Rose tinting

January 23, 2012

Today I met up with our current guest blogger Iwan Jenkins at the Anchor Inn and following a good lunch we both went to the final pool game of Heineken Cup in Cardiff. Multiple conversations took place and one came back to an old theme of mine, namely the importance of working in the present, rather than trying to map out a route to some ideal future. The context in which this came up was a recent gathering in Stoos, which attempted to replicate the famous Snowbird event that created Agile, but this time for management. I had an invitation, but refused it when I was told that who was being invited was secret. Transparency to my mind is key in these sort of things and if I am being asked to donate time and pay my own expenses the least I expect is to know who else is going to be there.


Just to make it clear I wish the participants well but caution them to avoid (i) over claiming importance, Steve Denning for example says the participants were 21 Thought Leaders which is stretching the definition a bit (ii) any appearance that the event is being used to promote or endorse training courses or books from the originators or enhance a personal brand (there are some signs of this) and (iii) demonising management, when the real issue is the economy in which organisations work, this is a political not an organisational issue. I'd also recommend a quick read up on brand dilution given some of the thought-space grabs which are going on.

So that was the context of the conversation, however my interest here is the general issue about how you achieve change from a complexity perspective. As a side note it's interesting how may people claim the language of complexity but revert back to older models of problem definition and solution finding; its a sure sign of someone who has skimmed the language and finds it exciting but has not thought in any depth about the implications.


I have previously posted on related material in the “Babies and Bathwater” series but what I want to focus on here is the difference between dealing with the realities of the present and attempting to close the gap on an idealised future. So let me start by making my position clear.

If the situation is complicated then you should define the endpoint you want to achieve and engineer a solution or series of solutions which will achieve that end point. This can be linear and mechanistic (nothing wrong with that in the right context)

If the situation is complex. then there are multiple possible alternative options and while you might be able to set a direction, you don't know any of the details and you should remain open to swapping the destination as things evolve/emerge.

The implications of that are pretty clear. Rather than trying to solve the problems of the world (or the organisation or whatever) by sitting around with a group of like minded people and creating pipe dreams about how things should be (a sort of reverse Four Yorkshireman sketch) you instead focus on what you can change in the here and now. Big movements like the Arab Spring for example are triggered by small events, but they have to be predisposed for those triggers and which will work is not predictable anyway. You also have to be realistic about the scope of what you are doing. So if you want to change organisations, three basic principles:

You don't lecture management on how they are old fashioned in their thinking, instead you put them into situations and give them tools where old ways of thinking are not sustainable and they have to act differently. If they work it out for themselves its sustainable.

You pick off areas where the pain threshold is the highest, for example (to pick up Agile themes) the interaction between approaches such as AGILE and the measurement and management practices of the HR function. You then create approaches that change the measurement and feedback mechanisms that work in parallel with existing methods. That new project management system (something I am working on to declare a commercial interest) can start to provide HR with better data on people and “competences” than their current systems so they choose to adopt it over time.

Sell middle-bottom-up an idea originally put forward by Nonaka and one I respect. It's not too difficult to get senior management to buy into an idea, but it will only happen if middle management are bought in and they are the hardest.

That means you have to embed change in process, not depend on individual competence. You can't achieve change based on ideal behaviour, but you can change process and context. You also need to embrace dissent, the problem with idealists is they can't absorb dissent and learn from it, they seek confirmation rather than conflict and this fail. More on those points in future posts.

Aside on the Rugby

The good news on today's match that is that we won, and qualified for the Quarter Finals, but bad news is that we missed a bonus point by inches and this have an away match against the current champions over Easter, rather than a home match against Toulouse. Good news we play better as underdogs and I have an excuse to spend the Easter weekend in Dublin. The other good news is 5 Celtic League, 1 English and 2 French quarter finalists which kinda makes a point.

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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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