nine ladies dancing

January 2, 2016

From this point in the series continuity gets rather difficult. The various known versions of the carol have different variations from this point onwards. For the number nine a lot of the early versions have Drummers drumming which is line twelve in others. One version has Bears a Beating and others have Piper’s piping or playing. Ladies dancing, which I have chosen, is number eleven in some versions. To be honest I still haven’t made up my mind where I will go for the final three but I’m settled on number nine. The catechism version has this as the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. Our Celtic/Bird one has eleven ladies and sees it as a code word for passion, with the ladies representing the tumbling of lapwing courtship displays. The picture I chose as an element of Wicca about it, a hint of Walpurgisnacht to match that and to get me in the mood for writing about OD teams.

Now living (as I do) near Avebury, being a Terry Pratchett fan and having two children grow up a year older and a year younger than Harry Potter; I have an ambiguous attitude to Witchcraft so I am not using it in an exclusively negative sense. In the Discworld series the characters of Granny Weatherwax and her successor Tiffany Aching are the wise hags of my earlier post in this series. But we also have Lily Weatherwax or Lilith de Tempscire as we first encounter her, in my favourite of all the series Witches Abroad. If you don’t know Pratchett you may have problems from now on, but redemption is easy. For those not familiar I will summarise the story. Lily understands the power of stories and seeks to use it to force our heroine Ella to marry the Duc (an existentially confused frog who became a prince,a typical Pratchett’s twist) as part of her scheme to rule Genua. The book is a delightful exploration of the power of narrative with the underlying theme that stories are a type of parasite. I quote:

It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed. Stories don’t care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats. Or, if you prefer to think of it like this: stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself.

The book includes a lot of mirrors and Lily ends up trapped between life and death in one. It is only towards the end of the book that we learn of her relationship with Granny in a dialogue as to who is the good and who the wicked sister. Granny resents being forced into the former role. The key message at the end of the book is that Lily isn’t able to separate fantasy from reality which is why she can be trapped in the mirrors. Equally Lily is the which who looks acceptable to those in power, Granny less so.

Now you can probably pick the OD lessons from that for yourself but let me identify a few (feel free to add some). You can create a story about you want things to be, and if you have promised senior management that they will be so then you will only pay attention to and report material that evidences your assertion. Not only that people will be canny enough to tell you what they think you want to hear. I’ve also referenced before the danger that OD people don’t like to tell senior managers the truth even when they know it. Sooner or later reality catches up and you get caught in the mirror as you loose your own capacity to distinguish between hope/desire and day to day reality.

As Pratchett suggests, there are dominant themes that we find in stories. The little guy wins out, things happen in threes and so on. Organisations post the 1980s have created similar myths around value and goal alignment, the change initiative and so on. The evidence does not support success if you really check into it. I’m on the editorial board of several journals and I find it fascinating to see so called research fail to exhibit my three ‘C’s of research: cynicism, curiosity and context (more on those in a future post). The academic interviews ten chief knowledge officers about knowledge management practice in their company and/or gets them to fill in a survey. They then form conclusions based on this material. Once in IBM we sent anthropologists to check reality against practice in knowledge management and the one thing it showed is that anyone in a knowledge management function was the last person to know what was really happening. The same is true for OD. Scary consultants creating methods often ape the academics but based on one recent case they were involved in. They also create questionnaires designed to support their theory and then trump their approach as research based.

One very simple change we could make, for practice and research, is an ethnographic checkpoint or review process when the creators of the material have no stake in the outcome. A mature OD department will set up a feedback mechanism (SenseMaker® for example but its not the only way) which is non-explicit in nature and therefore hard to game at input or on interpretation. You can’t afford to look in a mirror. Explicit high stakes change initiatives incentivise mirrors that disconnect the OD practice from reality and are dangerous in the longer term. Of course if you have any sense you will start with how things are, the narrative landscape. But I have made that point before so I won’t expand on it here.

A separate lesson, for all those who teach propaganda story telling is to remember that it can be dangerous. Narrative is very powerful and if we tell a story that people want to hear (and I regret to say that seems to be what is taught) then they can be seduced into all sorts of perversions. At the time of writing Donald Trump is still front runner for the Republican nomination for President in the United States and it doesn’t take long to find European examples – UKIP, the rise of the Le Pen creed in France and so on. I’ve used political examples there but I could as easily have found organisational ones. If you just want people to come away prepared to spend more money or to be happy at the end of your workshop then teach them to tell stories people want to hear. If you want to achieve genuine change and to be open to possibles then start to nudge the narrative landscape of day to day observations. That will be less comfortable.

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