/Flexuosity/Apex idea is roughly in the same state as Cynefin was before I got the liminal and aporetic aspects sorted out.  It is there, it can be (and has been) used to effect but it continues to evolve as I start to sort out various ambiguities and possibilities.  It is potentially as important as Cynefin considered as a sense-making framework; if nothing else it passes the napkin test.  Along with Knowledge/Decision mapping and Cynefin, it forms the backbone of a wider approach to strategy which is probably my major focus at the moment.

I’ve moved away from using Moore other than by way of setting context and market life cycle curves in general.  There are all variants of a linear process, a quasi-deterministic idea that moves from introduction, though growth, maturity and saturation leading to decline.  I’ve used Innovators~Early adopters~Early majority~Late majority~ Laggards with the various percentages over the years although I normally combine the first two and change the percentages a bit, based on that prior DataSciences work.  There remains some correspondence but I am not really interested in a product life cycle per se here, other than as something which inherits from a wider market positioning.  I am also wrapping the concept into my growing understanding of the triangulation between assemblage theory, narrative tropes, and strange attractors and work on anticipatory triggers and also, at the more abstract, questions of identity as a mutable concept in a flow of meaning over time.  All of that is very exciting, especially for an understanding of politics, and is a working up of an idea I got from Constructor Theory in Physics for those interested in being a part of this exploration, I doubt it is something I can do on my own especially some of the work on sorting out the biological metaphors.  There is a lot more to do on the theoretical aspects of this that will translate into extended and more coherent practice.  At a more prosaic level, there is some work to map (sic) this to Wardley Maps along with Cynefin.  But all of that aside the framework works and the explanation is coherent enough to have utility and move into wider adoption.  So the rest of this post will summarise what it is, and what it means. It is also the first time out for this version which has more stages than on previous explanations.

Flexuosity untangled

A bit tongue in cheek with that heading!  I’m using a propositional form rather than a full narrative to layout a basic scaffolding onto which I can build as I develop this and it will transfer to the wiki shortly as it is now ready for other people to use and contribute.

Basic concept & some key terms

When a pack of wolves was reintroduced to Yellowstone it restored an Apex Predator to the eco-system.  The impact on the un-predated deer population both reducing their numbers but also changing behaviour.  River Banks were areas of threat therefore less likely to be grazed, vegetation thus flourished, bank erosion decreased and the waters ran clear.  This idea is also known as re-wilding which is not a restoration of a past state, but a restoration of sufficient diversity to allow the system to continue to evolve in a sustainable way.  If you removed a Keystone Species such as the beaver then you would not have beaver dams, while species would die out and you would get downstream flooding.  The entangled and extended nature of fungi both provide nutrients to plants and we can make a metaphorical link to the role of social media here.  I am seeking a collective name for this but I am working with Connective Agency for the moment.  If you lose your hyenas, vultures, and the like then the Scavenger function is lost.  Without dung beetles and other Waste Processors then life gets messy.  I could go on but the point is that there are a number of roles in any healthy system and they all have their commercial and political equivalents.

The need for diversity is key here and that diversity creates interdependency.  So if I get a major shift in the geomorphology (the meteor hitting the earth) then the whole complex set of dependencies in which the Dinosaurs occupy the various ecological niches are destroyed and a new pattern emerges.  The morganucodontids who had lived, literally in the shadow of the dinosaurs, then emerge as the more energy efficient, and all living mammals today trace their ancestors back to them.  Exactly what will emerge from such an event is almost impossible to predict but we can identify some of it characterises and energy efficiency and lack of dependency of a single source and without the need for the various complex interdependencies that sustain those creatures higher up in the food chain.

The framework draws on those examples both literally and metaphorically.  It is concerned with what we might call underlying ideation patterns, ways of thinking about the world which then manifests in politics and products alike.  There are clear aspects of Hegelian dialectical thinking here as well by the way which I acknowledge.

Core cycle (green)

  1. Something novel emerges and gains some form of traction with those frustrated by the dominant paradigm of the day, or who are seeking some form of functionality that is not a part of the current affordance landscape.  A thousand flowers will bloom but not many of them will survive.  This is a wildflower garden of ideas and experiments.  In large organisations it requires Intrapreneurship, in a wider market it happens naturally.  Ironically the publish or perish context of modern academic life means that it is less likely to happen in that sector than was once the case.  In a world mediated by social media initial traction is easier to secure for good or ill.  In the product space opportunities to get funding from diverse networks have reduced the cost of novelty – I know as I fall for things here all the time and only a very small percentage live up to the hype!
  2. The initial enthusiasm for the idea is difficult to maintain, there are few risk-takers around than innovators would like and scale is never easy.  For products, this is Moore’s chasm where the next level of purchaser wants more proof before they will commit.  They may want first-mover advantage but to use the jargon, while they are leading-edge they are not bleeding edge.  In the wider field of ideas, it takes time for the level of abstraction to permit codification for diffusion to take place (a reference here to Boisot’s I-Space).  The originator needs to sacrifice some purity or at least co-evolve with some form of wider dissatisfaction or need to allow more people to engage. To pursue an earlier metaphor, to the gardener the wildflower may be seen as a weed.  Most organisations have some tolerance for mavericks and see their value until the maverick wants to change operational reality and at that point, there will be kickback
  3. The novel left-field idea becomes orthodoxy, it suddenly sees mass adoption although by this stage it may be compromised.  It is on everyone’s lips, popular articles are written, its language (and all novel ideas generally have some specialist language and seeing its third party use is a buying signal).  If a new product everyone now wants to be seen with one.  During the growth phase rhyme, reason and logic go out of the window; if you are not a part of the new movement you are not a part of the in-crowd and you are marginalised.  After the initial surge, all of this settles down and a new paradigm is established.
  4. The novelty is now wearing off and the idea is starting to reach the end of its life cycle, limitations of scale and context adaptability are starting to show and frustration is building in progressive circles, but it is now the orthodoxy, the thing that everyone else is doing so there is little risk in its adoption.  In the realm of organisational methods, the big consultancy forms move in to gain economies of scale.  Increasingly the domain is becoming commodified and homogenised but the apex predator, the one who triggered this new movement is at the top of the food chain and projected from price or other pressure.  This is simply the way we do things around here and it has been very successful so why should we change?  Everyone else is copying us anyway.

Liminal moment (Red stage 4 stalemates Green stage 2)

My original insight here was to realise that the cycles overlap.  I also realised that I had found the theoretical framing to better understand Clayton Christensen’s case-based development of his ideas around disruptive innovation, and that theory gives better contextual understanding.   One of the reasons for Moore’s chasm is that the novel idea or product, seeking to scale, now hits the inertia surrounding the dominant approach.  If I do what everyone else is doing there is little risk, if do something novel and it doesn’t work I am in trouble.  Risk is key to understanding the nature of behaviour in any liminal state.  I also realised that the entry into and exit from the liminal state represent bifurcation points from which there is no return.  The exit point marked as on the framework is the point of what Clayton called competence induced failure.  The dominant player does not fail because they were incompetent, but because they were too competent in the old paradigm and that very competence means the inattentional blindness is writ large into the very fabric of the organisation.

The entry is a more gradual process and I have identified three phases here which I will talk about in reverse order:

  • The gamma phase which is a sort of last chance saloon, red had toped its curve and is heading down and it is increasingly obvious that it is no longer sustainable. New entrants or ‘dangerous’ ideas are starting to get previously unheard of attention but overall the apex or dominant play is not threatened but there are now enough weak signals that they can legitimately be accused of complacency.   It is still possible to do something, but the cost will be high.
  • The beta point where you would have to be astute to see that things have changed, but the energy cost of experimenting with novelty is not too high.  This is often achieved by acquisition rather than invention in commercial organisations, or by a partnership in which you are the dominant player but provide your junior the ability to scale using your channels.  In politics is it more problematic but may mean pulling back or making strategic concessions to popular opinion or significant minorities outside of the chattering classes.
  • The alpha point where the actor seeks to actively trigger the shift into liminal by legitimising novelty.  One way to do this is by Exaptive Innovation or radical repurposing, finding something you are already pretty good at, and using it for something novel.  Good venture capitalists do this and I’ve seen (and benefited from) small governments monitoring larger government research programmes for opportunities they are missing.  There are ways to formalise this capability and SenseMaker® allows unarticulated needs to be matched to existing capability in one form of exaptive innovation.

The overall goal is of course to hit the omega point with resources transferring from the old to the new, the upwards curve.  But if you don’t take action until after the gamma stage it may be too late and you end up in free fall.  Some organisations manage to recover, they arrest failure and recover but never with the same level of dominance, I have labeled this as the delta moment and from it we get two new phases in the cycle.  Number 5 is oblivion, a fond memory at best, number 6 is sustainable and you live to fight another day but it will take the significant distraction of the overall eco-system for you to gain a new opportunity.

Some illustrations

My former employer IBM provides a good illustrative case here.  In the early days of computing, they radically repurposed their existing capability in the use of punch cards to give them a first-mover advantage in a new field whose full potential was yet to be disclosed.  But their dominance of hardware meant they didn’t see the shift to software, something made worse by the commodification of the hardware market, but their dominance of the market meant they escaped the price pressure of other competitions so when the failure hit it was massive, a sudden catastrophic failure.  They recovered, they had their delta pivot by becoming a services company but have not recovered the same position of dominance.  Interestingly they also had a gamma phase in which they realised that people actually wanted to buy PCs, not mainframes and famously gave a team more or less total autonomy and lots of funds to create the IBM PC which, despite being functionally poor compared to its competition, dominated the space.  The great irony here is that to achieve they sub-contracted key software development and didn’t realise the value of the IP and thus gave birth to their successor as Apex Predator in the technology space namely Microsoft.  Then of course in their turn Microsoft failed to realise that software was a commodity, Apple repurposed NeXT and the rest is history.

Another name for the Omega point is Kodak Moment.  Remember that Kodak invited the digital camera but didn’t see the degree to which it would disrupt the market, and they were making too much money anyway through their dominance of a more chemical approach!  I remember doing some strategy work for them at the time and it was obvious to any third party that the whole eco-system was shifting but the change was simply a step too far.  I had a sense of deja vu in IBM when we created a successful business around complexity theory and narrative work, with major US Government contracts but it was too different and while the initiative survived as Cognitive Edge it didn’t happen within IBM.  If you want more examples then simply look at the accelerating pace of management fads of which Agile is the latest, and it is doomed to go the same way as its predecessors through a false assumption of universality and failure to avoid commoditisation.

A more disturbing application of this to understand recent political changes.   Over a few decades in the UK and US alike new-liberalism emerged as a dominant ideology and homogenised the differences between the traditional parties of the right and left.  That meant the system started to lack requisite variety and the energy cost of populism was radically reduced with consequences we are still living with.  I’ve launched the odd polemical post in this over the last few years, one of which is still relevant.


Now there are lots of ways to manage the cycle.  One is to take the various roles I referenced earlier by way of metaphor:

  • The Apex Predator position is available to you if you move, and succeed during the alpha to gamma phases so if that is lost you have to look at other options
  • The Keystone role is again something that is available during the ecological shift but may provide more sustainability during subsequent periods of change
  • May adopt the Hyena strategy, feeding off the leftovers of the Apex Predator (think certification schemes)
  • Connective agency can result in becoming an Apex Predator in your own right – think of the social media giants and other forms of disintermediation such as Amazon
  • Waste Processors, I am working on …

And of course, this is not complete, I am working on a more complete taxonomy here with more work on the characteristics and examples so any contributions are welcome.

A general strategy to get from Alpha to Omega with an upwards trajectory is what I call a  symbiotic strategy in which the novel capability is made an apparently insignificant addition aspect of convention and it is thus carried over the chasm.  I did this in the GENUS program, adding Objection Orientation and RAD/JAD to legacy system management as a differentiator for DataSciences, and within years the novel material became dominant, we missed out on stage two.  A variation of that approach is to introduce a retro-virus, something that changes the DNA of its host.  A little bit of imagination and trans-disciplinary access to a range of metaphors is a great asset if you want to do new things in the face of conservative opposition.

In politics the approach is different, homogenisation produces extremism, but you can disrupt the growth of populism but enlightenment models of persuasion will not work.  This is not about reason in the enlightenment sense of the world, it is about understanding ideation patterns at a fine level of granularity and identifying new forms of synthesis as well as non-destructive conflict.  I’ve been working on that for a couple of years now and we’ve complete some of the related experimental projects needed to validate the theory.  I hope to announce more on this soon, but if anyone is interested get in touch.

As I said at the start, this framework is exciting but there is more work to do over the next few years.  Part of that is to explore the overlaps with Cynefin: Does a crisis trigger this or shorten the cycle?  That is to say, does the framework (or its shape) look different depending on where you are in Cynefin?  Does our understanding of aporia allow shortening and de-risking of the cycle?  Watch this space …






My original work here was originally triggered or influenced to varying degrees at varying times by Geoffrey A. Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, Charles Handy’s use of S-Curves and Clayton Christensen’s work on disruptive innovation.

Banner photograph of a wolf pack by Thomas Bonometti on Unsplash

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