Introduction and How’r'ye?

September 20, 2009

Well, greetings! Adding a bit to the cheeky bio above: My professional biography includes eight years in the U.S. Air Force, doing some interesting things; eight years at a Washington DC think tank, thinking some interesting thoughts; and eight years at a federal contractor, working on some interesting contracts. Today, I find myself associated with a private foundation, working to shape the future for learning and the U.S. education system(s).

(Random aside: I find it interesting that the natural language here regarding employment leads me to say I was “in” the Air Force, and “worked at” or “associated with” for every other position. There is some continuum of identity at work here – someone “is” a doctor or plumber, someone is “in” the military, or someone “works for” an employer.)

My guest stint comes during a driving tour of southern Ireland; so while I had a list of topics prepared this summer, my mind is more actively engaged discovering my ancestral home in some detail. While driving on the wrong side of a car that needs to remain on the wrong side of the road is a daunting endeavor, I can recommend highly this experience for anyone interested in discovery.

Specifically, my discoveries include: the unmatched hospitality of the Irish, a history that predates the pyramids of Giza or Stonehenge, and the character of a land that was England’s first and last colony. Driving through the countryside listening to “Shannonside North and South with Joe Finnegan” we are treated to conversations of local politics and world events. One speaker laments the excesses of individual consumption during the “Celtic tiger” surging economy, but closes with this thought: “We shouldn’t be all that hard on ourselves, after all – we’ve been destitute for eight hundred years! Can anyone blame us for thinking it was our turn?”

Driving on Irish roads, I am likely one of the safest because I have a white-knuckled navigator at my side, and am more focused than most on adapting 35 years of driving habits. One habit I’m learning, quite by accident, is collaborative driving. In the U.S., I am used to wide roads, clearly marked lanes and expected behaviors. Breaches of etiquette are met with upraised fingers and the sounding of horns. Here, the road situation is more constrained. Narrow winding streets are shared with cyclists, pedestrians, sheep, etc. In order to pass these, cars are forced to the center of the road. Opposing traffic is expected to accommodate by moving to their left, or slowing down so that the constrained path may be shared by all.

I am responsible not just for my lane, but for the smooth journey of all around me. Navigating narrow city streets in Drogheda or Mullingar is something everyone does together. If traffic is crawling, cars from the side streets are admitted on an alternate basis to the main thoroughfare.

I am told that a similar constrained road system in other nations – Italy, for example – leads to more aggressive behavior, not less. But here, I see little aggression on the roadways, and feel little stress myself. For whatever reason, when I’m placed on a constrained road system, I become a more collaborative driver. A desirable pattern of behavior, brought about – in part – by increased constraints in the system.

Whether considering how to re-shape an education system or enjoying the layers of history for an Irish passage tomb, I have a consistent experience that I’d like to share in the interests of learning. Everywhere I look, I see evidence of non-linearity, emergence, and generally an affirmation of the complexity principles that I adopted years ago as my intellectual goalposts and guides. With this perspective, I hope to explore the “elusive how” in questions of policy and leadership. Moving from a control mindset to one that seeks to influence is a risky endeavor in the combative sphere of public policy – but is critical to moving forward towards shared goals.

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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.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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