Learning: an anthro-complexity perspective

September 9, 2021

Bekir donmez eofm5R5f9Kw unsplashIf you go back in time then two books could be considered to have laid the foundation for what I have termed the ‘systems thinking’ era which runs from the 1990s and is now (hopefully) starting to run out of steam while leaving much of value.  They are Hammer & Champy’s 1993 Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution and Peter Senge’s 1990 The Fifth Discipline, the Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation.   Hammer had previously published an HBR article in 1990 and there is some argument that Tom Davenport also originated the term in the same year.  Whatever those two books change things fundamentally and they represent two aspects of an all too common dichotomy that has perpetuated itself in management thinking ever since.  There is a Yin and Yang aspect to the two.

Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) had a very strong focus on efficiency but after a promising start seemed to end up with a focus on cost reduction with staff layoffs being its greatest characteristic.  It grew quickly because its launch coincided with the first ERP system in SAP which in turn generated a requirement for large teams of consultants, that resulted in massive growth in a manufacturing model of consultancy which also drove the formation and rapid rise of business schools & MBAs although that move was already underway as the idea of management as a profession was growing.  I got my MBA after three years of part-time study in 1986, back in the early days of that movement.  What you had was a sort of perfect storm in which a whole set of things came together and then amplified each other.  There were of course linked dependencies, the growth of cheap computing was essential to the information requirements of BPR to take one example.

In partial contrast, the idea of a Learning Organisation appealed to a more human approach to work, in contrast with the hardness of BPR which saw humans as readily disposable widgets in a wider manufacturing process.  The whole organisational development movement started here, driven by the need to align individuals with wider goals set by leaders. My general view is that more people were inspired by Senge’s work, and we had the Society of Organisational Learning set up (SOL) although that seems to have declined somewhat since the Vienna congress at which I was, thanks to the Australian’s, a disruptive keynote. To be clear here (before too many people jump on me) I do know that Senge represents a popularised form of system dynamics not the whole of systems thinking but he uses the wider phrase as his fifth discipline so for the purpose of this post I am running with it.

That goal of alignment is common to both, as is the pattern of consultancy-driven adoption in organisations.  In a very real sense, the pair of them started the whole fad cycle that has been with us ever since.  The whole scale, company-wide adoption of a new ‘thing’ with the promise of transformation.  Nearly always a context-free solution in a context-specific world.  Of the two, BPR which morphed dangerously into what Gary Klein has called Sick Stigma, had the bigger long-term impact as the changes induced were substantial.  You were re-engineered, staff were laid off, automation dominated and information became a mechanism of increasingly centralised control.  With LO, adoption of the language and many of the practices was easy but also more ephemeral in nature.  Other approaches could mimic much of the LO approach but with different labels and different hype.  The dependency on behavioural shifts by individuals for its implementation meant that it was fairly easy to game, to use the new language but continue with the old practices.  Mission and value statements ended up being determined top-down, and then were propagated often with religious fervor, to an audience that became increasingly sophisticated at giving lip service to the new ‘thing’.  The pattern of a best-selling book, offering a desirable future, requiring transformation change, easily gamed to be replaced a few years later by the next bright shiny idea was established.  Think of Blue Ocean, The Knowledge Creating Company and many others that followed.

When both books were published I was running a business unit and later, in a strategy role, would initiate the set up of a SAP/BPR business in the company.  I and others who pioneered the early days of knowledge management took Senge’s work as part inspiration to drive the work we were doing.  The problem we started to encounter was the question of how to make the lofty ideas work in practice.  It’s all very well to say that managers should listen to their employees before formulating goals and the like, but most managers say they do that but then don’t other than in a token way.  The whole issue of personal mastery started to get wrapped up as a form of new-age soma to make the BPR drive efficiencies more palatable.  The growth of understanding from the various cognitive sciences started to make the idea of mental models seem overly mechanistic and deterministic in nature and so on.  With the benefit of hindsight Fifth Discipline was very good at saying what was wrong, and very good at saying how things should be, but weak on methods that would produce sustainable change.   BPR in contrast resulted in fundamental changes in the structure of organisations, some good and some that we are only now starting to recover from.  Even the most cursory of reading of any of the more recent management books on the market will show you that the ability to define what is wrong and create idealistic (often platitudinal) statements about how things should be has continued to this day, with little that you can’t find already listed in Senge’s book.  The two-column tables with evil and on the left and goodness on the right that abound are evidence alone, but they also indicate a strong tendency to Manichæism in Northern Europe and North America.

Both approaches involved the idea of discipline, purpose, focus, and the like.  On the wider field of strategy Porter triumphed over Mintzberg, scenario planning sought to contain or channel the future, and overall we have the quest for certainty and the promise that the latest recipe (and they all became recipes) would solve the problems of life the universe and everything; the answer to that as any educated person will tell you is 42 but it didn’t stop their promulgation by people who Douglas Adams sensible confined to Ark Fleet Ship B.  I lived through the implementation of most of these recipes (directly or through working with organisations in recovery) over the years and after the initial enthusiasm of a newly minted MBA I got a lot more cynical and started to ask why we were always starting again?  In fact, most of the movements provided value but none were universal and after some initial success, their limitations became known.   But people wanted a universal.  I argued at the time there was nothing wrong with BPR in manufacturing and what I would now call ordered systems, but everything was wrong with it in services.  But the desire for transformation persisted and has been done ever since.  One of the main drivers for my creation of the Cynefin Framework was the desire to make it clear that different things worked in different contexts and most of the time we just needed to work out the limits of past practice, maintain its use in context but act differently beyond that boundary.

So where is all this going?

The proximate cause of my writing this post was a question on the Cynefin Community Slack Channel which read:

Topic of building a ‘learning organization’ came up for one for my clients. A colleague put Peter Senge out there immediately. Wanted to offer alternative from the ‘Cynefin work.’ (e.g. entangled trios, journaling, etc.) Is there a particular article or video that has the most succinct collection of the methods all described together at once?

I somewhat foolishly offered to write a blog post and this, the best part of two weeks later is it.  Returning to The Fifth Discipline a few decades later it was remarkably dated, but it still triggered memories of that earlier inspiration – it is a book about how things should be and to a degree difficult to challenge, but it is not really a book about how to achieve change.  It spawned a body of methods, mainly workshop-based.  Lots of systems diagrams, lots and lots of cases retrofitted to the theory, and many exhortations to change.  We are now three decades on, and we should maybe start to question a little why it, and its successors have not worked.

So does anthro-complexity provide an answer?  Probably not a complete one, but it does provide a sense of direction and a set of practices that are not dependent on people changing their ‘mindsets’ or behaviour before acting, instead people change as a result of those actions in their own time, and in their own way.  This has been a key aspect of my work over the years and it can be summarised as shifting from the obsession of talking about how things should be to define the practice, to initiating micro and localised changes in connectivity that of themselves result in change and create a natural environment for talking about things.  Safe-to-fail activity, in order to enable conversations, is key here.

Now, most of this is in the EU Field Guide – now available free in hard copy for those who want it.  But I was asked for a succinct summary of the various approaches described in that Guide so this is it.  And it is high level 🙂

There are seven basic steps to map where we are, three pervasive practices, and three things to which we need to pay attention.  All of the methods and approaches here are documented in the field guide and are available in our open-source Wiki so I am just summarising them here.  There is a lot of other material there – the lists of what can be managed and what can be monitored in a complex system being one as well as a host of methods associated with descriptive self-awareness, making people aware of differences which I will blog on later this month.  So assume there is more material to use.  You can search on the wiki or on this blog for the key terms.  If I get time next week I may edit the blog to create the links but I don’t have time now.

Mapping the evolutionary potential of the here and now

  1. Constraint mapping is a key technique using the typology of constraints that has been developed over the last few years.  Constraints can contain or connect, they can be resilient or robust among other characteristics but overall they allow us to understand the nature of where we are.
  2. Once the constraints are determined we can map the counter-factual space (I am drawing on constructor theory here), which is to say we start by defining what is not possible, rather than what we would desire.  Cultural mapping is a key tool here and it’s use is linked with the assemblage point below.
  3. Once complete we look at the temporal aspects of our counter-factual statements – what constraints could be changed at what risk?  What changes in those constraints can we make anyway?  Which if changed, would open up more desirable future pathways.  This creates a where we are, and a set of stages of where we could go in the future and we set those up for review at key future check points.
  4. The aporetic turn in the field guide gives us different pathways to explore different Cynefin Domains.  Where the nature of the expertise is obvious then we deploy expertise and analysis.  Where there are conflicting experts we use a short cycle Tripticon to resolve those conflicts, where we have inadequate hypotheses we deploy human sensor networks (see later), and if it is complex (and most of it will be) then we move to stage 5
  5. We then seek to create constructors (and map what exists).  Constructors resolve uncertainty as they produce replicable outcomes.  So a machine once running produces identical products.  In human systems rituals and tropes do something similar.  Understanding what we have got, and then creating safe-to-fail probes to see which are possible, sustainable, and advantageous allows us to understand the pathways available to us
  6. This activity allows us to see how the ecosystem is evolving and allows us to reinforce desirable results, distrust those which are not desirable.  Vector theory of change comes in here with its more like these, fewer like those approaches to engagement.
  7. We use our human sensor networks to provide real-time feedback loops and also to capture learning and ideas in real-time into a narrative database.  That becomes a repository of learning and allows us to continue to evolve the system

In all of this, we are working with a very basic fact;  if the energy cost of sin is less than that of virtue then sin is what you will get.  If you want to change, you have to make the energy cost of your desired pathway less than that of the alternatives.  This simple statement is a radical change from the last thirty years.  We are creating an ecosystem where the cost of learning is less than the cost of ignorance and seeking to prevent the game playing that accommodates top-down approaches to change that seek compliance and alignment.

Pervasive practices

  1. Build informal networks, or if you want a fancier term context-free information channels.  Entangled Trios and Social Network Stimulation are methods here.  Informal networks keep the formal system operating and they are much neglected which means they too easily get perverted to an old boys (or girls) network. Deliberate stimulation avoids that.
  2. Map what your knowledge  in order to radically repurpose it under conditions of stress or simply use it better in practice.  The granularity by which you store this is key and narrative databases, decision-information mapping, and ASHEN all form a body of methods for this.
  3. Create human sensor networks, of your employees and if you can citizens, customers, and so on.  This is one of the main uses of SenseMaker® with MassSense and distributed scenario planning and situational assessment.  it also includes outlier identification and weak signal detection as well as real-time monitoring

Things to pay attention to

I will be writing more posts on this so take this as a marker:

  1. Determine what or who has agency in the organisation and in what contexts.  Trio based decision making, Crews, and a range of other techniques are available here but in general its not about individuals it’s about groups, connections and interactions.
  2. What are the affordances available to you?  This is a byproduct of constraint mapping and counterfactuals but is important in itself
  3. What assemblages or entrained patterns of thinking are present and which can be changed?  What are the lines of the flight, the ligne de fuite that are available, and at what cost?

More on all of this later and there is a book or two in this, but for the moment I was asked for a high-level summary so this is it, and with a wider context to open


The banner picture is of the Crab Nebula cropped from an original which in turn was assembled from 24 individual exposures taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope  Secondary Creator Credit: NASA/ESA/JPL/Arizona State Univ.  I chose it as a visual representation of the complexity of an organisation

The opening picture titled balance is by Bekir Dönmez on Unsplash and the symbolism, both direct and ironic, should be obvious

3 responses to “Learning: an anthro-complexity perspective”

  1. NWestbury says:

    I liked this blog Dave. Really interesting, thank you.

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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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