Synderesis in Cynefin

January 20, 2018

I probably shouldn’t have brought an ancient scholastic text book with me but I still have a fondness for it, in part in memory of an early mentor Herbert McCabe OP who I first met when I was still a student. I have fond memories of many a meeting and discussion at Blackfriars in Oxford, sometimes shared with Terry Eagleton and Giles Hibbert OP; a colleague of Herbert who was a witness for the defence at the Oz trial (Thanks to Iwan Jenkins for tracking that down) Herbert’s article “The class struggle and Christian Love” remains relevant today. I still remember one late night discussion, fuelled by spirts and possibly The Spirit on the subject of idolatry, the sin of seeing either God or Mammon as an object within the world. Then of course there were the Spode House sessions. The 70’s was a good time to be alive, young and engaged, it was a time of change and above all of hope. As I get more into complexity and anthropology the more the discussions of that period come back to me and I’m currently re-reading Moltmann’s Theology of Hope for example and finding it relevant to many of today’s issues without any need to accept his ideas around the resurrection which can be treated as a metaphor.

Reflection brings back memories but I should probably move on to the goal of todays post which is to introduce the idea that description impacts on ethics within organisations. This is a relatively new idea so consider this post an exploration. I chose the scholastic word synderesis deliberately as some of the modern equivalent such as habitus or disposition, The concept links back in with yesterday’s post. It is all about the application of practical reason (prognosis) based on a natural disposition derived from principles of human interaction. It is generally thought to derive from the greek syneidêsis (συνείδησις) which means shared knowledge or conscience and I want to build on the idea of shared knowledge, or understanding, which is one of the main objectives of Cynefin in practice.

I’ve always argued that one of the main utilities of Cynefin is to reduce conflict. By understanding in which domain an issue is situated by can readily agree common practice based on agreed principles. If we go back to sense-making and my definition (making sense of the world so we can act in it) then understanding where we are, and holding that understanding in common, is key. One of the ongoing issues with platitudinous future goals is that while people can readily agree to the form of the words, the nature of their understanding of what it means may be radically different. The present can be known, the future is uncertain. It is a lot easy to agree on the current nature of a system if we avoid debates about what should happen, or how we have arrived here.

Within Cynefin this is relatively simple and has four basic stages:

  1. For things that are Obvious we already know what to do, in the UK we know to drive on the left this is not a matter for controversy.
  2. Where they are complicated we delegate the decision to professionals whose practice and education over time allow them to determine the correct path.  A generic problem in the modern day is that we have expected experts to make decisions in the complex domain (and they have claimed that right) which means they are wrong as often they are right and generally loose credibility in consequence.  Knowing the boundaries of expert legitimacy is key to conflict reduction and effective decision making.  My earlier post on how we gain that is key here.
  3. For everything else the situation is complex (if it was chaotic we would be out there doing something not talking about it).  Key here is that multiple hypotheses about what happened and what should happen can all be valid in different ways, or invalid for that matter.  The nature of the system is that we cannot know, we can only know that we don’t know, and can only gain knowledge through parallel safe-to-fail experiments.  Differencing points of view only have to agree that other people’s hypotheses are coherent, not that they are valid.  Further we know that failure is a part of the process of understanding or exploration, it is not associated with being right or wrong.
  4. Finally we have the choice of methods of exploring those options and planning for when things wrong.  I’ll come back to that in a future post.

To be clear I am talking here about organisations not necessarily the wider issue of ethics and morality in society as a whole. But it wouldn’t be that difficult to make the jump. I am arguing that what is correct is linked to the nature of the situation we are in but I also want to avoid utilitarian and constructivism as either can legitimise behaviours than would’t repeal any normally educated and raised human being. I used the panopticon as an opening illustration both to raise the issue of observation modifying behaviour, but also the way in which that was too readily taken to excess creates something deeply horrific. Constructivism too readily gives rise to moral relativism. Interestingly both tend to be common in organisations manifesting themselves in various forms with arguments such as if it works it must be right and so on.

Now I don’t want to resolve those issues for the moment, but I am arguing for a first stage. Start not with what things should be, not how they came to be but take a deeply realist perspective on describing how things are and where we can act for change. Keep that at the right level of granularity and the unintended consequences of error are manageable. Linked to that we have the wider issue of training and experience, creating a tendency to virtue (to reference Aristotle and Aquinas). I think we have an innate sense of what is collectively right and reject unfairness and selfishness (and I can see evolutionary reasons for that). Things go wrong when we allow idealistic visions to pervert our understanding of the here and now. To return to where I started, with tongue ever so slightly in cheek:

Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only
James 2:24

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