The tyranny of the explicit

July 28, 2018

One of the phrases I coined many moons ago is that of ‘necessary ambiguity’; or, if I am feeling less assertive, ‘requisite ambiguity’. The basic idea is that, with uncertainty and ambiguity a necessary part of the environment, any attempt to force that ambiguity into constraints, to make the decision maker more comfortable, is not only futile but downright dangerous. One of the most persistent examples of this is the desire to remove ambiguity by attempting to prescribe what should be done, in writing, for circumstances as yet unknowable. It’s the desire to lay down everything in a contract rather than acquire the social skills, and build the trust, necessary to negotiate actions in context. The less confident the decision maker the more they will fall back to process, to rules, to monitoring.

One of my favourite ways to illustrate this goes way back to the time when I was forced to write an ISO 9001 manual. The CEO gave me the task on the basis that poachers make the best game keepers; as a notorious breaker of rules I was best placed to write something that people like me would follow. If the quality department had been given the task then they would have produced a ten-volume prescriptive manual with complex training regimes all designed to remove any remote chance that they could be blamed if anything went wrong. I wrote a 70-page document which contained lists of prescriptive instructions for known issues and situations followed by a generic: if anything not covered by the foregoing happens, convene these people and trust them to make a decision. I created rules for what could be known in advance, and a process (with diversity of respondent) for that which was unknown, or possibly even unknowable in advance.

Prescribe in order, describe in complex, prescribe in chaotic is a good maxim to follow. The more perspectives you can get on the description then the more resilient any subsequent decision will be if you are in the complex domain of Cynefin. In order or chaos decisive action and clear lines of authority are needed. In the complex domain clear lines of control, structured authority and a need to avoid challenge or informal conversations (autocrats hate the idea of any exchange of which they are not a part) are contraindicated. One of the great successes of Wikipedia is that consensus is the only way of making a decision; there is no content authority, just exclusion from editing if you are not prepared to engage in an evidence based discussion, without personal attacks.

Complexity is messy, a single point of authority without checkpoints and feedback is dangerous. The Gaping Void opener makes this clear and doesn’t privilege any particular form, it all depends on context. The in-text picture was taken from the summit of Tryfan some four years ago, looking towards the Bristly Ridge and Glyder Fach. It is an ambiguous landscape at the best of times, but with mist that ambiguity of multiplied. Walking on your own requires caution and multiple scanning and checkpoints; in a group of friends consultation and agreement reduce risk.

But handling inherent ambiguity requires sufficient humility to work with others without the ultimate fall back of I will decide. It is about seeing things from multiple perspectives, holding options open for as long as possible. Of course, managing in ambiguity with multiple decision makers requires a degree of self-confidence, tempered by humility. An ability to be wrong and live with it. Those who need a prescription in all contexts lack the ability to handle essential ambiguity and this is, in essence (sic) restricted in the level to which they should be allowed to rise. Equality seeking out ambiguity for the sake of it when order is established wastes time. Context comes first then, and only then, action. More on this in future posts as I start to expand and explore my earlier work on leadership characteristics by Cynefin domain.

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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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