There are upsides and downsides to being a pioneer. You start off excited by a new idea or concept, continue to develop it in multiple collaborations often covertly, make it practical, get the first few organisations to take a risk and do something with you. That period is frustrating but enjoyable. Then the idea starts to creep into the collective consciousness and selling becomes easier. This is the sweet period, vindication is great, even without acknowledgment. However almost inevitably a sour note creeps in as the ignorant and the opportunistic (and sometimes the opportunistically ignorant) jump on the band wagon and trivialise the subject. The other major problem is where another field purloins the new language or idea, hijacking it to vindicate a now tired concept, the classic example of this is relabeling Information Management as Knowledge Management. In effect the characteristics of my title are, in effect the four horsemen of the apocalypse for new ideas and concepts. Hijacking is the main topic of this post having come across a fairly blatant example yesterday which I want to share. I was also irritated enough the avoid the usual circumspection and name names, so read on if interested.
Now I have been through this cycle for new concepts and technologies several times in my life with personal computing, decision support, object orientation, data warehousing, JAD/RAD and most recently knowledge management. I have a body of examples in which all four horseman are clearly evidenced, normally in isolation or in pairs. In the vast majority of cases I respond with a display of mildly irritated stoicism. We are now entering that stage of adoption in respect of complexity science (CAS) and I was mentally prepared, or at least thought I was until yesterday.
The occasion was a seminar on Innovation and I will freely admit that I was not in the best of moods. A bout of gastroenteritis had meant that I had to cancel a there and back again trip to Mexico. I could struggle up to London, but not survive two flights in three days. I turned up to give the closing keynote on the application of complexity science to innovation. I knew that the programme also had Elizabeth McMillan offering an Edge of Chaos Assessment Model. Now I met Elizabeth some years ago when I was in IBM and we only had one meeting. I came to the conclusion fairly quickly, and with cause, that she was confusing systems dynamics with complex adaptive systems theory. In effect taking the language of complexity but hijacking it to fit an older and more familiar model. I am never very happy with the edge of chaos phrase either, preferring far from equilibrium which is I think more accurate. She is not alone in either of these sins by the way and stoic indifference would be my normal reaction although I had warned the conference organiser that harmony might not prevail.
So I get to the conference, and I am having a cup of coffee waiting for my turn. I thumb through the slide handouts to check what had gone before and discovered Elizabeth’s slides. At this point mildly irritated stoicism started to mutate into an oscillation between weary resignation and righteous fury with the latter winning out. So what caused this? Well to understand I will need to go through some basics first.
There is a fairly standard distinction made between ordered, complex and chaotic systems. Most writers in the field accept this with variations. For example I split order into simple and complicated as does Zimmerman, although who came first is an open issue! The point is that these are three types of system. I normally summarise it as follows:
Now note, these are descriptions of systems not value statements about their nature. They just are, they exist and they behave and are interpreted in different ways. I also know that the above are simplifications and I owe a particular debt to Cilliers in his book and various papers for those definitions.
Now this threefold distinction had been picked up by Elizabeth but with a completely different spin. In effect order (or stability in her language) and chaos had been used to designate undesirable states, with complexity (now labeled as edge of chaos) representing a desirable and idealistic outcome. Her assessment tool went further in claiming to allow an individual or an organisation to designate its status with action plans to live on the edge of chaos in the event they were either stable or chaotic. Not surprising the first stage of any such action plan is to take the Edge of Chaos Assessment Model. Now I am not allowed to reproduce her slides without permission, something I think I am unlikely to get! However I can summarise them in the table below, and then use that as a basis for criticism and a justification of my earlier assertions.
|Totally Stable||Edge of Chaos||Chaotic|
|1||Solid IceTwo rigid no novelty||Water||Gaseous StreamToo disorderly, novelty overload|
|2||Ultimate Couch Potato||Moving around/exploring||Ultimate Headless Chicken|
|3||Stuck in the past. Repeating past behaviours to detriment of present and future||Values past, contemplates the future, lives in the present||Obsessed with the future to the detriment of the present|
|4||No innovation||Constant flow of appropriate delivered innovations||Radical innovations conceived but not delivered or inappropriate|
|5||Tight, rigid management controls. Change can be organised but does not occur||Self organising principles, bottom up, shared processes – constantly adapting||Change cannot be co-ordinated. THere is confusion & no coherence|
|6||Inadequately connected to all parts of the system. Little or no flow of relevant information||Well connected to all parts of the system. Flow of relevant good quality, important information that is useful & manageable||An overwealming overload of information relevant & irrelevant & of differeing quality such that it is impossible to handle & make sense of|
|7||Single loop learning only, static mental models||Lots of double loop learning & single loop learning too||Learning is disconnected from reality & frantic – lack of sense-making|
|8||Ossification certain||Survival chances are high||Disintegration inevitable|
Now I need to make three statements here before proceeding:
So, what are my objections? Well many and various.
Enough, its simple really, the table above and the assessment tool has got nothing whatsoever to do with complexity theory, chaos theory or any science for that matter. It is a list of desirable states with opposing negative extremes. It is platitudinous, contains little that has not been said elsewhere and more effectively, but it is not harmful per se. Some of the case studies she uses (Gore, the Eden Project) are useful if somewhat naively described. The actions proposed in part, but not in whole make sense. What is wrong is grabbing some of the language of complexity theory to justify it. When you let loose the horse of hijacking, those of ignorance, opportunism and trivialisation are never far behind.
The really very, very scary thing is that she has started to use the phrase sense-making …….
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