July 6, 2007

This morning saw me wake up with a hangover and in trouble at home. Given that the village bookclub refuses to admit men, we have a first Thursday club that meets in the pub for intelligent conversation once a month. 6X is a wonderful pint, but I had at least one to many, then discovered that I had forgotten my keys when I got back at midnight and you can imagine the consequences. Either way this morning I was fragile and the email was mixed. One to one conversations with Uncle Jerry are civilised but I must admit I am giving up hope of any end to paternalism, and travel is proving difficult to organise for July August. Those irritations aside, my morning was brightened by an email from Vivienne Blake of the University of Western Australia (UWA) who had attended the Perth accreditation course a couple of weeks ago. She had gone straight from the training to run an ambitious project and had a good result. I quote from her email:

Hi Living-on-the-Cognitive-Edge Fellow Travellers,
Kenn Martin and I tried out the Cognitive Edge material Cynefin framework and Social Network Stimulation (SNS)last week and I was delighted with the result. The client made one of those speeches at the end of “I must admit I came along this morning pretty skeptical, but I am amazed at how much we have achieved today.” Don’t you just love that!

The rest of her email is set out below (with permission) and it is an educational and entertaining read.

One of the things this shows is a lesson we have learnt time and time again with the methods, namely that if you run with them without trying to change them into something more conventional (making falcons into pigeons) then they work. Ron Donaldson proved this at English Nature many years ago much to the consternation of a bunch of highly trained IBM consultants who could not resist making something novel and different into a more familiar and conventional approach in the mistaken belief that it would be improved as a result.

So back to the email and if you want to understand some of the methods then they are up on the web site.

The group we were working with was two sections of UWA who are being merged – one very commercially based which teaches/updates surgery skills to surgeans as ongoing professional development; the other group is a research and teaching based unit which basically shows medico/clinicians how to teach students. They are two very different cultures. We had them for 1 day. This is what we did.

First I put on my fluffy bunny ears and we did a happy-clappy exercise (drawing a ‘coat of arms’ for the new merged entity) which I think was important to loosen them up and make connections for the SNS later in the day. Cynefin Framework was scheduled next but at morning tea it became clear that the group was agitated because they were unsure what name they would have as a new entity. So I quickly redesigned the programme to deal with the name issue. Basically I got the Director to describe the process that would be used to decide the name ( which was that Exec Committee makes decision based on input from staff and from marketing experts – all subject to approval of Vice Chancellor). Then I ran a group process from which they came up with a list of preferred names and voted on them to identify the top 3 they preferred. Resolving the name issue not only calmed them down, it also gave them a good example of problem-solving in the Complicated Domain (identify a process; may involve expert input etc) which I was able to refer them back to later.

We did Cynefin Framework theory before lunch, then got stuck into practical application after they had eaten. We had given them the focus theme 2 weeks before the workshop which was “What work needs to be undertaken to enhance shared Research, Teaching, Marketing and Client Service?” I asked them to choose the topic they could contribute to most from the choices of teaching, research, marketing or client service and to form groups based on those topics. Within these groups, I asked them to brainstorm all the issues that needed addressing e.g the research group considered what needed to be done to enhanced shared reseach between the two parts of the new merged entity. They brainstormed the ideas onto post-its, then created a Cynefin Framework by placing the issues in Simple, Complicated, Complex or Chaotic domains.

Next I asked them to solve one problem in each domain. I reminded them of the approach for each domain:

Simple – Action Plan of Who to do What by When, KPI’s and Costs;
Complicated – Identify what process or expert will you use;
Complex -Identify a probe with attractors and barriers (safe fail);
Chaos – Act immediately – then decide which domain the issue may best be resolved from.

I provided them with some proformas to assist the problem-solving. The proforma’s for each domain are attached – they are very basic but they did the job. I gave them about 1 hour for this and it worked very well. They soon got the feel of how problems from different domains were best approached in different ways.

Then I asked them to choose one tricky problem from either the Complex or Complicated Domain to work on for the rest of the day. They spent some time working out a way to tackle the problem they chose, then I ran them trhough the 3 rounds of Ritual Dissent, Dissent and Assent. They found this very useful in finetuning their problem solving. It had the additional benefit of exposing just about everybody in the room to the problems that others were working on, across teaching, research, marketing and client service. This meant there was no need for that boring ‘reporting back’ which is a real issue when you have small groups working on various issues.

By now it was 4.15 they were due to finish by 5.00 and they were looking very tired. But I couldn’t resist having a go at Social Network Stimulation (SNS). I quickly explained the theory of it, making particular reference to the information that social networks take about 2 years to form naturally for new entities such as theirs, but SNS could cut that time to around 2 months. I then asked them to choose a problem they had worked on today, or something new which they thought was important. I suggested it be from Complex or Complicated Domain. We gave then rules for group composition (each team must include one person from each Centre) then asked them to develop own KPI’s and rewards. To my amazement, they were finished in 10 minutes.

The projects they came up with were excellent and varied. One was to fully develop & implement a new marketing plan (which was the Complex problem one group had run through the Dissent/Assent process); another was to develop, distribute and manage a template setting out all the skills in the staff, so they would all have a better idea of ‘who can do what’ in the new merged Centre. Another was to organise a meeting every Monday at 3.00pm at the Uni Club, to share ideas and get to know each other. There rewards were surprisingly modest – but important to them.
The marketing people wanted the Uni to pay for a launch party for their marketing plan (readily agreed to by Centre Director) and the others wanted rounds of coffee paid for. Excellent outcomes at very little cost – most people said getting their issue sorted out was reward enough.

So there you go. I do a lot of facilitation of these kind of planning days, but I would have to say the Cognitive Edge processes produced results far better than most. I am now a full Cognitive Edge convert! If any of you are trying anything out and want some assistance, I would be happy to co-facilitate or assist in any other way. I think it’s great stuff.

Kenn and I now have our eye on the software and have some good ideas on how we might use it – so watch this space.

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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.

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


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