The Black Heart of Bureaucracy

February 24, 2011

The tension I’ve found is a powerful force, it is felt quite strongly by some. Among them are some of my favorite bloggers, Mark Addleson at and Steve Denning at

I enjoy their differing perspectives and I suspect that it is easier to see some of the disruptive patterns and their consequences from a safe distance outside of the bureaucratic complex system.

Tension is not the only force exposed. It’s mirror image is potential and there are a larger number of folks who are supporting this perspective. Among them I include John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davidson with “The Power of Pull,” Gary Hamel and others on “The MIX Exchange,” Jay Deragon and colleagues at The Relationship Economy, Steve Denning in his new book “Radical Management,” and many others.

It is curious that my reading list of optimists, focused on the potential of complex knowledge, outnumber the pessimists who examine the chaotic systems that we bureaucrats suffer under.

I’d like to return one last time (really) to “Complex Acts” and examine the paradox of knowledge as “both a thing and a flow.” (pg 18). If we examine the diagram closely in the original (pg 19) and subsequent variations (1), we should notice the terminus is deep into Simple. To use an analogy, the paradox is a chute that carries us around disorder into a safe landing (with or without a splash). In contrast, disorder is a black hole. It’s boundary is similar to the event horizon, and knowledge is formed or found as we inch our way around the circumference.

I hope this explains messy coherence, one of Dave’s 3 principles of fragmented knowledge. I wonder whether we can use micro-narratives and the innovation of self-signifiers to help detect the horizon and consequently back quickly out or reduce the time and severity of falling in.

There may be an obvious lesson here for mangers. If we neglect knowledge, learning and the burdens that complexity reveals, then we surrender to the conventional wisdom that bureaucracies only have black hearts.


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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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