Mastery and competence

December 14, 2013

In one of the breakouts today a few of us spent three sessions working on a wider education initiative around Agile adoption.  From my point of view this picks up on discussions I have been having for years about a new approach to management education based on a trans-disciplinary approach.  That also links in with the need to create more generalists in a society that is becoming increasing and dangerously specialised.  I've chosen the picture of medieval polymath Hildegard von Bingen to illustrate the overall theme of this post.

Another link here is the obsession with empirical or case based research which dominates management science.  The assumption is that you study what people do, you can derive general recipes from those cases which will enable others to reap the same benefits.  Now to be very clear I am not saying you cannot learn from such studies, but I am challenging the nature of the learning claimed and in particular the use of prescriptive recipes.  We are dealing with complex systems here, and linear/repeatable causality are not a characteristic of such systems.

The big problem in this type of case based learning is that people try and repeat the end point of an evolutionary process, failing to take account of history.  Aside from the fact that said history is vital to the success of a project you also create the conditions for perpetual disappointment.  A general problem with idealistic approaches by the way.  

I made this point in the context of an earlier discussion today on the success in Scandinavian companies of Beyond Budgeting.   My point was not to challenge the success, or the value of what had been achieved, but I am more cautious about its adoption.  Those companies are building on a tradition of intellectual capital management which worked in Scandinavia in the 90s but did not spread, in turn that builds on Scandianvian culture and so on.  Context as ever is king.   What is needed (and the discussion highlighted this in a group plenary, not an open space session by the way) is to break the idea down into suitable granular actions and then start a series of safe-to-fail experiments using those actions to see what pattern can emerge in the new and (always) unique context.   

To achieve that you need a wider knowledge base.  So the idea which we are developing and which will see a white paper shortly, is an education programme that sets a framework of wider study, including anthropology, history and the like over an extended period.  Yes if you want to be an Agile practitioner (or any type of practitioner for that matter) you need to gain core competence, but that makes you a journeyman.  To be a master you need to think and study in a wider field, that enables you to create new things, to scale practice better, to refine and develop the art rather than consigning yourself and your intellect to incremental improvement.

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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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