February 6, 2013

Those who know their Dr Doolittle will know that the Pushmi-pullyu has two heads, one of a gazelle and the other of a unicorn at opposite ends of its body.  No one could capture it as one head was always awake and you couldn't sneak up on it from behind.  On the downside it could never agree which way to go.  It was never the double headed Llama of the Eddie Murphy movie.  To my mind it well illustrates the problem of what I will call dichotomous management, in which things are seen as either/or rather than both/and.  It's the difference between forcing people to choose between the two horns of a dilemma, and inviting them to resolve a paradox. The latter invites you to think differently about the problem, the former frequently involves a coin toss.   Such thinking is more or less an inevitable consequence of thinking in reductionist terms and linear causality.

Let me give a couple of illustrations of the problem.

  • I've spend a lot of time working in the services sector and there is a constant oscillation between a product or industry focus.  One year the strategists talk about industry focus and massive re-organisations take place to accommodate the changes.  Then after a period of time people start to realise that this focus is damaging new product development so they move to a product focus.  Again massive re-organisation and more make-work for consultancy firms.  Then the lack of industry knowledge and specialisation come to the fore and the whole cycle repeats yet again.   I went through it four times in DataSciences/IBM.  Sometimes you get a matrix structure where you end up merging both in one glorious bureaucracy in which responsibility can be easily avoided by pointing to the other side of the matrix;  IBM loved matrices and at one time I was trapped in the four dimension one.  Reading a lot of science fiction was necessary to make sense of that world.
  • The other is the push or pull approaches to marketing.  Do you make a product and then go and sell it, or do you wait for demand and then manufacture it?  Again the fashion changes, and the inappropriate use of manufacturing models for services makes it worse.  Process control, sick stigma and the like all try and force linear predictability on what is in fact a complex ecology.

What they all miss is the application of context.  Anyone who has spent an extended in services and actually thought about their experience, will tell you that a product focus is necessary for new things, while an industry focus works best for established needs and capability.  So we need to mix both.  In marketing push or pull gives power to one side over another and the asymmetry leads to variable times between collapse.  

So how should we think differently?  Well that is the co-evolution post I promised yesterday and will deliver tomorrow.  I needed (sic) to set a little more context before proceeding. 

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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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