Initial working on identity

October 28, 2017

One of my best ever Opera experiences was back in 1986 when I went to what looks to have been the only production of Harrison Birtwhistle’s brilliant Mask of Orpheus. I didn’t know about complexity theory at the time and IBM was a decade away on the horizon. It really needs to be revived, and in the original production as the stage made it, each area seeing a different part of the story which was examined from multi-perspectives in parallel rather than in sequence. Each of the main characters appeared in three forms: singer as human, mime as hero and puppet as myth. Memory, prediction and reality were intertwined and the whole thing was a musical and intellectual delight. I have the recording as a memory, but the sound alone is not enough.

So why I am raising this now? Well, one of the other major areas I am developing at the moment is the whole question of identity as a primary unity of analysis in understanding organisations and society. This is compatible with, but not the same thing as the Cynefin Centre’s Meaning and Identity programme. The dominant approach in organisations is to see the individual and formal aggregations of individuals (in hierarchies and matrices) as the principle unity of analysis and therefore focus for change or engineering. Hence the emphasis on individual development, competences and all the panoply of idealistic models and mandates that consume attention and resource within organisations and the broad eco-system that has gown up around Organisational Development practice (I’m deliberately avoiding the word theory) over the last few decades. In my ore cynical moments I see much of that eco-system as reversing the normal biological progression from parasite to symbiote with a resulting Stockholm Syndrome relationship between OD and CEO.

Switching from individual to identity and from formal structure to constraint management offers us an interesting alternative to this focus. As the problem increases in complexity we increasingly change the nature of constraints, loosening coupling to allow rapid readjustment to a dynamic situation, reversing the process as the situation stabilises again. Critical to this is a reduction in the number of things that have to be managed and a focus which builds experimentation into change. So this exploration is going to bring in my prior development of a typology of constraints. Just to be clear, it’s not going to be complete in one blog post! However, getting a chance to teach this on an advanced Cynefin Course in Sydney last week helped get a lot of things straight in my mind. So let me start by listing some types of identity:

  1. Role based identities such as crews, in which people are training in role and role interaction.
  2. Activity or socially triggered identities; how we feel in different contexts.  The example I normally give is that these days over a weekend I can shift between rugby supporter, hill walker & opera goer wearing different clothes, having different conversations while maintaining a degree of integrity around a core.
  3. Task based identities (often overlapping with crews) in which a common task working with familiar people creates a different perspective.  However smaller constructs, such as pair programming offering some interesting possibilities that I want to develop here.
  4. Context triggered such as in a crisis where wholly different patterns of expectation and interaction form without design
  5. Authority and power based entities both formal and informal.

Now that list is not definitive, but it should be recognisable. What I will develop is a theory of organisational design and market understanding based on this, which will link with apex predator theory and liminal cynefin. That will develop in a series of blog posts over the next few months as I attempt to synthesis over a decade of writing here into material that I can take into my eight day January book writing retreat.

More later, but in case you are wondering about the connection with my opening paragraph, Ritual, multiple forms and ambiguity over time are critical to all of this thinking.

6 responses to “Initial working on identity”

  1. Greg Brougham says:

    Dave, interested in the implications for organisaitonal design

  2. DisqusThisAgain says:

    Does your work link at all to social identity theory (, and Henri Tajfel’s work?

    • Dave Snowden says:

      Social Identity Theory is really more about the individual, but its something to position against once the theory is fully developed – but its not a source. Tajfel is interesting and I want to try and find if anyone has mapped his work to Deluze

  3. Matt says:

    Very interesting, I would like to share some very raw thoughts about the topic, inspired from some of your blog posts. I was wondering about the state of Agile coaching in this context, nowadays. While a large slice of the community is more focused on selling prepackaged scaling frameworks and recipes or on speaking about nonsense stuff like “degrees of antifragility”, I think that the duty of an Agile coach (among many others) is also helping companies and teams in finding their own identity. Looking at successful organizations, I see a common pattern: they have a strong identity and a culture derived from this identity (not sure whether the egg or the chicken came first). While concepts like NLP are focused on configuring single “human units” (against any communitarianism thought), I see coaching as a way to step over the threshold: just to hazard an analogy, what comes to my mind is the shaman’s role in tribal societies that helps people with rites of passage (hopeful in a proper way – even Maya had they own human sacrifices rituals). Assuming my viewpoint on this is not completely wrong, I was wondering if this can be somehow linked to liminal Cynefin dynamics.

    • Dave Snowden says:

      I think I agree with most of that and I’m going to explore it further. Also looking to create a team based assessment and feedback tool

  4. Wim Nusselder says:

    Interesting and seems to blend nicely with my thinking on identity.

    For more explanation I will have to refer to the Metaphysics of Quality of Robert Pirsis as described in his ‘novel’ “Lila, an inquiry into morals” from 1991.
    There he describes an alternative to Subject-Object Metaphysics in which reality consists of patterned experience defined by value/quality on 4 different levels (inorganic, biological, social and intellectual [I prefer: symbolic]) plus Dynamic Quality.
    All levels (of stable patterns of value) evolve towards being increasingly dynamic/versatile at different speed ranges typical of their level.
    The levels are essentially ‘levels of dynamism’ with fundamentally different latching mechanisms with accordingly fundamentally different evolutionary histories and dynamics.

    Identity can then be understood as being a phenomenon at different levels and identification as awareness that shifts between and overlaps levels of experience.

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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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