Tomorrow’s Inauguration

January 20, 2009

Tomorrow’s inauguration of Barack Obama is indisputably an incredibly momentous occasion. His election indicates that the habitual patterns of our social interaction have been seriously disrupted. Whether the disruption to the past patterns of behavior is lasting is an open question. And whether or not the Obama presidency will ultimately be seen as a paradigm shift in American and global politics also remains to be seen, but the fact that a man with his unconventional and multifaceted roots has become the U.S. president is both amazing and encouraging.

The inauguration itself, which has been described as a balancing act between celebrating the extraordinary and transformative event of an African-American being elected president against the profoundly somber times in which we find ourselves, has captured the nation’s attention. There are three days of speeches, concerts, celebrities, inaugural balls and throngs of people sloshing around Washington, DC—all quite extraordinary and unprecedented. Regardless of the tone of inaugural celebrations, the stark reality of the current state of affairs won’t be obscured for long.

Lamentably, the litany of intractable problems facing the U.S. (many self-inflicted) is endless. Given the scope, intensity and velocity of the challenges, I doubt that he’ll have the luxury of prioritizing that list—instead it will probably be more akin to battlefield triage. Beyond determining which blazing fire is likely to do the most immediate damage, Obama will also have to contend with extraordinarily high performance expectations, as we desperately hope that he pulls us back from the edge of the abyss (does abyss have a plural?),— some even speculate he’s heaven sent. Perhaps the high expectations will work in his favor.

Speaking of expectations, has catalogued over 500 promises (almost twice the average election year slate of presidential candidate promises) Obama made during the seemingly endless campaign, and they ( promise to careful tally progress. Possibly reflecting a growing national maturity, recent opinion polls claim that Americans recognize and appreciate the severity of the problems Obama faces and have promised substantial patience.

The enduring theme of the Obama campaign has been his notion of hope reflected in the “Yes We Can” mantra. A consulting colleague I work with likes to say that “hope is a poor substitute for a plan of action”, a phrase he uses when he thinks a group is focused more on good intentions than on the means to an end. In this case, hope for a better future creates a powerful context for effective human action. Maybe that reframing will be the critical difference.

My use of the Cynefin framework with organizations of varying size over the past several years has caused me to reflect on its potential application in the function and structure of local, state and national government. Those of us that have worked with the framework recognize some leaders have an intuitive understanding of what works in what context. In managing his campaign and transition, Obama has demonstrated, if not a schooled awareness, at least an intuitive awareness about how to act in the complex domain. He speaks confidently about conducting probes and experiments when it comes to dealing with intractable problems in social complexity; he also displays comfort with the complicated domain, recognizing the sort of problems that are amenable to the solutions developed by experts and analysts. In my view, he’s clearly at ease in the high abstraction domains, as well as the domain of disorder. Hopefully, he’ll demonstrate as much mastery of the low abstraction domains as he has in the high.

History is being made and I am hopeful it heralds a better future.

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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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