To be content not to know

October 25, 2014

Yesterday I made my views on making a difference clear in terms of what I valued, what Cognitive Edge is capable of and some of the Cognitive Edge capabilities in this area.   One of the things I attacked is idealistic future state definitions which I characterised as a form of neo-colonialism in the development sector.  That translates into patriarchy in a wider context, and the behavioural patterns of patriarchy are not confined to the male of the species.  

I've also posted in the past on the difference between sidecasting, backcasting and forecasting.  That series of posts starts here and the sequence ends here with one interruption for a cautionary tale about Green Pit Vipers.  The argument of that series is not to deny the value of forecasting or backcasting, but to argue that casting around in the present to see what is possible is also key.   Now the patriarchal neo-colonialism I referenced yesterday should not be read to imply that I don't see value in Backcasting techniques.  They use future states not as a mandated behaviour but rather to unblock obstacles in the present and have value.

So the question naturally arises as to how we provide purpose or a sense of direction in any complex system, and in particular in the wider context of social or organisational change.  There is always a sense of irony when people ask this question (and they do) as its something we already know how to do in day to day family life.  From my perspective the key thing is to understand that a sense of rightful direction is not the same thing as defining an explicit goal.  We do that in our families by telling stories, by modifying behaviour through approbation or distaste in the main.  We know more of what we don't want than what we do and that has a higher moral function as it allows our children to create their own goals, while learning from our mistakes.  A family which has a mission and values statement with quarterly KPIs for their children has lost the plot in a perverse and natural way.  

So in our work within Cognitive Edge we currently see three ways to provide direction which can be summarised as follows:

  1. The use of heuristics to provide concrete easily memorable steps that allow people to take action in the present.   The famous example is the US Marines with capture the high ground, stay in touch, keep moving.  Those well illustrate the difference between heuristics and principles.   The latter can be used to validate or explain away much behaviour, the former allow compliance to be readily measured.  Some of our more recent work is starting to focus on extracting naturally evolved heuristics from a SenseMaker® based narrative capture, then take the resulting cluster patterns and create heuristics than can be taught and measured.
  2. Where heuristics are difficult then rather than falling back to principles we move to parable form stories.   It is no coincidence that all the worlds's major religions use parables to provide a sense of direction.  The essence of a parable is that it contains some type of paradox that challenges convention and allows you to see the world in a different way.  I'm currently working on this aspect of narrative work and we are completing templates and processes to discover what is possible and sustainable in their creation in an organisational context.
  3. Finally and probably most importantly we have the more stories like this, fewer like those intervention that is possible with SenseMaker®.   By capturing current stories over a population we can readily identify those which move in a desired direction and those which do not.  The question to leaders and actors alike is then what can we do which would encourage these, but discourage those.  Thus a direct emerges which is not over defined but which is directional.   In the narrative landscape shown the desirable state in show by the coloured circle, but the dominant current patterns are elsewhere.   This one is from a current project looking at attitudes to safety and work completion.  I chose that as it relates to real world issues not an abstract value set.  And of course, attitudes are a lead indicator rather than compliance which is a lag indicator.  Lead indicators allow more ready, responsive and lower energy cost response.

Now all of those methods do not tell people what they should be or how they should think.  They provide boundary conditions and catalysts that allow a contextually appropriate solution to emerge and become self-sustaining.   All of the above are an important new aspect of our training by the way and I will be teaching them myself in London and Zurich in the next few months.

Its also worth remembering here that all the available scientific evidence shows that when people work for extrinsic, explicit goals they loose intrinsic motivation.  Spending a little more time acting for change rather than talking about how people should think would be a good idea: justification is not by with alone.

Finally I chose an alethiometer as the illustration for this post and the heading reflects a key aspect of its use in Pullman's wonderful reworking of Milton.  It's worth reflecting on all that reference implies.


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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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