Here Lies Bureaucracy

February 24, 2011

I’ll use the term general management to distinguish the common, daily practice of work management from the other role based types of management such as knowledge management and project management. General management is a constant juggling act, one part knowledge management and one part political management. It is a constant progression of the two interleaved processes.

The first is a search for knowledge that moves from the simple towards the complex, through either the complicated (1-A) or chaotic domains (1-B). The second process, making decisions, is the culturally situated method of imposing order, through either authentic norms (2-A) (e.g. from complex to complicated to simple) or through the resort to power (2-B) in the chaotic domain. These are described in “Complex Acts” (1,2).

As I was gaining familiarity with the Cynefin framework and assembling the collection of patterns mentioned in my last post, I stumbled onto a most curious repetitious one. I was working on a particular Inter-service issue. These aren’t mainstream, but they are occasional and frequent enough to be troublesome. As one of the older people in my office these things frequently end up on my desk. I was also working this out for three bosses, each of whom had priorities to satisfy. While it sounds like a disaster in progress, it is the common type of work that is presented to managers, action officers and acknowledged experts in any bureaucracy.

For process, we were meeting daily for 1:1 and 1:N discussions. Some days it was 2 or 3 meetings. Towards the end of the second week after a particularly painful day I said in a brief sidebar with the senior manager, “We’re stuck.” To my surprise, he agreed. The next morning we sat down for a frank conversation and compared views. I’m not longer sure who contributed which part; this is what we agreed to:

“It’s the feeling you get when you’re in the right neighborhood; you’re sure of that. But you can’t find the house because they all look the same. And you forgot the invitation! It’s the sense of déjà-vu all over again.”

We agreed that we needed to pause for a few days, meet again to reframe the issue, and then try again. About two weeks later we tried again. The second round concluded within a week and produced a successful and durable decision.

Within the Cynefin framework, when we were stuck we were cycling between Disorder and Chaotic domains and bumping into the fold at the boundary with Simple. I’ve confirmed this pattern in other situations since then.

What I’ve found is a divergence of knowledge between individuals and groups. This is a collapse of complex knowledge into disorder. With the group, to escape from disorder, we can only do so through first principles. For individuals, we each can with relative ease step out of disorder into the complicated and complex domains. Individuals can shift context or can renew the discussion at any point. Groups can not; they always must return to simple and work back up the ladder again (cases 1-A and 1-B).

In Chaotic the rules are different, and groups and individuals are on equal footing. The shift to Complex depends on external factors and it probably occurs only when far from equilibrium and when extreme force is imposed.

We can see now that disorder is extremely strong. We can also see a source of tension between individuals and groups. I’ve learned that I need to be far more careful in using Cynefin and more explicit when explaining a knowledge scenario or case – is it for individuals, groups or both?

(1) “Complex Acts of Knowing,” 1-A and 1-B are contained within culture as an “ideational system” (pg 9)

(2) “Complex Acts of Knowing,” 2-A is culture as a “pattern of residence and resource exploitation” (ibid); 2-B is “the consequence of excess structure or massive change” (pg 17)

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