Towards a co-evolutionary praxis of value

July 17, 2010

201007180000.jpg In my post of yesterday I suggested that: far too much management “theory” is shoring up executives by making them feel good without changing their real actions. I wrote that as a response to Rosabeth Moss Kanters Ten essentials for getting value from values, but in practice I could have chosen more or less any of the current crop of mainstream management gurus. We have after all created a whole industry that rewards describing ideal behaviour and creating simplistic recipes. I also used quote marks around theory deliberately or possibly ironically. In practice these descriptive and pseudo-prescriptive approaches are theory-light. The need for praxis is central to the work of Cognitive Edge, combining sound theory with practice while privileging neither.

Now having spent a few posts attacking such approaches it behoves me to come up with an alternative. The intent of this post is to do so, but also to give some indication of the journey I and others have been on. That journey included early attempts to use narrative (or more specifically story-telling) techniques to mitigate some aspects of consultancy driven attempts to create values. Some of the techniques I developed, over a decade ago, either in their original or modified forms are still out there and have value although I really think we need to move on.

I spent an hour or so earlier today working on the diagram below. Its a high level summary designed to provide a visual aid to the text rather than a precise flow or description. In effect it describes three approaches to values:

  • The conventional, consultancy drive approach in which a team of expensive consultants lock themselves away with a group of executives for a period. They then descend like Moses from from Mount Sinai with the modern equivalent of tablets of stone: the powerpoint deck. Of course the statements mean a lot to them, as they have lived the journey of their creation; they act as symbolic reminders of that journey. The problem is, that while they have been away, their staff have been carrying on running the business and have also acquired a few idols of their own. However they are pretty experienced by now at this whole prophet business and the new values are nothing special (they have not lived the journey). So they learn to chant the new sacred text and parrot the new language of power.
    Of course by then a huge amount of money and time has been spent in briefing sessions for managers and the creation of a communication strategy. Few major consultancy led initiatives fail to end up with larger teams of more junior staff on extended deployment to work through a linear and lengthy process. A few years later, nothing much will have changed, new executives are in play and the whole cycle starts off all over again.
  • The story telling approach follows a similar pattern but mitigates some of its ills. Firstly anecdote circles are run to gather stories from the workforce in a valid attempt to try and find out how people think before the value statements are determined. These sessions are generally facilitated by consultants, but (i) they are cheaper and (ii) they are generally small so not driven by the need for utilisation of large teams. The powerpoint slide deck is replaced by an exemplar story or stories with higher persuasive power, or maybe it would be better to say higher contextual resonance. The alignment process with managers involves taking them through workshops, using templates so that they can tell their own story, using their own anecdotal material, but its the exemplar story contextualised. The communication plan then involves story telling rather than slide presentations. I first created and ran through that process well over a decade ago with Pan Canadian (before they were taken over) at a retreat centre in the Rocky Mountains. It was subsequently documented and taught on Cognitive Edge courses as on Cynefin Centre training during the IBM era. Several network members still practice it, with various amendments.
  • The third approach seeks to lighten consultancy/facilitator role to an even greater degree and also shifts from a linear process to one which has sufficient feedback to create a co-evolutionary process that will allow both adaptation and exaptation. It shifts away from the idea of a truth that has to be communicated (by powerpoint or by story telling) to an evolving understanding of shared meaning and direction; from a rule based to an ideation based management of culture. The critical difference between rules and ideation was explained in my first Vogon post earlier this month.

I covered off some aspects of how to do this in my second Vogon post so if you haven’t read that yet I would do so before proceeding. What I didn’t do was to structure those methods and approaches into a process that can be compared with the first two described above. This post is about doing that, and also articulating some of my concerns about story telling approaches in this field.


When I first drafted the above picture I was playing with a fairy tale metaphor around the The Three Bears. The consultancy approach for me was too cold so I made it blue; the story telling approach on the other hand was too intensive, too hot so I made it red; the just right has no obvious colour so I went for green. I’ll come back to fairy stories briefly later, although the metaphor got to difficult in early drafts of this post so it is now confined to colours alone. Mind you, the metaphor could still be useful, to quote WIkipedia’s summary of the politically correct version of that old story:

Goldilocks isn’t a little girl but rather a greedy rogue biologist bent on tracking and studying the peaceful anthropomorphic bears to make a splash in the scientific community. Goldilocks attempts to put tranquilizers in the bears’ porridge and traps with radio collars in their beds. However, the bears note the “chemically” smell of their organic porridge, and suspicious, discover the traps as well as Goldilocks, who has fallen asleep in the corner of the room while waiting for her targets to return. The Mama Bear and Papa Bear then brutally kill and consume Goldilocks, while the shocked Baby Bear looks on; it is revealed that the family is vegetarian, though the parents made an exception this time.

Ok that is the last hit on management consultancy for this post. Let me move onto the story telling approach, and I should make it clear here (as there are some sensitive souls in the world) that I am reflecting on the practice I originally developed, my concerns with that and the reasons for moving on. No direct criticism or reference is intended to any other approach. So, why move on? Well three reasons:

  • Firstly, gathering stories in a facilitated environment is all well and good but has issues with objectivity. Any facilitated environment is inevitably biased by the facilitator. Ok you can mitigate it to some degree by training, to a greater degree by process (such as our three facilitator rule) but its still there. Stories also norm, as one person tells a story and another person tells a similar story you inevitably get pattern entrainment in the group. Not only that some methods, such as Appreciative Inquiry predetermine the type of story that can be told; I’m not surprised when I see it used around values as too many managers want to always look on the bright side, which may be superficially attractive but is dangerous. Negative stories are more common and have more powerful learning. Also this is an issue of power, by what right does a facilitator or manager for that manner determine the types of story that people want to tell in an organisation? I’m pretty sure that the True story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff arose from an AI exercise …..
  • Secondly, there are issues of scale. Culture and belief systems are not going to be fully represented by material captured in a necessarily limited number of anecdote circles
  • Thirdly the feedback loops run over too long a timescale. In a human complex adaptive system you need to get pretty fast feedback on what is working and not working. You can’t run continuous anecdote circles, although that would keep a lot of good people in employment and would probably be more cost effective that the front loaded costs of traditional consultancy.

Given those issues it was time to move on. Also (and I have tried to show this in the flow chart above), the story telling approach only substitutes elements within a linear process it doesn’t challenge that process. Its too comfortable to achieve real change. If we are dealing with a human complex system then we need the system to model itself, we can’t impose a model. So how do we now work? Well its a lot easier with software; for obvious reasons we use SenseMaker® (well if you believe strongly in things your design them into your own software) but some aspects of this can also be achieved using social computing environments albeit you have to accept the limitations of semantic aggregation. The steps are fairly straight forward:

  • Set up a system to allow people to sell exemplar stories that for them would summarise what it means to work in the organisation (try and avoid the values word). One good question is Imagine you are now a grandparent, and your grandchild says they are thinking of joining your former employer, what stories would you tell them? It’s nice and open and is designed to capture the water cooler stories not the grand narratives of corporate communication or the directed stories of facilitated environments. Ideally you want to use distributed methods to capture the material, those can range from setting up a web site to using local school children as field ethnographers. In SenseMaker® the material is self-signified into a human metadata structure that can test the natural unprompted presence of existing values (inductive – dyads) or which can look for the unexpected connections and possibilities that may not be visible to senior management (abductive – triads). More details on inductive and abductive approaches here.
  • That material will allow you to use fitness landscapes to plot the naturally occurring themes in day to day narrative of the organisation.201007180403.jpg One of these is illustrated to the right. The hollows represent strong value and belief systems which are naturally present in the organisation, the smaller peaks represent areas of potential change. Once I have this I can look at the strong beliefs/values not as some abstract statement, but as a cluster of concrete stories – statistically valid data backed up by anecdotal explanations. If they are positive then very little energy is required to maintain them. If negative then I need to avoid the subject matter in terms of communication (saying you want it to be different won’t work), although I can approach it through actions designed to make the negative myth unsustainable in practice. Equally I can find a weaker belief/value cluster which is attractive and attempt to reinforce this.
  • In parallel with this I can (optional extra here) use the process for social construction of the Cynefin framework to map problems and possible interventions into the various domains. That allows issues which are simple (rare) or complicated to be subject to traditional fail-safe project management approaches while those which are complex result in a series of safe-fail experiments designed to test what is possible and manage the evolutionary potential of the present.
  • The equivalent of management alignment is now much simpler. Instead of training people to tell stories or use a powerpoint slide set, we simply sit down and say OK, how do we get fewer stories like this, and more stories like that. A much simpler and easily understood process. Any interventions are of course designed as safe-fail experiments so there is a strong link there with the Cynefin strategy process.
  • Throughout this series of posts I have emphasised action over communication in achieving change of any kind. The best next step from the more of these, less of these question is to say What can we do now, small things, that would change the story landscape? If you read a lot of books by successful leaders you will find it is the little thing that make a difference. I’ve seen a CEO give up his reserved car parking space to the most successful sales person each quarter, or another senior commander take the most negative story coming in from a monitoring system and fly in and fix that problem quickly. Other examples will occur to people. Its a cliche but actions speak louder than words.
  • The exemplar story system is now switched over to one that allows people to continuously generate narrative. This can be done as a part of a narrative based knowledge management programme, on on the job monitoring or whatever (there are many many indirect ways of doing this) that allow continuous feedback into the landscapes and other representations to monitor the effect of the safe-fail experiments. Those that work get amplified, those that don’t are dampened. We manage evolution, we don’t try and design a machine. This feedback and modification process means that we have created a co-evolutionary process in which management are actors as are their staff. Such as system also encourages exaptation and serendipity.

I said at the start that praxis was key to our work, so is co-evolution; in particular the creation of a dialectic between management intent and operational practice. Organisations need leaders; spontaneous self-organisation and spontaneous self-combustion are too often similar in concept and effect. Too many people take an idealistic view of complexity in which they attempt to remove all management. Aside from the lack of realism involved in such approaches, it is also poor theory. A complex system requires constraints and agents to coevolve, changing and modifying each other as they go. Remove the constraints and all you have is chaos, over constrain and all you have is an inauthentic form or order which will, sooner or later collapse into chaos.

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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.

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