Reflexions III: The Meetings

February 25, 2010

The main thing I’m supposed to be doing as a guest blogger this week is reflecting on how accreditation courses have changed over the years. You want to know the truth? Here it is: The first accreditation course felt more like a Harry Potter movie than an IBM Global Consulting meeting.

I had known Dave since early 1999, when I met him only a few months into writing about knowledge management. Over the next few years I attended dozens of keynotes, conference sessions and workshops, enjoyed face to face conversations with him on several continents and read everything I could get my hands on. Every one of those encounters gave me headache. By 2002, my magazine had folded, the IBM Cynefin Centre was getting funded, and I agreed, over pre-dinner cocktails at 2am in the hills above Caracas, to join the team to develop publications and help to explain the emerging ideas.

That’s how I ended up careening through the Surrey Hills, in the summer of 2003, being yelled at by a cabbie for not planning ahead, looking for a tiny little village that was a 40minute walk to the nearest bus stop. It wasn’t my fault: all I had was a sketchy email telling me to show up at a 700 year old tavern called the Parrot Inn in a village called Forest Green that wasn’t even on most maps.

In Forest Green, they were all characters. It didn’t help that I was hallucinating from jetlag and Dave kept sending me off on mysterious nighttime errands. The material might as well have been magic (at least in the Arthur C. Clarke sense). For a week we worked our way through the theories, exercises such as anecdote circles and two-stage emergence (which remain largely unchanged today), and approaches to complex facilitation. We’d had a few Cynefin meetings by then and played with the methods, but this was the first time I’d really seen how powerful they could be with a large group.

Flash forward

For the first time in San Diego I was really able to enjoy the workshop, because I wasn’t flailing wildly during the day and curling into a fetal position at night. I could sit back and watch the body language as Craig and Michael explain the theories leading to the model. It’s fun to watch people struggle to grasp the concepts and then see their eyes widen when they see the implications. Others cross their arms in discomfort, confusion or outright refusal.

A quarter to a third of the participants may not be able to accept these ideas. I remember one woman, many years ago, trying to obliterate the Chaotic domain with repeated crosses of her pen, saying, “No, no, that’s not good.”

“Organizations are very resistant to big changes,” Michael said during day one. But the same is true about individuals, and accepting, cold turkey, the implications of a world that is simultaneously simple, complicated complex and chaotic is a very big change.

It isn’t an easy journey. It isn’t easy to learn these ideas or to practice the methods based on them. This stuff is riskier because it is different, difficult, participatory and honest. To resist the urge to reduce problems and work on small pieces—to reject the common “idealism” that analysis will reveal right answers and best practices for every situation. “It depends” isn’t a satisfactory answer, even when it is the only answer.

“When you facilitate with emergent methods, you cannot control outcomes,” Michael says.

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About the Cynefin Company

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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