Thinking simply, in context

June 20, 2014

One of the common social media comments post a Cognitive Edge course (especially when I run it) is that people'r brains hurt; it's normally a compliment.  As I said yesterday on the final day of this week's London programme the issue is to think differently, then its all pretty simple.  This is generally true of any paradigm shift in the history of ideas.  If you go back to the enlightenment you will find that the people who have made the mental shift to science, to the use of observation and derivation of rules, actually find it all fairly easy and self-evident.  However those trained in the old ways of thinking, well their brains hurt.

Now complexity theory is if anything a more radical shift in our understanding and it can hurt those accustomed to the case based approach to management, repeating recipes derived from past practice.  Or worse having one successful project then generalising it into a universal method, something that the Agile community seems especially prone to.  The essence is to understand that the basic ideas are very simple, to use the key phrase from The Children's Party Story (I must remake that video, it's a constant reminder of the 35kg I no longer possess) We manage the emergence of beneficial coherence within attractors, within boundaries.  If you want the essence then it falls into three groups of three types of theory informed action:

In its essence:

  1. In any situation, what can we change?
  2. Out of the things we can change, where can we monitor the impact of that change?
  3. Out of the things we can change, where we can monitor the impact, where could we amplify success and/or dampen or recover from failure.

What we should avoid:

  1. Retrospective coherence, we should learn from the past but not assume that what happened will repeat, or that it had linear causality
  2. Premature convergence, coming to quickly to a single solution (although coming quickly to parallel safe to fail experiments is a good thing) rather than keeping our options open
  3. Pattern entrainment, assume that the patterns of past success will entrain the inevitability of future failure unless you actively manage to prevent it.

Then the three basic heuristics of complexity management:

  1. Work with finely grained objects
  2. Distribute cognition/sense-making within networks
  3. Disintermediation, putting decision makers in contact with raw data without interpretative layers

Nothing too hard about any of that, but it's a new way of thinking and acting so it can appear hard.   If course some people respond simplistically the two most common being:

  1. Assuming that everything is complex in human systems and thus order is not possible
  2. Putting old wine into new wineskins, simply badging up old approaches in new language.

There are probably more but those are the most frequent.  Interesting both seem designed to make respondents comfortable rather than to challenge their thinking.  A great quote from T S Eliot applies here:

Nothing pleases people more than to go on thinking what they have always thought, and at the same time imagine that they are thinking something new and daring: it combines the advantage of security and the delight of adventure.

I can think of a few people who claim to be working with complexity to whom that applies.  So its simple but don't be simplistic.

So why the opening picture?  Well I used the London bikes for the first time this week and fell in love with them.  Although riding from Covent Garden to Earls Court late at night qualifies as an extreme sport.  However it took a couple of rides for me to realise that (i) was not my bespoke bike with ultra thin tyres and a campag group set and (ii) I should not attempt rapid progress when I have a meeting to go to without the opportunity for a shower.  Once I got that then my journeys this week across London were faster, and all together more enjoyable.

Think anew, act anew; simple but not simplistic.  Then it hurts less ….



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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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