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May 4, 2009

Greetings all. I’ve been looking forward to my upcoming role as Cog Edge’s guest blogger. To jump right in: One of the many concepts that has stuck with me as supremely useful is the word Cynefin itself. The notion that each of us shifts seamlessly between multiple identities has been most helpful to me personally. For starters, I am the father of a 16-year-old daughter, constantly juggling between the sub-identities of cheerleader, coach, occasional mentor, full time taxi driver, a most reluctant disciplinarian from time to time… Beware the risks and rewards of separating such creatures from their cell phones. Each of these roles has its own nuanced operating principles and code of ethics, and while I am sure I often send mixed messages to my daughter, Cynefin at the very least, gives me the occasional pause and a platform for reflection when it all go sideways. Seamless indeed.

In my day job as an Organization Development consultant, I often warm up new groups by having people identify key roles or identities they play in life, then have them drill into each of those roles to identify sub-identities. Some sharing of stories connected to competing identities helps people connect while providing a nice jumping off spot for dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty.

I also like to learn what they consider to be their hometown as they introduce themselves. It’s a pet tactic of mine. I watch closely for the patterns – sounds, words, looks, body language – as people instantly connect (or withdraw) from others with little information other than the fact they were born in the same city, town or province. (Interestingly, I have noticed that army brats who typically grew up moving from base to base have quite a distinct reaction to this question.)

In the spirit of the above, let me tell a bit more about my own home town.

Although I was born in raised in the prairies of Saskatchewan, my geographic identity is now rooted in the 30 years I have spent in Rossland, British Columbia, Canada and the surrounding mountains. Rossland is a small town (3,500 people) in a sparsely populated region. Red Mountain ski area is a skier’s hideaway and just three km from my backdoor. Modest European areas get more skiers over a couple of days than Red would host in an entire season. We are, for all intense and purposes, in the middle of nowhere.

Despite its size, Rossland’s local ski racing program has produced 2 Olympic gold medalists (1968 & 1992). I interviewed a local who was member of Canada’s first national ski team and whose son came second at a world championship a generation later. I asked him how it was that a town this small could have such impressive record, and he answered simply, “Oh, I don’t know. It all started with George and we just sort of looked at each other and said, heck if he can do it, so can we.”

So what may appear as quite extraordinary in one setting might appear quite normal in another. It begs the question of how we as practitioners can create environments where people can break through their mental models of what is possible.

Here’s a picture of my friend’s 5-year-old son practicing gates. Little Simon weighs no more than 50 pounds soaking wet, but his unconscious competence on skis is pure magic to behold.

My plan for the coming days is to talk largely about the more practical challenges and questions I have as an internal OD consultant (health care) and a Cognitive Edge practitioner. Specifically, how the role of project sponsors has played into narrative capture projects and how leadership does or doesn’t support self-organizing systems. I have thoughts (mostly questions) about sustaining momentum after large scale interventions have taken place. I admit I have only limited experience here. I have a cascading schedule of emergency preparedness meetings this week related to swine flu, so that should be worthy of some discussion. And if I have made it appear that Rossland is nothing more than one big playground, I also volunteer as a commission member for my community’s emerging sustainability plan – a 20 year plan (much too short term a time horizon, or about right??) that is turning out to be a fascinating study of social networks being formally sanctioned by city councils. The gears at city hall are audibly grinding as this new model finds itself.

Talk soon.

Terry Miller

Posted by Dave Snowden

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About the Cynefin Company

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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