Keeping the faith?

November 7, 2020

DSC 7316Just as a warning, this is a rather rambling post.  The overall theme is about constraints and is another theme I will be posting about over the next month or so.  You might want to do a search on ‘Mending Walls’ both on this blog and the wider internet if you want more of the background.   Robert Frost’s poem of that name is to my mind the poem of anthro-complexity and I have used it in several blog posts, for the first time recalling a meal with Stu Kauffman, Brian Arthur and Walter Freeman after an event at the Almaden Institute.  That itself was an ironic event as IBM having closed my unit down as complexity science was not strategic had now decided it was; so I was pulled back as a consultant some three years after leaving.

A lot of water has passed under a lot of bridges since then and we’ve had an Exploratory with the Theory of Constraints community to look at similarities and differences between the different uses of the language.  In anthro-complexity and complexity in general, constraints are not always seen as things to remove.  Constraints can contain or they can connect but in today’s post, I am thinking aloud about their use as boundaries.  It is important to realise that boundaries are often designed to be crossed.  The picture here shows a gap in the wall that in lower pastures might have a wooden gate.  Often several large cross-stones protrude from a stone wall to create a pathway for humans, but not sheep; a type of permeability.  .  Without a boundary it is difficult to achieve change and without connections, there is no path to progress.

So boundaries act as containers (one of those words much abused in complexity practitioners)  but they also act as trigger mechanisms.   Many years ago (back in IBM Days) the IBM research group I worked with most at Hawthorn Labs set up a study group around a statement I had made that boundaries were essential to human sense-making.  Awareness that you have crossed a boundary allows you to behave differently and ritual reinforces that, as a Catholic entering a church the act of crossing yourself with Holy Water triggers an attitudinal shift to take one example.  Boundaries create awareness of difference while gradients can catch us out.  I should say that the study group did irritate at least one of its members who was trying to persuade me to remove the boundaries from Cynefin.  Crossing a boundary is a cognitive trigger mechanism and I am using cognitive in the wider sense of embodied and enacted consciousness by the way.  Now I can illustrate this with a story from last week.

Last Monday I did a hurried last minute booking of a holiday cottage near Kirby Stephen (one of the best I have ever stayed in by the way) and headed north for two days of pre-lockdown walking.  Wednesday was a perfect autumn day with wonderful low light and good walking conditions.  I walked for just over nine hours, the last with a head torch and always felt in control.  Tuesday in contrast started off wet and miserable but it started to clear in the late morning so I chose a shorter, lower level route on the Howgill Fells.  That took me along a delightful path that followed the River Rawthey for several miles before turning left for the abrupt climb up Cautley Spout (pictured right) which was in full flow. DSC 7230 copyFrom there the path follows Gill Beck (often in the beck) until it reaches the saddle to the south of The Calf from where it follows a well made track back to Sedburgh.  While the weather had been good up to that point I was now high enough to be in the cloud and that cloud came with rain.  By the time I reached the saddle at which point a strong wind was added to the mix and despite a good path, I started to get tired and cold.  I just wanted the whole thing to be over and the number of paths on the top of the Howgill Fells, which present no issue in good weather, means that in poor visibility you need to constantly check the sat nav and/or compass.  I knew that the light would fade soon and I was walking alone and hadn’t seen anyone else all day.  When you get into that state you often start to just push on and hope it will all be over soon and that is dangerous.  At one point I didn’t attempt to avoid a small boggy area and plunged up to my knee, saved by the trekking pole from twisting my knee which, lacking cartilage is vulnerable.  That triggered me as that type of casual behaviour is an early sign of failure and a potential indicator of exposure.  I stopped, had some hot tea, ate some nuts and added a layer of clothing under my waterproof.  If you don’t know how to do that without taking the waterproof off then go and practice it before you go on the fells!  I started to count paces to facilitate navigation and started singing Calon Lan badly to the various rain-sodden sheep I passed.  As I dropped out of the cloud to the east of Winder the evening sun provided warmth that was spiritual as well as physical and the pattern of light on the pasture at the valley floor gave hope.

Some eight years ago, following my being caught up in a landslip on the South West Coastal path the early training in mountains and mountain rescue meant I knew I was way past the early stages of exposure so modesty was thrown out of the window as I knew I urgently needed to get rid of wet clothes ad change in the car park at Lynmouth.  Knowing when you have crossed a boundary and need to behave differently is key in personal survival but it is also critical in both politics and organisational design.  Managed change in human systems means the deliberative use of boundaries rather than the accidental banality of a gradient or the catastrophic change when a system is catalysed to near-catastrophic change.  This also links to another theme I plan to post on namely the role of individual change and ‘mastery’ in organisational change and my wider concern about methods derived from therapy and or Jungian archetypes but that is for another day.  The point here is that changing boundary conditions and connections is more effective than trying to change individual actors which is not to say that said actors may not need coaching, but coaching is a response to the dispositional landscape, in other than very rare circumstances it will not change it.

Boundaries are also critical to maintaining coherence.   I posted yesterday on the way in which Cynefin has propagated in multiple uses over time.  One of the reasons for that is that I have always cast the boundaries loosely then tried to tighten them.  If someone reduces Cynefin to a two by two matrix, or worse still confuse it with the Stacy Matrix then I generally just make a note on the blog or tweet or whatever that Cynefin has five domains or provide this link to a blog post on the subject.  Most of the time that is like a touch on the tiller or a tightening of a sheet (sorry adding sailing metaphors here) and the use moves to a high level of coherence.  Sometimes however someone gets stubborn and insists that their understanding is correct.   I’ve had this form time over the years, the first with one well-intentioned individual who had not even bothered to read the articles before he made a remarkably silly statement about Cynefin’s only response to chaos being to get the hell out of it.  More recently with the Galletroll who hates the idea that anything might not be predictable and briefly took too social media with a series of ad hominem easily refuted claims.  A characteristic of such use is that the individual concerned sooner or later blocks you.  I confess to rarely blocking, preferring persistence of response.  Different uses of ideas provide fertile grounds for innovation and thinking, creating the sort of cult-like bubble that surrounds the likes of Peter Senge is to be avoided at all costs.  But there are limits, there are points at which you have to draw a line in the sand or homogenisation will kill you.  My own general view on this is to be as relaxed as possible but then pull in hard when things go to far. I admit that the switch may sometimes be too sudden and not provide early warning signs for which apologies.   I know myself that I tend to move from questioning and polite argument, through irony then sarcasm, satire and finally condemnation! So there are warning signs

Now this is a real and ongoing issue.  I recently had reason to call in a set of slides used for training around two core methods.  What had happened over the years is that slides had been copied, adapted and changed and the essence of the original method not only lost but contradicted. Plato’s cave had become a labyrinth with successively weaker fires.  So it is time to set a boundary or two.  The decision we made is the make the incipient wiki on methods open-source (I suspect we will be there by the new year along with some other significant initiatives) which means that a community can develop around their use. This was planned a year ago but there were legal issues as well as concern about firewalls.  That became a boundary that had to go, hence the shift to making them open. The nice thing about a wiki is that the source material is always there in its current form and the talk pages allow for discussion and resolution.  However, there will be a constraint in the admin function and the monitoring of reversion of changes.

That is a part of recognising the growing maturity and acceptance of the ideas around anthro-complexity and naturalising sense-making as a field.  Trying to lock something into a proprietary approach is a mistake made by most Agile businesses, evolutionary open standards always leave a more lasting legacy.  But it can’t mean that anything goes and you have to deal with the poor imitations and outright theft of people with no originality of their own and little ethics other than self-interest; the horne of the dillemma here is when to ignore and when to respond.   Overall I think the best defense against plagiarism is to just keep moving on, increasing the energy cost of imitation.

There is a related issue of presentation – which is when to disturb and when to conform or possibly camouflage.  There is entropy in consultancy practice which tends to a reductio ad plattus (a variation of rhetorical technique of reductio ad absurdum and if anyone can correct my Latin I would be grateful it has been a long time since O Level!).  It is part of the temptation associated with scaling – how much do you cloth the unconventional with the conventional?  I used to have a heuristic of dressing more formally the more revolutionary the idea which is still a good one.  But to make that work you have to make sure that the costume does not maketh man.  If you are on the cusp of achieving a change the temptation to conform will be greater than in your early days of innovation in the life cycle so it is then that you need to be the most paranoid.  There is a golden rule here namely if your language and presentation look like the thing you are trying to replace then you have it wrong, if it looks so different that there is no transition evident then you are also wrong.  It’s all about boundaries.


The banner picture is an early morning view looking South East from the ascent of Pen Cerig-calch on a wet day in October completing the Llanbedr Horseshoe in the Black Mountains of South Wales.  It is an interesting illustration of the way constraints come into play.  Since I started to use a lot of my own photographs in the blog and the banner dimensions are a thin landscape form I find I am often looking out for pictures that will crop down to the designated size.  It used to be 1280 by 300px which was hard, now we have a new proportion of 1240 by 450 px and it will be interesting to see how this pans out.  Constraints are powerful techniques in composition as in life.

The opening picture was taken last Wednesday on the summit of my fourth of ten Wainwrights that day, namely Thornthwaite Crag, looking west to the Irish sea through a gap in the stone walls that characterise mountain areas in Wales and England.  This walk is a part of my plan to do all the Wainwrights in forty days or less which involves long days and some interesting extensions – in this case to Gray Crag which is a delight and without the plan, I might never have visited.

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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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