The Space Between Denial and Despair

February 1, 2009

It’s always nice to be invited to do something of real meaning so when Dave asked me to step in as guest blogger for seven days it was an obvious affirmative on my part. Moreover, the timescale seemed perfect; seven days corresponds so well with the seven key disciplines in my new book, ‘The Strategic Mind, The Journey to Leadership through Strategic Leadership’ published by Management Books 2000 this month. Surely, nothing could be more prefect than that? Except that that is exactly the kind of linear thinking I am hoping the book will help to dispel. Far better for me to distill some of the central arguments of the book and let this forum be the interactive exchange of ideas that it is designed to be. Luckily, I have no doubt that I am in exactly the right place for that to happen.

In any endeavour context is vitally important; ideas do not exist in a vacuum. In March 2007 I met with my colleague and good friend who is founder of the International Centre for Families in Business, to talk about his work with family business, one of the many case studies in the book. We had arranged to meet in a coffee shop in Marlborough by the River Kennet, which enjoys fine views and offers a nice relaxed ambience. Before we started our conversation in earnest we relaxed and chatted about life as we watched the river flow by and the ducks chase each other up and down stream. I found myself talking about the seriousness of the issues that confront our world, particularly the destruction of the environment and our imbalance with the natural world. ‘Is talking about this cathartic for you?’ my friend asked ‘so will you be talking about it in the book?’ The question caused me to pause because the answer, I knew, was ‘no’, or more truthfully, no more than was necessary as a backdrop to discussing how important it is for us to think strategically in our world today. ‘There are plenty of other books that already do that,’ I replied, ‘and they do it far better than I am able to.’ This, of course, begged the question as to what the book was actually about and why I was writing it. I have known my friend for far too many years to make the mistake of thinking that he would let me get away with an evasive response on that one. ‘It’s about what we can do about it.’ I finally replied.

As it happens, the following day I had the opportunity to see ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, for the second time. This time I was struck by Al Gore’s comment that he was increasingly meeting people who were moving from denial to despair. The place of positive action was missing. Recognition did not necessarily bring the will to act but a kind of resigned hopelessness. Something immediately clicked. The purpose had revealed itself to me; to support those of us who are living in that place between denial and despair. This, in no way, minimizes the challenging nature of many of the problems and issues that we face. It simply puts the emphasis of the book on how we can begin to make a difference in resolving these problems. A Chinese proverb warns, ‘if we do not change direction, we are likely to end up exactly where we are headed.’ At present, it is not too late yet to change direction and the case studies and stories in the book give plenty of practical advice on how this process of change can begin. However, time is running out. Developing the capacity to think strategically has never been more important. And, whilst I believe that there may be much to disagree with in terms of Al Gore’s analysis, I think the reality facing us is even more challenging than the one he postulates. A look at emerging phenomena today can be truly scary. In my view we owe him a great debt in bringing attention and focus on the importance of the nature of our interrelationship with the world around us in its deepest sense. By acknowledging this, we move beyond ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ into a sense of a shared destiny; we learn to work together despite our differences.

Over the next week I will explore some of the key concepts in the book and why I consider them so important. Tomorrow, I will discuss the nature of strategic thinking and strategic leadership and for the rest of the week we will look gently at the seven key disciplines and the implications for the future. First, however, I thought it was important for me to set out the key aims for the book and what I hope it will achieve. A couple of years ago I discussed the emerging book with a friend and he immediately said, ‘well you can help me with a problem that I have at work’. He quickly summarised the somewhat complex nature of the organisational issue that he was facing and turned to me expectantly for an answer. ‘I don’t know’ I replied simply, ‘I am a complete outsider, you have given me a three minute synopsis of undesirable symptoms arising in a system that I have no knowledge of whatever’. ‘I can’t give you a meaningful reply.’ ‘Oh’ he said with evident disappointment and, no doubt thinking that he had wasted valuable time explaining matters to me, then muttered, ‘well, some strategic thinker you are!’ We desperately need the courage to move beyond this need for instantaneous solutions, even if it comes at the cost, as it did in my case, of appearing foolish. Most importantly, I am also very interested in hearing from you if you have read the book and what you think about it. That too will most certainly shape the debate. All in all, I am very much looking forward to the week ahead.

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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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