Max Boisot 1943-2011

September 10, 2011

It has taken me some days to be able to write this, and I still have not come to terms with the reality that Max died at on the afternoon of 7th September. He was admitted to hospital in July unexpectedly and diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. We all hoped that it might be arrested but at the end he went into cardiac arrest after a scan. Max was a very special person, one of the last true polymaths and generous beyond reason with his time and intelligence to the many people (including myself) who considered him both colleague and mentor. Any meeting with Max required a heightened state of mental alertness. One minute the conversation would relate to a field of mathematics, before moving to the political history of China and Italian architecture; any encounter was always a rich and enlightening roller coaster of entertainment and enlightenment.

Over a decade ago I read Knowledge Assets which, to my mind was the first intelligent book on knowledge management I had encountered. It won the Ansoff Prize for strategy which shows I was not the only one to see its significance. Yasmin Merali offered to introduce us and the seminar we ran together at Warwick University was the genesis of the Cynefin Framework. We were both invited to speak at a conference in Brisbane shortly after that and in several conversations a friendship was born. Teaching together was always interesting, for Hari Tsoukas at the University of Athens, in Hong Kong, Barcelona, Singapore and elsewhere. We came from very different backgrounds. Max had been educated at Gordonstoun, Cammbridge, MIT and Imperial College, which contrasted with my Welsh Grammar School and provincial university. His stories of playing on the Royal Yacht were very different from my early memories of the various socialist politicians and CND activists who stayed at our house during various campaigns. Those differences always added spice to the conversation. He also had a son the same age as my daughter, and with many of the same gifts and issues which were also a part of our conversations and relationship. His humanity was as much a part of his intellect as was a forensic ability to see to the heart of a problem.

We met whenever we coincided geographically and chatted on skype in the early hours of different time zones in-between. At the end of every meeting I came away with a reading list. I’d be working on an idea, or have a notion of a way of thinking, a new model or method and I would throw the idea in front of Max. He’d dissect it, with the type of question that makes you think. Then he would say something along the lines of If you are interested in that they you really need to read … He had a near eclectic memory for books, papers, authors and content and he never recommended a reading which didn’t radically change or direct my thinking. Once or twice he saved me by re-expressing an over confident position to a hostile audience in such a way that they could live with the idea. He had an incredible ability to synthesis different fields of knowledge in a coherent way, but without intellectual compromise.

There are so many memories that is difficult to select from them. He and J C Spender were respondents to my presentation on an early form of the Cynefin model at the Academy of Management in Washington; that triggered a three hour intensive conversation which overtime added the catastrophic fold to the base of Cynefin. From that we spent time drawing pictures on paper table cloths at various cafes in Sitges where he lived in a house on the hill designed by himself. His original qualification was an architect and that design training showed in all his work. The paper we worked on together following that still awaits a publisher brave enough to take on the text. It was considered too theoretical and too general by the reviewers at Organisational Science. Walking round various towns at the heel of Italy I simply listened to an erudite exposition on the mixture of Byzantine, Moorish and Roman culture that is that region’s joy. In Hong Kong we forced him reluctantly to attend a session at the Sevens and won the admission that he had once played as a prop forward at school. In Montreal a discussion on causality and neo-Aristotelianism went on past midnight without any feeling that time had passed.

We last met on St David’s Day at Marylebone station, he was en route to teach at Birmingham University, I was on my way to a performance of Parsifal. We were talking about breaking up the unpublished article into two or three pieces and planned to work on those later in the year. It was also the anniversary of my mother’s sudden and unexpected death from cancer which adds irony as he was as influential in the development of my thinking. They would have got on, although they never met, she had the same intellectual curiosity and broad ranging knowledge. In June he persuaded me to buy an expensive book and when I confirmed I had done so responded Sometimes, I think you take me too seriously – nobody else does. Self-depracatory humour takes skill and Max had it in abundance. No one who ever talked with Max took him other than seriously, but that sense of humour was a delight. My last message from him, when he was in hospital and we still had hope of recovery was: Ailing Fat Greek would welcome a pastoral visit from “pseudo” Welsh Druid in his new Ealing apartment, chemotherapy permitting. Regrettably that visit will not take place, and you probably have to know both of us to understand the multiple messages imbedded into that phrase.

I know that I and many others who knew him have lost a key part of our lives, he was a giant of the modern renaissance of thinking around the intersection of natural science with social systems. My thoughts go to his family.

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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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