Lustful appetites

November 9, 2020

Amber wolfe 8c p 0MiPQg unsplash copyThe title of this post is used collectively to refer to gluttony, fornication, and avarice in one of the sources for the formalisation of the Seven Deadline Sins by Pope Gregory I in the sixth century.  I did a quick search for ‘sin’ using the much-improved facility on our new web site and discovered that I have probably overused the word with well over a hundred entries.   The revivalist culture of North Wales has obviously seeped into my soul and I will be calling people to the mercy seat for repentance the next time I get to speak to a real audience as opposed to a wall of semi-animated faces on Zoom.  I do understand why.  Having for many years (along with others) been a voice crying in a wilderness the fairly sudden acceptance of the ideas brings its own dangers.  I’ve been saying for years that new ways of thinking seem to be going nowhere for years, then acceptance is sudden.  I’ve formulated that thinking into Apex Predator theory which is as important a framework as Cynefin and more on that in future posts and pending publications.  Agile is going through the same process at the moment with its scaled frameworks and adoption by the large consultancy firms and it is no coincidence that my most popular lecture to that community is called Rewilding Agile.

Complexity thinking has started to come of age and to gain traction and it is now that any of us who care about it, or more importantly about its need in a fraught and fragmented world, need to keep the faith and avoid corruption.  Now that need has to balanced with the need for mutation and variation so this post fits within the constraints, especially the idea of boundary constraints, which have been a theme of this blog over the last couple of days.  In Cynefin terms, we don’t want fixed constraints but we are shifting from a purely enabling constraint approach to a more liminal shift into some Governing constraints.  One way to do that is to make distinctions.  I formulated the term Anthro-complexity to distinguish our work from computational complexity.  Not to say that one was better than the other, but to say that there were differences and should not be homogenised.  Earlier I created the term Naturalising Sense-making to distinguish my work from that of Weick and others, something that is now recognised in the literature as a distinct field and I will blog on that specifically shortly.  In a shift to what I have called coherent heterogeneity we need to define how things are linked and how they are bounded.  So anthro-complexity is linked to computational complexity through ideas such as agent interaction and emergence but it is distinguished from them by the 3Is if intelligence, identity and intention.  This question of connection and bounding is also key to complexity-based organisational design and development of which I will be writing extensively in the build-up to Christmas; the early signs of heresy are emerging!

One of the ways of creating some boundaries is being aware of the ways in which new ideas and new ways of working can be readily corrupted.  Evensong uses a wonderful bit of poetry from The First Epistle of Peter (5:8) to which we need to pay attention here: Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.  For devil read opportunist, for roaring read platitudinous and for lion use hyena or possibly cockroach and you have it.  The problem we have is that the adversaries are many and varied and not all are evil of intent (some are less hyena and more bunny-like).  So to help the process I thought I would list seven sins or practices which are common when new ideas come along and to which complexity is not immune.  All of them are worthy of elaboration but here they are.  I leave readers to find their own examples but I do drop a few hints …

  1. The Premature Structuring of a craft into a manufacturing process
    You can see this in most of the large consultancy firms and also many an Agile certification scheme.  In effect, the process is created without worrying about the habits of experience and mentoring or the acquisition of sufficient theory to know the why of things as well as the what.  Mindless utilisation in a structured process designed to create dependency, promising transformation but doomed to fail as it cannot cope with novel variations.
  2. The Yosser Hughes Tendency
    This is a reference to one of the main characters in Boys from the Blackstuff, one of the best BBC productions authored by Alan Bleasdale.  Yosser is a character who thinks he can take on any job and his strapline is “Gizza job! I can do that!”.  The number of people reading a few popular science books and building consultancy practices on the basis of a very partial understanding is scary.  Agile is littered with this, people with no experience of corporate strategy, who don’t even know who Henri Mintzberg is, simply porting methods like Scrum over with no understanding of context.
  3. The Inductive error, or the use and abuse of cases
    Probably the most common, involving the study of what has worked in the past and the derivation of general rules or principles from that which can be applied to the future.  Nothing wrong with it per se if you recognise two things (i) correlation is not causation and (ii) If the world is changing rapidly you can’t carry over lessons from a prior context.  If you are living in the tail of a Pareto distribution do not adopt techniques based on the assumptions that you are in the centre of a Gaussian distribution.
  4. The empirical error or it worked for me last time.
    Empiricism is one of the most abused words around at the moment.  To be clear it doesn’t mean this is what I have done the last few times so on the basis of that experience I now know what is best.  This is an extreme form of the inductive error but without any of its disciplines.  Gathering together a group of very similar people to write up their, by definition, limited experience as a new method or approach is just plain wrong
  5. The Magpie tendency
    Mostly harmless to borrow a phrase from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.  There are some people who are very good at having up ideas and frameworks which they don’t fully understand into simple, but too often simplistic form designed to sell easily without challenging people. this one is difficult because it is the question of just how much you compromise; being pure but peripheral is not what all of this is about.  I find this group interesting as, if their talents and energy were deployed to make new and difficult ideas easier to adopt they would be valuable but in general they don’t.   They celebrate the idea of mash-up but never get to the distillation phase.
  6. The Chameleon deception
    There are a lot of people in this category and they are generally well-intentioned.  Conflating Complex Adaptive Systems theory with Cybernetics is common and foolish but it is there.  Using complexity language to provide a candy coating covering to methods dragged out of theories of change that were tired and worn a few decades ago is another.  I really enjoyed a recent session with Nora Bateson in which we discovered we both agreed on some significant names who do this all the time.
  7. The Three Yorkshiremen
    A reference here to the famous  Sketch, written by the incomparable Marty Feldman in 1967 in which nothing that is happening at the moment is anything like as good as what happened in the past – a sort of false romanticism.  I see this a lot in the Cybernetics community who keep finding language from the past which has been given new meaning by complexity science but they just don’t get that it is different.  We knew about gravity before an apple fell on Newton’s head, but after that things were different.  We knew the why in a way that would scale, not just a what.

Praxis makes perfect – natural science as a constraint and experiment within those constraints.  It isn’t hard it is just different!



The banner picture is from The punishment of the Avaricious, a study for Florence Cathedral.   Pen and brown ink with brown wash and watercolor, over black chalk, with a strip of paper conjoined  © The Trustees of the British Museum The image released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

The opening picture is by Amber Wolfe on Unsplash

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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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