Of effects & things

January 28, 2015

I’ve been developing more material around the whole issue of dealing with the humanity (a double edged word) in complex adaptive systems.  Any development of this type involves reading, thinking, speaking and then teaching which is the point at which it all comes together. There are substantial issue in human complex systems where the intelligence, identity and intentionality aspects of our species come into play that defy modelling and more importantly any reliance on a purely Look it worked lets go do more of it  approach to method development.  I’m wrapping up case based approaches to method development in that as well as they all assume some form of Newtonian universe.

There are three known phenomena that provide some rational for my apparently counter-intuitive criticism of repeating what worked.  So I will briefly outline what they are, then summarise some of the implications.   If you are not familiar then a simple web search will give you more detail on all three.   I didn’t invent or discover them!

  1. The Cobra Effect
    In British India a reward was offered for dead cobras in an attempt to reduce the danger to humans.  It worked well for a period but then people started to breed cobras to kill then to collect the reward. Thanks to Michael Allen Smith for the picture by the way.
  2. The Butterfly Effect
    One of the best known cliches, but still a good one.   The point of the story is that small changes in the environment combine with other small changes which result in a hurricane.  The point being that very small things can result in major outcomes, but its not predictable and the same small changes might not achieve the change in a different context.
  3. The Hawthorn Effect
    Which argues that humans respond to well to novelty, but you should not confuse the novel thing with novelty in respect of cause and effect.

Now any one of these challenges the idea that you can do something a couple of times, get a favourable response and then assume you can carry on doing the same thing.  Once people work things out or get bored (numbers one and three) the cool thing that worked for you may start to turn sour.  Then the dice may fall differently the next time, the content shifts and the other small changes you didn’t notice last time (but on which you relied) don’t happen and things flop.

Things don’t work consistently in a complex system at the sort of coarsely grained level that most methods work.   That means we need to make sure that any practice can be explained in terms of natural science before we can have any confidence that we can repeat what worked last time.  Or we go into the change knowing that it will only work for a period and we will have to change things again.

You might call this part of the necessary dynamic stability of intervening in a complex system and it means you have to be comfortable with uncertainty.   The likes of SAFe, Sick Stigma other simplistic aggregative recipes really fail that test.

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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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