Purity & danger

September 24, 2009

A nicely ambiguous cartoon from Gaping Void. One of those ones that sets you back a bit and forces you to think. It has been on my mind recently, in part because a lot of the Cognitive Edge ideas are now taking off. SenseMaker projects are coming in, web references increasing, in effect a phase shift of acceptance. As the number of people who take up an idea increases, so the question of purity arises. The problem that arises then is that of purity, to what extent do you hunt down and route out error?

OK there are some obvious errors some of which irritate me. Others one sits back and says how could anyone think that? I had an example of that today, someone had needed to deal with an academic who thought we deleted all stories after we captured them (in SenseMaker™ that is). In fact we never delete any, that is the strength of narrative research, you don’t loose the data as you write each report it retains its utility over long periods of time. In turn that increases your sensitivity to outlier events. So that has to be corrected, but politely and the source of the confusion sorted so we don’t explain things badly again (I am assuming it was an error on our part).

With a complex (sic) set of ideas and concepts it is more than likely that people will pick up on the aspects they understand. Or (a common variant) having been successfully mentored through their first project, carry on repeating that project (as a recipe) rather than apply the principles uniquely in a new situation. I teach that as the difference between recipe book users and chefs which is a good metaphor.

At the same time, some people will add to and develop methods consistent with the principles – I saw several examples of that with Narrative Lab our in South Africa last month. Evolution is necessary, more minds and practices brought to bear is a good thing. However that evolution can sometimes be inconsistent with the core principles, making falcons into pigeons (see below). Some people cannot get away from old consultancy ways and models.

So when to intervene, when to stand back, if correction is needed how to make it? `Purity rituals of exclusion are common in human systems (astute readers will know the reference in the title), when should they be applied? What is the balance between evolution and compromise? Any ideas out there?

Nasrudin found a weary falcon sitting one day on his window-sill. He had never seen a bird like this before.

‘You poor thing’, he said, ‘how ever were you to allowed to get into this state?’

He clipped the falcon’s talons and cut its beak straight, and trimmed its feathers.

‘Now you look more like a bird,’ said Nasrudin

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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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