Of people, roles and ritual (3 of 3)

September 29, 2021

Todd quackenbush IClZBVw5W5A unsplashIn bringing this three-part series of blog posts to an end I just want to remind readers that they are in effect an extension of the original post on learning which identified seven steps for mapping, three pervasive practices and three things to pay attention to.  I’ve been using a theme to the images, namely a natural scene for the banner and various toolsets for the opening picture.  The tool pictures have also been chosen too show a journey from metal bashing, to carpentry to gardening.   I am a good carpenter and a really bad gardener by the way.  My role in respect of the garden at the back of our house is lugging things around and taking pictures at the Chelsea Flower Show.  But for carpentry one of the things I learned from my father was to look for the natural grain of the wood before selecting what to work with and critically how to use it.  Going with the grain is a phrase with multiple layers of meaning.

As it happens the opening picture, of a column of balanced stones, on the aforesaid post on learning was inspired by Chelsea and watching Adrian Grey performing his art.  I also found some old notes of a conversation with Alicia Juarrero which inspired today’s banner picture, in that call, she made a distinction between coherence and cohesiveness to which I will return at the end and also said “stickiness gives you a sand dune, not a sand castle”.  That phrase sums up a lot of what I have been saying in this series of posts; the bulk of OD theory (and to a lesser extend practice as that forces some pragmatism) is building castles in the sand and it is a short step from that to Matthew 7:24-27 and its advise on getting the foundations right.

Now one of the key principles of anthropology-complexity is that we start journeys with a sense of direction rather than over-specifying goals.  Given that there is a clear implication that we should start with where people are, rather than where we would like them to be.  So one of the things we need to recognise is that the bulk of the OD movement is tied up with purpose statements, maturity models, beliefs that sub-conscious motivations prevent employees from coming to the light, and so on.  It also follows that if you want people to see things from a radically different perspective then it is more likely to be achieved through a process of self-discovery of the contradictions between reality and their phenomenological and ideological constructs; which also means you don’t use those words when talking with them!  One of the dangers of a lot of complexity practitioners is that they adopt is in the same fad cycle approach which the theory itself contradicts.  The last thing we want is everyone abandoning the past and starting up yet again.  It’s benign the pattern for a few decades and it needs to stop. 

So while there are times, when to trigger a phase shift, you might want to pull the rug out from under people’s assumptions and engrained practices and beliefs in general gradual shifts are better.  Yes at times catastrophic change may be required but it is highly risky and the only guarantee is unintended consequences.  So in this post, I want to create a list of some ways to do that drawn on Cognitive Edge methods and tools (that is after all that they were designed for).  The list is not exhaustive or arranged in any particular order.  It’s more here to get over a principle we teach in complex facilitation namely descriptive self-awareness .  It should also answer in part the question I frequently get ‘well how do you sell this stuff?

  1. So they see it like that? 
    These use parallel nonintrusive processes and we’ve done a lot of these over the years.  Creating archetypes of managers and employees from both perspectives and getting people to talk about them; I almost got beaten up on one of those exercises in Copenhagen once until the manager responsible realised we had taken his team, and his employees through an identical process facilitating in English while they spoke in English, so it wasn’t my voice as a facilitator it was the authentic voice of those who worked for them.  We’ve done it creating Cynefin frameworks from the same exemplar set which has shown some people as seeing things as complex while for other groups it is complicated and so on. We now do it with SenseMaker® using micro nudges allowing different groups to signify meaning in different clusters of observations or micro-narratives and then show people the difference, from which other observations arise.   That we will be developing shortly, following a successful EU pilot to create Meaning Walls for organisations and public buildings.  People are always curious about how other people see things and the discoveries of differences can (sic) make a difference, they change the arc of the story.
  2. Let us help you explain that
    Where you don’t challenge existing practice but seek to add to it and compliment it rather in the manner of a retro-virus, I am being honest here the intention is to corrupt the DNA of the host practice!  So if a company is locked into e engagement surveys, we tend to suggest SenseMaker® as way to understand the why of the differences in the analytic responses from year to year.  That can be done by continuous capture and shortly by the new SenseMaker® Genba (announcements shortly).  Gradually people start to realise that the quantitative narrative approach allows for real-time micro-changes to nudge the system (not in the sense of behavioural economics).  Here you tell a story or react to a story then find out how someone from a completely different background interpreted the same data.  I got the idea for that from early work in Liverpool Slavery Museum where I wanted to know the reaction of someone whose ancestry included slaves perceived the exhibits.  I argued then and now that perspectives of difference are and should be part of any ‘exhibition’.
  3. Good luck with that …
    This approach shameless plays on fears when people are tacking intractable of difficult ongoing issues.  Executives are not stupid, they know things can go wrong and they seek to minimise risk.  It’s why the large consultancy companies find it easier to sell as following their recommendations, as opposed to that of some boutique consultancy radically reduces the risk for the decision-maker.  To many advocates of change never understand, or work with this motivation.  I’ve run an anti-story generation process around corporate mission and purpose statements.  It’s where I gather a group of cynics together and we work through all the ways your idealistic statements can be corrupted and twisted by employees and the press.  You get a private report and it allows you to rethink what you did and/or get ready for what is to come but overall it reduced uncertainty.   Where executives face competing proposals and the evidence doesn’t allow them to resolve which is right in the time frame for their decision, we give them the whole safe-to-fail probe approach that is a key part of Cynefin.  We use anthro-simulation games to demonstrate how things could go wrong on a no-risk game environment and so on.

All of these are small, risk-free things to do in the here and now which will lead in their turn to other changes.  And to be clear the seven steps for mapping, three pervasive practices, and three things to pay attention to are all part and parcel of this either to generate the need or respond to the results. And I can add in a post-covid assessment based on the field guide which includes the three pervasive practices as a part of that.  Its not a linear flow …

So at the end, I want to return to coherence and cohesiveness and argue you need both.  Coherence is all about consistency, mutual interdependence, and entanglement (to quote Alicia again).  Cohesiveness is about telling a story, something which flows.   The overall argument of this series has been that conventional OD practice is highly cohesive, but incoherent, in the main, to social and organisational reality. I realise by the way I have only indirectly talked about roles and rituals so will take that to a future blog post

And for further reflection, think on Isaiah 40:3-4; I am on a campaign to get more people into reading the bible, not for religious reasons but because, as my mother a good agnostic used to say, you will never understand European literature without knowledge of the Bible, Homer, and Shakespeare, and if pushed she would add in Goethe and a few others.



Sand dune is cropped from an original by Nasser Mu
Tools is by Todd Quackenbush both 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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