low tech and on the ground - Cog Edge methods at work

May 15, 2009

I want to relate a story from the OD trenches that speaks to the simplicity and power of anecdotes and metaphor for small scale interventions.
I was asked to help design a process that would begin to bridge a longstanding chasm between the good folks in health protection – those that grant and revoke licenses to restaurants, daycare centers, assisted living facilities, etc. – and the good folks concerned with the dietary needs of our population. As I learned more details, a key story popped up that helped quickly size up the situation for me: “If the folks at health protection wanted to truly meet their mandate of safe food, we would eat all our meals at McDonalds.”

And if you have any trouble imagining how this bit of faction might strike at the heart and soul of nutritionists, check out the documentary Super Size Me (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Size_Me).
In keeping with the algorithm I described in my May 06th posting, the workshop sponsor and I crafted a central question good enough to entice a diversity of perspectives to attend a face to face workshop. We then designed subsequent questions aimed at getting them to share their experiences and perspectives.
We first allowed the groups to seat themselves naturally at small tables. Not surprisingly, they all seated themselves in the safety of their own tribe. After welcomes, etc. we went over the prompting questions and then the process for the morning’s story capture process. I have learned through trial and error to make a special effort to properly differentiate story telling from opinion making. I confess, I am repeatedly surprised at how people struggle with this concept. Why is that? I suppose this is a reminder of how people naturally rush to make sense of things.
In any case, once we clarified ‘story’ versus‘opinion’, I suggested gross punishments and used other forms of black humour to help cement the need to restrain from opinion making. I charged each table to monitor and adminster punishment as they see fit. This works like a charm and takes a load off me.
We completed the first round and I then asked people from each table to decide which two or three stories provided key insights into what was really going on in the field (albiet from their own perspective). When it came time to report out, one group expressed reluctance to share as their story might come back to bite them. (Of course, the other group was twitching to hear.) I deferred back to the group: What do you want to do with that statement? A wonderful exchange naturally occurred and the group seamlessly negotiated some safety mechanisms which would allow the stories to flow but in a way that felt safe.
Having opened things up, the next round of stories were exchanged in small, diverse groups and the various camps now shared stories face to face (no defending allowed, no solution making – not yet). New threats were imposed on people found rushing to solutions.
Just before the lunch break, I asked each table to take 5 minutes to come up with a metaphor that described how they saw the system. If I remember correctly, the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s had some traction and that metaphor was heard time and again at lunch and throughout the day. It became a hitching post for what was going on.
In the afternoon, the small diverse groups worked in isolated tables designing safe to fail experiments. We used ritualized dissent – always a big hit – to further strengthen these ideas and to further break down the tension.
I expect this kind of story is nothing new to CE practitioners, but there are a couple of things that continue to surprise me about the value of such low-tech methods in diagnosing and evolving tricky environments. I am surprised at how the act of telling stories seems so foreign and awkward to many people at the beginning of such a session and how rich they say the outcomes of these sessions are for them. Metaphor is similarly difficult for some to grasp up front, but I persist and for me the value is reflected in how many times those metaphors show up in later conversations. And finally, I am consistently surprised at how lightly my own presence in the room need be, once we get the constraints lightly and rightly in place and the ball properly rolling.

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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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