Language as a necessary – but not sufficient – tool of disruption……

March 18, 2010

In one of my earlier lives, I undertook assignments in workplace reform in some of our traditional and highly unionised industries and workplaces – the waterfront, mining, breweries, construction and manufacturing among them.

There had been a radical shift in the Australian industrial relations system – after a century of centralised determination of standardised wages and conditions via a third party, the enterprise became the focus. Professor Bill Ford, originally my university lecturer and subsequently a colleague in consulting assignments, had for some time been regarded as a maverick and a disruptive influence.. ..and this shift in the legislative framework provided an ideal opportunity for a radical re think of the process of agreeing workplace arrangements.

Fundamental to the approach was a new language….. for example; while officially the process was called enterprise bargaining, the word bargaining contained within in it the ghosts of a century of adversarial relationships. Bill coined the term Enterprise Development Agreements – to signify that the approach was not simply shifting the same bargaining process to the enterprise level. The focus was on the development of the enterprise for the benefit of all …..rather than a game to see who could give away the least.

A cornerstone of the approach was setting up learning teams, to explore issues of shared interest such as work arrangements, customer service, quality and salary systems. They were, in effect, our early version of Social network Stimulation (SNS)… even though we did not know it! An example of different disciplines coming to a similar place from different start points.

Like SNS, learning teams had ‘rules’ about membership, designed to reduce the impact of experts, and increase communication and connections across silos and different levels of the organisation. The issues that teams explored had loose boundaries ( eg find out anything that is relevant to developing excellence in customer experience), short time frames, the requirement to visit organisations in different industries and so on.

For management, there were concept teams – the group responsible for exploring new ideas and concepts to determine applicability in their own organisation. In some organisations we were able to include union representatives, and occasionally customers or suppliers.

The documentation of the agreements – required to be registered within the industrial legal system – were non legal and used ‘plain english’ – a kind of reversed disruption. . They contain purpose and intent, commitments and obligations, diagrams, and explanations of the philosophies and concepts underpinning the agreement – the intent and purpose. They were totally unlike anything that have ever been registered as a legal industrial instrument.

I have strong recollections of the beginning of the process in a number of organisations, where complaints about our insistence on using different language and concepts were loud and sometimes bordering on offensive. Standing firm on this was pivotal to the outcome being different from the industrial relations practices of the past – as soon as an organisation used the language of their past it was inevitable that the outcome departed little from the past. I remember being contacted by one CEO who had been to a well publicised presentation by a number of prominent companies on their experience with Enterprise Development Agreements.. “ I don’t know what they are but I want one”. The response being more about the CEO’s ego than an understanding of, and commitment to the process of innovation.

Which leads me to the parallels with using Cognitive Edge. There are reasonably constant complaints about the ‘use of jargon’, or ‘need for plain English’., particularly from accreditation participants. There is a real tension in making something accessible , because if it sounds too much like something we already know and we do not have to work at finding the differences – our understanding and capacities will be limited by our existing knowledge. With acknowledgement and apologies to Zen Buddhism – – ‘change only happens at the edge’ … and ‘the centre must be emptied for new learning to happen’. And from another perspective, seeing and attempting to recreate the outcomes ( such as the visuals from Sensemaker™ or the registered Enterprise Development Agreements) without the struggle of new language results in being somewhere between poor and effective imitation and ‘this stuff does not work’. Or maybe this is a polarity about disruption – with the ideal state being the capacity to embrace new language and concepts, with the excess state represented by ‘dense and impenetrable jargon’ , and the absence ‘ more of the same;’
The health warning is of course that the new language needs to really represent a shift in perspective and understanding – not the reinvention and re – badging of what is essentially the same old approach.

Necessary – but not sufficient. Some of the other ‘necessary but not sufficients’ I will comment on in subsequent blogs,

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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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