Purpose as virtue: mapping

December 13, 2012

Yesterday I talked about parables, heuristics and ritualised habits as ways in which virtue could be instantiated in practice to provide purposeful direction in complex systems.  I contrasted them with the values, rules and processes that have characterised system thinking, not to denigrate but to bound. I also started this series by pointing to a key difference between systems and complexity thinking namely that between defining a future state then attempting to close the gap and assessing the present and evolving forwards to a future state which is sustainable and resilient.

It follows that we need to discuss how to do that assessment.  The main reason is so that we can build our parables on naturally occurring stories within the organisation that are more favourable to our purpose then build and amplify them; heuristics are easier to propagate if they have some existing presence that can be readily amplified and focused; rituals and habitual practice already exist, so select, refine, amplify, augment is our mantra.  In contrast most organisations, including learning organisation initiatives in the main have take a determine, instruct, enforce approach.

So we have to map, not for perfection but sufficient unto the day.  I deliberately chose a 16th Century map of Wales to illustrate this post.  The had very limited survey equipment and knowledge in those days, but all things considered its a pretty good job.  OK the shape of the Llŷn Peninsular is a little, shall we say, unfortunate and the Gower has been absorbed by Swansea (in the modern age a fate worse than death) but its recognisable and useful to navigation.  Complexity maps of an organisation are very similar.  So what are they?

  • Decision mapping, using the ABIDE and ASHEN perspective questions.  Both methods have been around for a long time, but they are undergoing active development and enhancement at the moment.  ASHEN includes heuristics and habits (with a little license) and common myths and beliefs are among the most frequent attractors and boundaries in an ABIDE exercise.
  • Cultural mapping has been one of the main uses of SenseMaker® for some years now at a country level, but we are about to extend it as a standard offer for organisations.   The signifiers are drawn from cultural anthropology, modified for an organisational environment.  The idea is that all, or a sample of employees are asked to capture stories relating to key or seminal events in history and signify them either on a web site, or via our new app (announcements and a chance to play any day now).  From that we can identify key associations (I prefer that word to correlation here) or abductive links as well as basic landscapes .  The stories that are strongly associated are indicators of parables, and disclosure points for habits and heuristics.  And yes, this map can inform the decision map.
  • Finally mapping onto Cynefin and the sub-domain models allows us to identify the situations in which these techniques are appropriate.  If its complicated then keep the old linear material causal stuff alive and kicking it has value.  If its complex on the other hand, then start the work to consolidate.

Once I have the map our selection is easy.  We  can refine the material using story templates for the parables and game environments (human mediated) to test and improve the heuristics and validate habits.  More traditional consultancy looks at the rule tightening and rules of rule breaking aspects.  

If we have any sense we will cary on mapping throughout so we have a fast feedback loop or two in place and a human sensor network (or whole of workforce engagement system) that we can activate as needed to handle phase shifts in uncertainty downstream.  Also as we map we start to know where the granite cliffs are and the sandbanks.  The latter require constant mapping, the later can be more periodic.

So we map the present in order to evolve towards a sustainable and resilient future.  We know that when the unexpected happens, as it will by definition, we will be guided by virtue, instantiated in the pragmatic tools that have sustained culture and community over the years.  This time however we have been involved in their design so we have increased the constrain level a bit to enable meaning.  And that, the management of constraint is what complexity is all about.


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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.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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