March 13, 2016

I posted on the subject of the lowest energy cost of replication while I was in the Yukon a month ago. It is a very important part of my current work and provides a degree of coherence to the wider theories and practices of change that have been a part of my work for decades. I’m still exploring what it means and also working on the methods and specific aspects of SenseMaker® that link to this. So expect some repetition as I think it though in a series of blog posts. I explored some aspects of this in my main session at SXSW today. Reflecting on that as I drove to the airport to fly back to the UK I started to think about the double aspect of a complex adaptive system, namely that it as propensities and dispositions.

Now I am loosely (and I mean loosely) using propensities in a way that is derivative of Popper’s idea that a common set of generative conditions can have a propensity to produce a predictable result. I’m not fully buying into Popper’s overall philosophy here, but it is a useful idea within human complex systems. In common language you can say that propensities are currently stable aspects of the system about which statements as to their future state, or more properly their capacity to generate future states, can be made with high degrees of confidence.

This links closely to Cynefin, which is at its heard at sense-making framework which is deeply routed in the idea that context is key to situational assessment and decision making. This is one of the disagreements (friendly) that I think I have with the school represented by Stacy and Eoyang which sees complexity as universal. Cynefin in contrast sees it as one state along with chaos and order. More on this in future posts and I am working on some diagrams to illustrate the similarities & differences between my work and Eoyang. Once complete I will move onto Stacy. My feeling (but I could be wrong) is that neither would buy the idea of propensities in this sense but it links strongly to my work which wants to focus on situational assessment, ideally through distributed ethnography, before you move into decision models or decision making. The ability of humans to create propensities is important as it creates a form of stability that allows some predictive capacities.

So for example if we know how someone is education then we know that there are generative conditions that arise from that education around which we can make statements as to propensity. There will be exceptions, but not enough to warrant specific action. Now a propensity may be highly active – hence the image of the whirlpool. These things form in certain tidal conditions and can be predicted as can statements about the consequences of straying within their boundaries with a low powered craft. Rules and processes if enforced and embedded have a similar effect. To change one of these is much harder than to shift a dispositional state which has implications of the nudge type approaches we are developing in CfAC. ABIDE is one part of the mapping here, but there is more to do here to create an overall typology of what can be managed in a complex system.

Hopefully as I work this through things will become a little less enigmatic, but the nature of thinking around is about started with a sense of the direction and source of development then testing it in both theory and practice. More in future posts.

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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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