Shorts and Not-So-Simples

December 10, 2008

The Virtual Open House was great fun! We had holiday tunes, pictures and quotes, greeting cards, audience chat, multiple voices, a video, a poll, presents for all, and a list of fascinating questions sent in by guests. The only things missing were the mistletoe and the eggnog, and I’m not completely sure about that.

Thanks, again, to our Webinar Wizard, Denise Easton, of !

The slides, a link to the archive, the chat stream, and other relevant documents will appear on our public network site at sometime in the next few days. In the meantime, there is one question that we wanted to respond to and ran out of time. (It is amazing how quickly 2.5 hours passes by!)

What are the most fundamental principles of HSD?

HSD lies at the intersection of nonlinear and social sciences. In that space, we draw theory, models, methods, and tools from many different places, so sometimes the “fundamental principles” aren’t all that obvious. To make the question even more interesting, the core of our work doesn’t lie in principles, it lies in action. We live in praxis: theory-informed work and work-informed theory. As an active, self-organizing community, our individual and collective actions are shaped by a short list of simple rules.

Today there is some controversy about whether or not simple rules are relevant in human systems. I’ve heard and made arguments on both sides, but my praxis-minded self has to be convinced. They work.

The idea is that when a diverse group of agents all follow the same general rules of behavior, coherent system-wide patterns emerge. Search for BOIDS to find demonstrations and explanations of the simple rule phenomenon in agent-based, computer simulation models.

In real live, we see sets of simple rules move an organization or a community toward shared meaning and action, but not all short lists are created equal. Royce Holladay has given us some short rules about constructing (or discovering) simple rules:

•Begin with an action verb.
Rules are about what you DO, not what you think or believe or value.

•Keep it short.
Have no more than 5 plus or minus 2. Our short-term memories max out at 7, and you have to be able to keep the rules accessible at all times.

•Include the essentials.
Be sure that there is at least one rule to cover each of the three conditions for self-organizing—container, difference, and exchange.

•Expect consistency but not identity.
Everyone, everywhere in the system has to follow the same rules, though each person will interpret them to fit in their own contexts.

With this rather extended preamble, I can tell you the fundamental principles of HSD in the form of our simple rules:

•Teach and learn in every interaction

•Reinforce strengths of self and other

•Search for the true and the useful

•Give and get value for value

•Attend to the part, the whole, and the greater whole

•Engage in joyful practice

Does this give you a sense of what you might expect from one of our Associates? Can you imagine what kinds of system-wide patterns would emerge from our interactions? Can you see how our fundamental principles are embedded in this list of shorts and simples, and how the list embeds our principles in our individual and collective actions? Would you expect us to host a Virtual Open House in which celebration, learning, inquiry, and humor were braided together into a community experience?

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About the Cynefin Company

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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