Scaling: of gaps and things

July 21, 2014

Yesterday I promised to move on the How do you scale success? question but working on Friday's seminar with Simon that afternoon various other thoughts came to mind and I started to sketch out the diagrams that appear below.  

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So my plan today is to talk more about the issue of granularity and non-linearity in scaling.  I want to do this in the context of understanding the dynamic between three aspects of an organisation:

  1. The strategy of the organisation as expressed through its formal statements and actual practice
  2. The needs of users to execute that strategy and to manage on a day to day basis
  3. The capabilities available to the organisation both known and unknown

Those three elements form a triad as shown below and the sides of the triad give us three common moves, or dynamics that inform and define organisational identity and practice.  I should emphasise that this is a sense-making experiment, like all such back of a table napkin frameworks its intent is not to define reality per se (although it may) but to allow us to think about the situation differently.

  1. The common assumption that strategy as determined and articulated by senior management creates various needs (which can be organisational change, culture, technology, tools etc. etc.)
  2. The belief that those needs can be matched against known capabilities and defined into projects that can be executed to deliver defined outcomes
  3. Group think when management simply adopt current fads regardless of evidence based on wider market practice and slick marketing by solution vendors

In the main only one of those is a two way arrow as there is little dynamic feedback and the material involved is chunked, its coarsely gained in nature.  I've shown that course grains by magnifying the scales that form the background.

The argument is that by reducing the granularity of strategy requirements, needs and capabilities we allow them to combine and recombine more readily to create more sustainable and resilient projects and activities.  That is show by the red arrows moving to the blue centre which is meant (it didn't work as well as I hoped) to show more finely grained scales with higher levels of overlap.   This is one of those times when I really wish I had the artistic ability to match my imagination!  Now there are a range of ways to do that, and we will be teaching and exploring some of them on Friday.  They will also be the subject of future posts.

The pincers at the bottom (the shape was not intentional but as it happens it works neatly as a metaphor) is intended to illustrate the gap between the ostensive and the real.   This is really important in complexity work.  My first paper on Cynefin looked at the important difference between informal and formal communities, between what managers think goes on in organisations compared with day to day reality.  The methods I developed for mapping information flows between decisions and comparing them with process were all a part of making that difference more visible, or at the least the consequences of it.

I've shown it here with the blue representing the ostensive, green the real.  Its also got a shadow to hint at the fact that nothing here is ever fully knowable.   It matches the triad labels now assumed to be horizontal.  For capability there is little gap if the granularity is fine, its all there and there is little dispute about what it is, but much of it is unknown to decision makers. On the extreme left we have the rapid model creation and deployment, the manufactured fad (such as six sigma, SAFe and others all of which attempt to do things in a more extreme way rather than realising their predecessors only worked in limited contexts).  Here the difference is extreme as its all about carrying people into a belief system that people will attempt to confirm with.  I've seen this too many times in my career and regrettable its not going to go way soon.

In strategy there is some gap between practice and formal statements.  Executives had pet projects, they deal with day to day customer realities, they adjust to circumstances that change faster than the planning cycle can handle revisions.  Here excessive transparency can make such adaptability difficult and create ossification.   

The biggest gap is in needs, here people tend to define what they have done in the past, what they dislike about the past or what they happen to have seen somewhere else.  They do that in the explicit context of requirements capture, process discovery or whatever.  The link to what actually happens, or more importantly what could happen is wide and the innate conservatism of human cognition makes it worse.  That is the big opportunity in all scaling activity, how to define real needs, how to close that gap.   That is what we are going to outline for the first time this Friday.


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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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