Initial thinking on scaling

July 20, 2014

I had more time to think than I planned on the flight to Sydney last night.  I got upgraded to club which was a good start, but service takes longer so sleep time was cut down, and then destroyed by three families with 9/10 year old kids whose body clocks seem set at mid-morning and whose parents saw no reason to impose any constraint.  If that wasn't bad enough we did the normal is the wind low enough to land from the sea nonsense that you get when you arrive before 0600 at Sydney.  That meant that just after I had dozed off the lights came on to clear breakfast just in case and I had to give up on sleep altogether.  It looked like the guy who took my exit row seat in premium economy had a restful night …

But thinking about constraints is the essence of complexity and in particular the difference between governing and enabling constraints; language you will now find in the latest versions of Cynefin.  In the complicated world of order there is a right answer which can be discovered, mediated and socialised with the right evidence or expertise, such systems are both aggregative and reductionist in nature.  You can break them down and put them back together again without any major issues and in a repeatable and predictable way.  The constraints once discovered provide governing principles that allow prediction and repeatability.   

In a complex system on the other had there is no right answer, just a range of coherent potentialities.  The system is constantly co-evolving and exapting in unpredictable and unreadable ways.  The system is not causal, but it has propensities and dispositions which can be understood, modelled and managed even though the outcomes cannot be determined.  A complex system is what it is, there is no doing back.   Paul Cilliers famous comment that an aircraft is complicated while a mayonnaise is complex serves us well here.

 So it follows a priori that an approach to scaling success or need in a complex system cannot be achieved by repetition or by reductionist or aggregative techniques, putting things into boxes with defined flows as if the whole of human practice could be reduced to some factory like environment.  Chaplin thought he was satirising this in Modern Times. Had he lived he would have seen that which he satirised become a material objection of jam tomorrow desire with techniques such as Sick Stigma and SAFe gaining prominence.  It's not that these techniques don't have good and useful elements; they do in varying degrees.  The issue is that they get the whole idea of scaling wrong because they confuse complex with complicated and flow based process diagrams with dynamic coupling.  Then to try and humanise it they publish pictures of adults play choo-choo trains around the office and claim that proves it works.  I used the word infantilism before without fully realising how true it was.  

Put very directly we already have techniques like BPR and Prince II that work well for complicated systems; trying to put those structured problems on speed with ideological and cult like practices added on doesn't change their basic nature.  They can only mess up a complex system which requires more judgement and more adult behaviour.

More on that tomorrow

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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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