February 7, 2008

The fourth and last answer to the four horsemen of the apocalypse is the absolute rebuttal of magical thinking, and of instant answers. It acknowledges the primary message that Death carries, which is that failing organisations will take their own time to move to less injurious modes of being.

Neither single and simple interventions, nor methods and technical approaches, however smartly designed, will create the transformations that are desired in the kind of negativity and powerlessness that these organisations are experiencing. But I also assert the value and the contribution of struggle towards achieving that end.

By struggle I mean a sustained effort by many people towards a positive and common goal. In many ways the “correctness” of the methods deployed in that struggle are less important than the consistency and the determination of the people engaged in the struggle, sustained over time. Again, as consultants, in our contributions we are largely marginal to the work that has to be done.

However marginal we are, we still have contributions to make: by investing our experience and encouragement as well as our techniques and tools in the people we work with in organisations. By seeking to learn from them and acting as vessels for the experience of other engaged in similar struggles, in other organisations. By helping them gain capabilities for self-determination by whatever means are available to us. By keeping themselves and ourselves honest and free of magical thinking. By resisting the tempting abandonment of apocalyptic thinking when things are very discouraging.

There is a curious story in the Bible that recounts how Jacob, having cheated his elder brother Esau of his inheritance, fled his brother’s rage and lived in exile for many years. Finally, he could stand the nomadic life no longer and yearned to go home, so he resolved to go and face his brother whatever may come, fully expecting violence and perhaps death. The night before he was to meet his brother, at the river that divided them, Jacob, we are told, met an angel of God with whom he wrestled all night. Exhausted, the match ended at dawn with no winner, but Jacob was injured in his hip, and carried a limp for the remainder of his days.

This story is curious because despite the initial narrative setup (flight from an enraged brother), the crux of the whole story seems to be this struggle with an angel. It seems completely disconnected to the main plot, but after it, the meeting and reconciliation with Esau seem completely anti-climactic.

It is a little like this, I think, when we work with injured and injurious organisations, either inside them or with them. Whatever we think is our “plot” or our objectives, it is that struggle with the angel that carries the merit and the value, and though it may mark us, though it may seem to have no reward, nonetheless it plays a part for the common good, just by having us engaged in it.

So my response to apocalyptic thinking is this: failure is less important than learning, and learning is less important than contributing in the right direction. It doesn’t rest on us alone, but on all those involved in the struggle, and those whom we encourage along the way.

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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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