Things a leader can do

July 1, 2016

Just over a week ago I posted at the end of day one of the Helsinki think tank on Leadership. I planned to post the next day on one of the sessions I was involved in but events and travel overtook me. The email backlog is still high, the requirements of setting up the new Cynefin Centre at Bangor University while managing Cognitive Edge along with continued travel all conspired to prevent my resolution to get back to a daily cycle. Then of course the disaster that is Brexit has also impacted. I’ll be posting on that in the next few days as we will be launching a SenseMaker® project to try and identify some of the underlying cultural aspects that resulted in, and will result from that decision. I’m writing this en route to South Africa after a long drive down from Bangor where we did some of the planning for that. Before then I was in Lampeter at a Welsh Leadership conference which was well summed up by @lizgrieve as follows:

Dave Snowden shooting a large number of OD sacred cows; time for a rethink, people! #PublicServiceWales

The hash tag will give you some more material from that presentation and it was filmed so I will try and post the link. But I will summarise that as well in the next few days and post the slides. Shooting sacred cows is a long term goal, hobby and pleasure and a home audience makes that easy.

Enough of explaining why I have not posting and saying what I will post, let me get to the subject.

To get to the subject

I’ve extracted the visual summary by Annika Varjonen above but the basic task I was given was to summarise the situation faced by leaders and what they should do about it. Now I had been talking about a lot of this in several of the discussion groups but it was now time to summarise. So I share it here – mostly material I have posted on before but some new stuff and formulations. If it is a bit cryptic ask questions! I’ve listed it as a series of bullet points under two headings:

Approaches and avoidances


  1. Ontological agility, the ability to understand the context and act accordingly.  This is a key aspect of Cynefin and understanding the boundary transitions is as important as understanding the domains.  In our forthcoming project management programme I am emphasising the complex to complicated boundary as a near full domain it is that critical.  The shift from safe-to-fail experiments, through observable repeatable results from increasing constraints, to a state where scalability can be achieved through repetition.   In a complex world this is not possible.
  2. Don’t get seduced by models of leadership that provide an aspiration state.  The idea of servant leadership for example is a good one, learn from it but don’t make the mistake of thinking it is universally applicable, it has its time and place.  Sometimes you will have to be directive, creating boundaries, making strong interventions; sometimes you can hang back, apply a light touch on the tiller to enable emergence.  Above all don’t believe any model based on a single leader;s autobiography.
  3. Beware the temptation to make artisan capability into manufacturing processes; or buy such snake oil when it if offered to you.  Many human capabilities take years to evolve in both teams and individuals they can’t be achieved in a limited time period training course.  People are not computers, they cannot be programmed or constrained into constitutions (Holocracy) without considerable loss and degradation of capability.   Current examples of this include Appreciative Inquiry (the original Cooperrider work has value, but the industrialisation and platitude based formulas do not), Design Thinking and a whole bunch of Agile methods.
  4. Alignment of stakeholder interests fails to create enough tension in the system.  Once upon a time managers wanted long term employment shareholders shorter term return.  Then we aligned the two and created a perverted system.  The last thing you want are common values as that will reduce adaptive capacity, but neither do you want massive misalignment of values.  Variety within constraints, Aristotle’s Golden Mean and so on; diversity, mutation under stress, some conflict and tension are all necessary for a healthy organisation.
  5. Stop trying to create an organisation by aggregating individual competence and above all don’t start to configure the personalities of your staff to some idealistic model.  Changing interactions is a more effective way of influencing the direction of travel in a complex system, and incidentally of allowing people to change as they feel appropriate.
  6. Create time and space to listen, study and reflect (feeling a total hypocrite here but it is true nevertheless)
  7. Learn to live with mess and failure, not too much, there are limits, but a manager who can’t live with them lacks agility and humanity.



What can we do to help

OK some of this will be cryptic – it is a place holder, feel free to ask. There will be future posts.

  1. We have just finished the final tests on a new micro-observational approach to leadership 360 using SenseMaker®.  This allows a leader to nominate people who record interactions and describe them within positive frameworks.  The leader can then see how their behaviour is skewed and ask themselves: What can I do tomorrow to create more observations like these, fewer like those.
  2. Start thinking about shifting to VECTOR measures rather than outcome based targets.  Vectors define direction and speed of travel from the present and allow novel discoveries that are often ignored in the focus on explicit targets (which we know destroy intrinsic motivation).  Stop managing by spreadsheet!
  3. Map your existing culture, don’t think about what you would like it to be.  Ask instead what you can change in what time horizon to influence its direction.
  4. Think about crews as a way of organising cross silo teams and possibly as a way of creating a more resilience succession plan.  There is always a pilot, but it is a role not a person.
  5. Think about using the  SenseMaker® capability to journal leadership journeys (training programmes as well as personal development capability).  This is a standard SenseMaker® offering which has already been tested and while it is designed for senior leadership development it has more general capability.  This method can also identify existing heuristics which codified and attached to parable form stories can provide a new governance framework.
  6. Focus on disintermediation, as far as possible remove interpretative layers between your (and your subordinates) decision making and the originating data.  Walking the talk is one obvious way but narrative based approaches to Net Prompter Scores, customer and employees insight all make that easier and more scalable.
  7. Maps roles and capabilities on the basis of deployability not ownership.  Being able to deploy capability in context is more important than possessing that capability.  That rule applies both within and without an organisation.



Above all realise that you don’t reduce complexity or necessarily absorb it (although that Boisot distinction is useful), rather we navigate complexity without requiring full knowledge or expecting certainly.

Recent Posts

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.


< Prev

Here be dragons ….

I’ve been too long away from this blog for which apologies. An error of judgement ...

More posts

Next >

Shooting the Sacred Cows of OD

Yesterday I referenced a tweet from the Welsh Academy session at which I was a ...

More posts

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram