January 14, 2011

I flew into Toronto by way of Miami last night (don’t ask its just the way the flights worked out) for the tenth conference of Engineers without Borders. This morning having navigated the Toronto street car system to get to the venue (getting moral bonus points over other speakers who wimped out and got taxis) I spent most of the day attending sessions before delivering a presentation on Complexity along with Owen Bardor. The idea was that we should both give 15 minute presentations and then there would be a discussion. As it turned out both of us took twenty minutes, the chair took about the same to introduce and conclude and we had already lost over half an hour as a result of overruns! That said the conversations afterwards were really interesting. Being at conference of enthusiastic young engineers who all want to make a difference to the world is wonderfully invigorating. Well, most of the time; having a room near the lift in the hotel when most rooms have four students sharing is interesting in the early hours of the morning!

Kimvana by the way is a Chichewa word meaning Unite so we may Discuss and Understand; rather like Cynefin a single word is used to convey a complex nexus of meaning. The brochure also talks about embracing complexity not reducing it which was very welcome.

I promised to post my talk and you can find it here. I also promised links to supporting material; I did something similar a few days ago and a lot of the material is common so this post provides some commentary and also a whole series of links. Those links include material that was referenced by John Hecklinger in an earlier session; he talked about the Global Giving project using SenseMaker® in Kenya.

I also made the strong point that complex adaptive systems thinking is not the same thing as systems thinking (at least in terms of the popular meaning of that term, technically systems dynamics). I think this was well illustrated by a session earlier in the day which was advertised as being led by Peter Senge, but in practice his presence was required in Austria so we had a video recording in three parts. My tweet stream (@snowded) of the session I leave to those interested to follow. The critical point here is the difference between a CAS approach and that advocated by Senge. He also creates a false dichotomy between industrial society and a romanticized, nostalgic and inaccurate view of ancient wisdom and its connection with the land. The latter is in my opinion idealistic in the wrong sense of the word. There is far too much attention to language not action in Senge’s work and we saw that with quotes from the Communist Party and Unilever. Wonderful words, but the actions ….

We were told about people who painted with values and aspirations on their huts and then spent 25 years realising their vision. I’ll take that one on trust, but its not going to deal with the very real problems of development. CAS approaches do not attempt to define an idealized future state and then seek to modify the mental models of individuals to achieve it. That’s the evangelical model which declares the word to be sinful and evil place which can only be redeemed through personal transformation. Its a great excuse for focusing on changing people rather than changing systems.

CAS approaches deal with what I have called the situated now. By focusing on describing the realities of the present you can identify potential future directions. Those that appear favorable to some overall purpose receive funding for safe-to-fail experiments. If they succeed we amplify them if they fail we kill them off fast. We don’t assume that we have to change people to change systems, we realise that small interventions and system change will create a co-evolutionary relationship between people and system that will evolve to something that we cannot anticipate or predict, nor should we. Authenticity and empowerment will arise from evolutionary processes not from abstract imposition of platitudes.

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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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