Sea ice in Helsinki

March 10, 2012

I gave an opening address last Friday at ScanAgile 2012 on the general subject of the the 3Cs of complexity.   I should say that I did not determine the title, it was gifted to me by the following speaker Joseph Pelrine.  He had the handicap of presenting Cynefin with me in the audience so I suppose it was a form of premature retaliation!  In an event I ended up with just two Cs and added in a G for varieties sake.   I have loaded the slides but there I am afraid no podcast.  The session was videoed and it will be on the ScanAgile site sometime soon.  I'll give a rough outline of what I said in a minute or two.

Now I have a fondness for ScanAgile.  Back in 2008 I gave a keynote and it was the first real presentation to the Agile community.  I had earlier created some impact at an XP event in London with the Cynefin framework, but that presentation in 2008 was when the real engagement with Agile started.  Helsinki is of course a wonderful location.  At this time of the year the harbour is still frozen in part.  The picture shows the commercial harbour with broken ice in the early morning sun.  On the other side of the headland the leisure harbour was still frozen and people were walking around on the ice maintaining the hulls of their boats.  

The image of broken ice, the sun creating long shadows and the crispness of the air all appealed and I realised again, that I am creature of the cold, not the heat.  I feel comfortable in this climate in way I don't in the humidity of Singapore and Hong Kong (my next trip).  I hasten to add that this is no comment on the people, or the food but purely on the ambient temperature and humidity. 

So to the presentation; the slides of which are either Gaping Void cartoons or my own pictures.  I'll follow the numbering of the slides (and they are printed two per page in the handout) in summarising what I said, and it will be a summary, don't expect an essay more an aide memoir.

  1. I opened, slightly tongue in cheek by suggesting that too many in the Agile community were defined by what they were against, rather than by anything more positive.  The slogan on the opening Gaping Void cartoon as Our critics are easy to spot.  They're the ones who are wrong which retweeted without context gave the impression I was arguing the same context which resulted in the odd accusation of arrogance, quickly resolved.  I made the point I have made many times, that Agile has good methods without poor theory and that complexity provides the theory through which we can scale.
  2.  I then introduced two key concepts from nature: coevolution and exaptation.  I've talked about these many times before (and apologies I am still getting used to the new site so linking is not easy and the editor does not have a spell checking so apologies for that too).  Basically co-evolution in human systems means that as things (generally interpreted) act with other things and with their environment patterns form and if a pattern stabilises it is difficult to reverse. This means that weak signal detection is key to management.  Exaptation is an accidental development as a result of adaption which proves more useful.  Both of these are key concepts that we need to apply in human systems and also lead to the statement that complex systems are not causal, but they are dispositional.  That means we can influence the way they evolve, but we can't predetermine what they will be.
  3. That brought me to complexity and the danger of seeing order and chaos as opposites with the former desirable and the latter to be avoided.  In fact both plus complexity are valid ontological states.
  4. A picture of the waves crashing on the west coast of Australia saw me talk about the basic divisions of complexity thinking in respect of management.  Here I repeated the two authentic and one inauthentic divides I outlined in my last post.
  5. That brought me to the need to recognise our own humanity and the three aspects of human complex systems that make us different.  Identity, the fact that we can shift the balance of roles without thinking about it means there is no single agency; Intelligence means that we have awareness of the system which termines and birds lack; Intention means that we do things for complex purposes, this includes altruism and sacrifice.
  6. I then outlined the constraint (my first C) based definition of complexity: system constrains agents, order; agents unconstrained, chaos; system and agents coevolve, complex. by showing the magic roundabout in Swindon, first with the road sign …
  7. … then with a picture of reality.  If anyone wants the picture by the way, we have a license to use it and paid for that license.  If you want to same let me know and I will link you to the owner.
  8. I contrasted complex management (the roundabout with constrains and distributed cognition to the agents) with a highly ordered system using the traffic light sculpture from Canary Wharf by way of illustration.
  9. Excessive constrain is of course bad.  To reference the cartoon, George may have had a plan, but no change of execution.  Unfortunate choice of words there, the probability of George being executed at least metaphorically is high!  Excessive constrain ultimately leads to catastrophic failure (the cliff at the bottom of the Cynefin framework sometimes known as the squiggle)
  10. I was now moving into my second C, namely Coherence. This is the way we manage uncertainty.  We don't just run any safe-to-fail experiment, we require a test of coherence; a half way house between empirical proof and relativism.  Tools such as SenseMaker® provide ways to measure coherence as do techniques such as ritual dissent.
  11. That allowed me to emphasise that co-evolution within a test of coherence allows for exaptation and allows us to end up where we need to be, not where we wanted to be earlier.  This is a key aspect of complexity, evolving to a sustainable future not trying to close the gap with an ideal state.
  12. From there I talked about granularity of objects.  Again I was referencing the pre-conditions for exaptation, which is getting the granularity or clumping (a favourite word) right.  I referenced Brian Arthur's book here and his proposition that modularity is key to technology evolution and innovation.  nbsp;I also talked about reqirements capture and our plans to release a special version of SenseMaker® for this in the near future.
  13. Of course the issue with finely grained objects is to find the one you want, the proverbial needle in a haystack so pointed metal objects.  That is where things like fitness landscapes and human metadata come into play.
  14. The main part over, I talked about some of the key differences in complexity approaches from systems thinking.  In particular the differences between teams and crews.  The latter taking more up front investment, but far less on deployment.  The ritual entry into role and role interdependency creates means that a crew is more than the sum of individual capaiblity and does not have to go through formation on deployment (the big problem with teams and a major time waster).  I talked passionately here (and in response to a question later) about the need for professionals to understand the need for multiple training within an apprentice model over time.  Its not enough just to go on a course and get a certificate if you complete a multi-choice questionaire.
  15. The need to realise that if you want to advocate something new you will stand out, and one of my all time favourite Gaping Void cartoons about the need to choose between being a wolf of a sheep.
  16. I then recommended theory informed practice (again) and the need to reflect on theory over time not just pick up some nice sounding words, through together a slide set and claim expertise.
  17. To contrast I pointed out that pragmatism requires us to recognise how things are and work with them, rather than bleat (deliberate choice of words there) about how they should be different as an excuse for inaction.  That type of fluffy bunny idealism really irritates me as its deeply hypocritical in the main.
  18. Now at pace, don't panic, it may seem dark but a pattern is always visible …
  19. … realise that humans are good at things that computers are poor at.  Technology is there it augment not replace human intelligence.
  20. Realise that groups and ritual are key to the deployment of that intelligence, but play comes into it to and we can be pretty stupid at times so take care.  The picture here is a distance shot of the south stand at the Hong Kong sevens.
  21. Then finally, culture is complex, it can't be directed but its evolution can be managed, and …
  22. … everything is complex,  until we make it complicated

So that over, we went to coffee and I tweeted indignantly that afternoon on a few other presentations, but you can track that down for yourself!



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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.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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