January 29, 2008

A couple of years ago we were hired to help an organization craft their knowledge management strategy. As part of that we gathered stories about their knowledge sharing culture, and helped them build a set of archetypes that expressed what was currently happening with values, attitudes and behaviours around information and knowledge sharing.

The archetypes were unusually negative and defensive for this kind of exercise. There were one or two positive characters, but the leadership characters were either dysfunctional or well-meaning but weak.

Almost three years on, we have gone back to do the exercise again. Their KM team has been working extremely hard on a number of initiatives and pilots to tackle both their soft and hard KM issues. So they wanted to see if the culture had shifted in a more positive direction as a result of their efforts.

It’s not pretty. Many of the same archetypes shine through again, but they are amplified: territorial behaviours, not-caring, confusion and disorientation. But where the previous set of archetypes was passive-defensive, the aggression levels have gone through the roof in this new set.

Several of the anecdote groups produced a “dictator” archetype, characters who were forcing things through the system top-down with no consideration for their difficulty or consequences. There’s another management archetype called “chicken muscle” who has authority but doesn’t provide leadership, and pays lip service to strategy but never follows through. Frustration and resentment sing out of many of the archetypes.

In the first exercise there was a strong, multi-tasking, sharing and networking character – she has now spun off into a still-positive but “endangered” character approaching extinction – and a hardy bunch of entrepreneurial “pirates” who manage to do good things by operating outside the system.

As you can imagine, this is all very depressing for us, and more so for the KM team, who are very dedicated and committed. And at face value this project had everything going for it. A very strong senior management sponsor, the direct interest and support of the CEO, and the senior management team monitoring KM progress on a regular basis. They did everything “right” – how could it not work out?

Of course, there’s other stuff going on. This used to be a somewhat sleepy, backwater public sector organization where the different units happily got on with their own things. Four or five years ago, all that changed, when its ministry made its agenda a high-profile national agenda. Suddenly they had to operate on a world stage.

A new CEO from the private sector came in and started shaking them up. Very new and very big initiatives started rolling relentlessly down the pipe at them, one after another, forcing them to coordinate more tightly, to operate in ways they’d never had to before. It’s a constant scramble, because the initiatives just keep coming, forced through by their parent ministry. There’s never time to catch breath and consolidate. Lots of people leave, new people come in, restructurings wash through. The discontinuities amplify.

So although we ask ourselves, “Shouldn’t KM be able to help manage this kind of change?” we can also understand why this new set of archetypes expresses such a strong sense of blame, resentment and frustration, directed particularly at their management. Which brings me to Pestilence.

Pestilence is by tradition cited as the first of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, though he is not named thus in the Book of Revelation. There he is simply a rider on a white horse who is given a crown and sent out to conquer, setting in train the events that lead to the apocalypse. By tradition he is portrayed as an archer, riding with his bow drawn and ready to let fly. Some commentators have speculated that he symbolizes Christ, who comes in judgment for the exercise of righteous power, destroying the evil and saving the just. It’s an extreme, violent judgment. It’s all about black and white, good and evil. Pestilence begins the final resolution where there are only winners and losers, nobody in between.

Power, blame, judgment. If we take an apocalyptic view of our client’s predicament, the character of Pestilence shines through. When we look at this situation, we can’t help trying to think of a solution, and the solution that comes naturally is to identify and remove the weak links, fire a few well-chosen arrows like the pestilential archer exercising judgment.

But whose fault is it? The archetypes tell us it’s the leadership’s fault. If we go to the leadership they can equally say it’s the ministry’s fault, or the staff’s fault for being so wedded to their old, sleepy, disorganized ways, or the middle managers for being the “chicken muscle”. And the ministry can point to the urgency of the agenda this agency is supposed to pursue. The arrows of blame fly in all directions.

In his masterpiece, Crowds and Power, written out of his experience of fascism, Elias Canetti has an unforgettable chapter describing the exercise of power. Power is both asymmetrical and injurious, he says. Unconsciously echoing the image of the pestilential archer, Canetti claims that the exercise of power by a stronger person on another is like firing a dart into their psyche, where it sticks and festers, causing a rancour that cannot be exorcised unless it is discharged by a matching discharge of power onto someone else, someone weaker in the power hierarchy. This is often not immediate, the injuries of power can be stored up for a considerable time.

So the exercise of power is never a single act: it unleashes a slow cascade of injuries, where the direction of flight depends on the direction of the power relation at any given time.

This certainly mirrors the picture of our organization and its flying arrows of blame. It also sees power and blame as inter-linked. But this is not the whole picture.

The importance of Canetti’s book is that it recognizes power as an emergent social property, arising not merely out of our individual natures or our individual stations. It is socially constructed. This is important, because we are very fond of saying in knowledge management and in other change initiatives that the leadership’s support and involvement is a critical factor for success. Power is localized, we imply, it can be exercised by discrete acts of leadership.

I have rarely seen discrete acts of power. Most acts of leadership, in my experience, are simulated acts of power – they are usually movements of least resistance, impacted by multiple pressures that feel to the actor like the greater power of external parties. The powerful feel as powerless as we do. They are as fickle and as faithless in their decisions as a randy bachelor is with his steady stream of dates.

It is far easier to exercise our sense of power in petty, simple acts (like the discharge of an injury), than in subtle, complex, sustained interventions. Power lies largely in the imagination, in habits, and in acquiescence to embedded social structures and rituals. Underneath the hood, power and powerlessness look very similar indeed.

Indeed, if we take freedom to act without undue constraint as one expression of power, then the most powerful beings in our troubled organization are actually the pirate archetypes, who do not acquiesce.

So I reject Pestilence, the very idea of him. I reject the idea that there are specific points of blame, that there is a right or a wrong in this mess, that the exercise of authoritarian power can resolve it. The injuriousness of the flying arrows of power-blame cannot be denied, however. This gets us somewhere, but it does not get us far, and I fear we will need to move on and examine what else the Apocalypse has in store for us in my next post.

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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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