Respect the past, but …

September 10, 2015

I gave a longish lecture today as a part of the Public Service Commissioner’s event in Whitehorse, Yukon. I started by thanking several of the Provinces as my first post IBM project was in Saskatoon, the first micro-scenarion and cultural mapping projects were in British Colombia and Novia Scotia and the Yukon both have SenseMaker® enterprise licenses. A pioneering spirt needed acknowledgement, especially in a magical place on the banks of the Yukon river.

I’d spent the morning listening to presentations of current activities and there were a lot of references to the roll out of Six Sigma and issues with employee engagement surveys. It became clear pretty quickly that I needed to be careful with some of the things I was going to say so I decided to set the scene by talking about the history of navigation, starting with the lodestone compass (direction) , progressing through the sextant (latitude), the accurate timepiece (longitude) to the modern GPS device. I used Harrison’s H4 clock for slide two, H1 to introduce this post. Aside from the explicit reference to my oft told story about the discovery of Longitude to illustrate the nature of innovation; my intent was to make the point that finding a better way of doing something does not involve criticising the good faith use of older ways.

Each shift in out ability to navigate revealed a different aspect or dimension of out ability to represent, to model reality to aid discovery at sea. Compass, sextant and clock all continued to show different aspects and were used together, but then with GPS we get an integrated approach with a simple representation. We have a new simplicity, and easier way of working. The trouble is always that it takes time for those committed to the old ways to realise the change, and that realisation can be traumatic. It is made worse in Government given the tendency of management consultants to shift their focus to selling Industrial Best Practice to the public sector when the private sector has started to realise the limitations of the latest fad, be it Blue Ocean Strategy, Six Sigma, Learning Organisation or whatever.

Each of those (even Blue Ocean Strategy) give us new insight or understanding and can be be used together, but then from time to time we get a phase shift, a new day of looking at, through and with the world. In the middle of the last century that was systems thinking and most of the current management methods inherit its ontological and epistemological assumptions. Now at the start of this its Complexity Science, in my view combined with Cognitive Science, anthropology etc. which provides a change equivalent to GPS in my opening case. A new simplicity, but one that can be difficult to see, but once seen is a transforming moment of process. Once you internalise the dispositional but not causal nature of a complex system everything is suddenly much easier to understand. More importantly it becomes easier to work out what to do next.

But those who have heavy investment in the older ways of working may not see the change, and will perceive any criticism as resulting from ignorance (I get that with qualitative researchers a lot as self-signification within SenseMaker® is seen as heretical in come circles). Worse they may take the criticism as a personal attack, or wonder why you can’t just add complexity on to what they are already doing. To some extent Cynefin allows this, legitimising ordered approaches within boundaries. Worse still is where people take their old methods and suborn complexity language to those without making the change, they put old wine into new wineskins, or new into old (I’m working on that but either way its a bad thing to do). The worst still group often take the most offence, they have used you language after all, why aren’t you being nice?

So simplicity can be complex, it can lead to conflict but such conflicts should not be avoided they should be actively sought out. Only by doing so can we really make a difference.

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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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