The unintended consequences of a sideways intervention……

March 17, 2010

I live with my 3 dogs on 4 acres… and need someone on site who can look after things when I am travelling for work. Over the past year, a young woman we will call Bella has been doing this on an ‘as required’ basis while an annex is being built. There had been few problems with the arrangement other than occasionally me being aware that rather than staying in the house she was with her boyfriend.

The annex was nearing completion, and the move in date was set. One of the builders said “ I thought you would be settling in the new dog today”. Me “What new dog”. He: “ The chihuahua that Bella is bringing”. Given that I had already said yes to a ferret, a bird and a fish tank and have extreme prejudice against very small dogs – and had not been asked before she collected it, I was absolutely seething.

Some time later, I felt very pleased as I had created the sideways intervention question that I believed would work. The SMS said “ In case Fred wasn’t joking about the extra dog the answer is ‘NO’.

The fast response from Bella and the ensuing conversation resulted, I believed, in a shared understanding, clarity and about expectations. I left home for 5 days away feeling reasonably self satisfied that I had dealt with a potentially challenging situation well. This morning the email from Bella ‘cancelled our arrangement’, and let me know that her furniture had been moved out. The keys were on the kitchen bench.

As I am in Brisbane on Day 3 of the accreditation course- welcome to a shallow dive into chaos! A quick flurry of phone calls to move it into complex. Dogs to be fed, and put inside. Mobilising the network to find an alternate tenant. More options to be explored in the next few weeks. A Cynefin dynamic in action …but certainly not one carefully planned – or even anticipated.

Which brings me to the world of change management – and the plethora of books, articles and experts available that all purport to provide the answers of how to do it and be successful. The implied assumptions of order and control contained in the advocated change management plans and models have always contrasted with my experience.

Aspirations are dressed up as ‘ways to do it’ – it seems to me from an approach of – “lets crate an ideal approach to achieving something, write it up and see if anyone can make it work. If they do, the case studies and conference circuit appearances- and further books will flow.’ This contrasts sharply with a ‘lets try something – and if it works, write it up’ approach- or as an ex boss of mine would say – ‘Policy will only be developed in the light of experience .’ There are always unintended consequences, and being responsive and adaptive is fundamental to not being overwhelmed and paralysed by the unexpected.

Being disruptive and being disrupted….two parts of the same process. On reflection there were of course weak signals about the situation above – even before the Chihuahua . I DID see the gorilla – just ignored it to my mini -peril.

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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.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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