seven swans a swimming

December 31, 2015

So far I have studiously avoided the usurpation of the carol as a catechism memory tool. But I am tempted to use it here as it is held to refer to the seven sacraments, or (and possibly more relevant) the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit namely wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety and wonder. The celtic version talks about the beauty of the unknown with the swans swimming as linked to the movements of the seven planets (then mysterious); elegance and mystery personified. Both may be wrong as in the 17th Century when the carol appears to originate the swan was a good omen, good eating and a source of feathers and down. It may just be a pretty generous gift. A nice quote here by the way from a 13th Century monk Bartholomaeus Anglicus:: “Shipmen trow that it tokeneth good if they meet swans in peril of shipwreck… Shipmen desire this bird for he dippeth not down in the waves.” Aside from this we have the semi-myth of the wing of a swan being able to break a human leg and the whole black swan thing.

Now the idea that a black swan would surprise anyone irritates (or maybe amuses) anyone with a basic knowledge of philosophy. The idea was raised by Popper in a lecture to give an example of a category error; namely whiteness is not an essential feature of a swan as something with the same shape, habits, biology etc that happened to be black would be a swan. Now there is more than enough evidence of category errors in business in general and OD in particular. Classifying people in boxes based on the idea that they have innate competences is just one, but I have already mentioned that in an earlier post. The full set of gifts would cover too much, when I’m only half way through! But the final one wonder matches in with the celtic notion of elegance, mystery and the beauty of the unknown. None of which is really present in practice in most of the OD projects I’ve had a chance to look at or experience. Well that is not true, a lot of the idealistic positioning and utopian statements about the future post design/development tend to be fiction purporting to be fact but that is not the same thing.

One thing that always impresses me is the capacity of people in organisations to survive change initiatives and continue to look after customers and colleagues despite, not because of the change. Starting with a desired future state not current reality is nearly always a mistake. For a start the high level of abstraction of future driven changes really focuses on the average, or the centre of a normal distribution of behaviour and practice. It ignores the tails were the exceptions that are a part of reality exist. In fact this is a general problem in a whole range of areas and one of the focus points for complexity initiatives is to identify and utilise clusters in the tails of distributions rather than the average. Opportunity and threat can rarely be anticipated, but we can trigger alerts and exploit them if we remain open to unplanned possibilities.

All of that means accepting that a large part of any organisation and its environmental interactions will always be unknown and in many ways inherently unknowable. Learning to live with ambiguity, avoiding simplistic attempts to reduce said ambiguity and realising that the unknown is not only reality, but fertile with unrealised potential is to understand the mystery and beauty of the unknown. In Cynefin terms that which is obvious and complicated can be designed, determined and managed by goals. But that which is complex is very different. One of the mistakes of the systems dynamics crew (and I include Senge in that) was to try and cope with uncertainty by setting objectives. That then morphed into the whole KPI nonsense which still persists. The reduction of uncertainty by a focus on goals is understandable given the strong top down approach that you see in the Learning Organisation and other movements of that time. The idea of alignment behind a common set of goals is just one variant. In theory and in practice that is an error. It closes you off to emergent possibilities, encourages gaming behaviour by the politically savvy and generally assumes a linear material form of causality which is just not present. Starting with the present, identify where a nudge is now possible is far more sensible, cost effective and resilient. The more like this, fewer like that based on a narrative landscape map is part of a whole new complexity informed theory of change. It is needed in many domains, but OD is up there at the top of the list in the need to change, to learn to accept and celebrate uncertainty and the mystery of continuous discovery.

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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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