Transcend I: cadence and control

November 12, 2020

Daryl baird qWkKXXIf1nc unsplashThis is the first of two posts that deal with existing from a crisis, the final stage of Assess – Adapt – Exapt – Transcend.  Part two tomorrow will handle the learning and ritualisation of the transition back to normal.  Part one is about cadence and control.  This all , assumes you have survived the initial ad hockery and are revelling in the alignment of a previously fractious organisation which comes with overcoming  a shared threat.  Ironically you are now at the most dangerous phase, both in terms of continued short term survival, but also in terms of exploitation of medium and long term strategic options.  Before I get to the meat I want to establish a metaphor to explain the approach, and I will use that of riding a bike.  As is my wont, this is an opportunity to recount my own story of personal failure arising from over confidence.  I do this because I enjoy it, but also because it was drummed into me by my teachers of rhetoric (a really good teacher in school and of course Cicero) at a young age: self-deprecation is good for the soul and also gets the audience on your side. So to the story …

When I picked up my new velocipede, freshly assembled by the Bike Whisperer, just over two years ago it was a transformative experience.  My faithful Audax bike, which in its time was state of the art, had been surpassed by a titanium frame, better geometry and more importantly an automated gear shift.  The only regret remains that it is Shimano not Campag so it will never be a classic bike!  But back to that gear shift.  I still have to change front or back gears but when I chose to, the electronics handle the shift, and keep the gears in tune.  The most noticeable aspect of this is that gear changing becomes very easy and in consequence it becomes a lot easier to maintain a constant cadence.  This is key to cycling, especially the endurance work I like and I don’t get out the bike and don lycra for less than 50km.  There there is a meditative quality to getting into the grove after about 20 or 30 minutes of cycling and always mixed feelings at the end.  The secret of stress free riding is to keep the pedals turning at the same rate, using gears to handle different gradients.

Back in 2019 when I did the Gospel Pass circuit at the end of the Hay Festival I knew this would be an issue as I approached a short fierce climb, marked as Cattle Grid on the linked map, about two thirds of the way between Capel-y-ffin and the Pass itself.  Or at least I should have, I had made a mental note around five miles back and then had got lost in my thoughts during the gradual ascent from Capel so it came as a shock when I hit it and my pace was not fast enough.  I ended up with my heart rate rising to danger levels (the Apple watch was preparing to call out the emergency services), standing up to get more weight on the pedals and, I freely confess, wobbling dangerously.   Walking it would not have been an issue, the easy adjustment of pace is possible there but then again you are only making progress at four to five kilometres per hour as opposed to the twenty to twenty-five I expect to achieve on the cycle over an extended trip.

Trauma over I carried on and having reached the top of the pass the hard work was over, nothing major before I returned to our temporary home and a long hot bath.  The first descent is glorious, a long sweeping descent down the side of Hay Bluff with good visibility but then the road dives into a twisting route down steep hills through woodland before entering the streets of Hay on Wye.  There, in the joy of speed without effort I nearly met my nemesis in the form of a large farm vehicle coming up the road brushing the hedgerow on both sides.  The new bike has disk brakes not calipers and there was a convenient gap in the hedge, so the former slowed me enough to make the turn and the hedge and the damp soil allowed for a final arrest.  But it was what they call in aviation a near mid-air collision but at the final stage and well within the 500m limit, I estimate slightly under five.  On the descent what mattered was braking and the ability to steer the bike rather than cadence and there velocity was an issue in a different way from climbing up.  In both cases the need is for sufficient control but the means of achieving that is different and I want to talk about them separately.


Cadence matters more than velocity in terms of stability and critically endurance when climbing any form of gradient.  You see the same thing in management with review cycles.  During conditions of high stability both the subjects reviewed and the frequency of review are very different than during a crisis itself. But there needs to be a rhythm to it, commonly understood between all actors.  Ad hockery only works with small tightly focused teams who can expect or enforce compliance and is not sustainable outside of a crisis.  I’ll give a Cognitive Edge example using a median point to start.  We are currently in the final stages of releasing v2.4 of SenseMaker® and it is a major rewrite with high levels of new functionality, an architecture which increases stability and allows for full open API integration.  This will allow us to readily shift next year into project Tryfan which is the most significant change in the history of the product, the design and implications of which are occupying a lot of my thinking and reading time.  If Apple can use cats, islands and coasts then we can use Welsh Mountains where I have had near-fatal accidents!  It requires buy-in from both commercial and research functions and a fairly constant review of priorities so we are on a weekly review cycle with representatives of all functions and a fairly relaxed approach to who turns up.  I hope soon to switch that to a fortnightly cycle and, given the pace of development probably keep it there for at least a year.  If we get an issue that impacts of client delivery then we can move to a daily or hourly cycle and as we do so the number of active participants will reduce in order to make decision making more effective.

Screenshot 2020 11 13 at 08 31Now you can argue with the precise nature of what we are doing here, and people do.  But the critical thing is that there is a cadence, a rhythm which allows for stability.  I’ve had to jump on people trying (for the best of motives) to set up one to one sessions with the developers outside this cycle as that would create punctuated information flows and not allow the space for the backlog to be cleared.  If we consider this in terms of flow we are creating a cadence that prevents that flow from becoming turbulent.   Now that is software development but the same is true for any management process both in day to day working and in a crisis.  The ideal is to increase velocity while reducing cadence of review and which reduces the energy cost of management.

Unit (a short hand that includes teams, crews, hierarchies and networks) size also has some natural limits and to the right I show a use of Cynefin to define team size, membership criteria and temporality.  I think it is fairly self evident but I will expand on it in future posts and look at the liminal domains in terms of mutation of units, for example when the informal is clustered to create the formal and so on.  One related issue for crisis management teams is that they get very close to each other during the crisis itself and it is critical to create a mechanism by which the members are not completely isolated from reality, peer support and extended walk the floor breaks are among the techniques I would use.  But more importantly when the crisis is over the team needs to disband and that change needs to be ritualised.  More on that later in this post, but knowing when you have crossed the boundary from crisis adaptation, to exaptive resilience/recovery is important and in humans that requires some ritual or rite of passage.

If I was running a war room its almost like I would want a set of dials covering velocity, cadence and numbers engaged for the various aspects of the overall management.  The more consequential the decisions the more you punish communication outside the formal cadence structure as well.  In a crisis, and recovery of a crisis all key actors need to be aware of decisions and the reasons for those decisions, there isn’t time to read emails, check a project management Kanban board or similar you just need to know.  Information management is key and can’t be left to chance or codification.


During a crisis controls have to be relaxed and can often be so changed without any loss of quality as the overall perception of risk changes in a crisis.  If I think back to the start of COVID here in the UK we were getting authorisation for NHS projects in days or hours where before it would have taken months.  The necessary aspects of the control processes were still there but their use was accelerated and unnecessary steps removed.  But as the crisis receded two things happened: (i) there was a grass roots romanticism and desire to continue with the freedom provided (ii) those who would carry the can for the risk started to realise that there would be post hoc rationalisation through the audit and reverted to type.  Now both of these responses are wrong.  You can take a higher risk in a crisis but it isn’t sustainable in the longer term, many of the crisis changes worked and could, with modifications be continued.  Now the pendulum swing between crisis-induced freedom and the reimposition of bureaucratic controls is inevitable unless you do something.  So there are three things that should be part of any crisis response

  1. Continuous journaling by key actors is a part of overall crisis management, you need realtime feedback loops and human sensor networks in operation from the get go.  In some cases, you get observers to journal for the actions, trainee medical staff for example.  Part of that journaling should including observing changes in process and carrying out of micro risk assessments at the time.  That is needed for operational management, weak signal detection and the like but post-crisis it gives you an evidence base to work out what can be changed permanently and what should be returned to normal.  We build expertise in this within Cognitive Edge using SenseMaker® during the crisis and a lot of our 2.4 short term development priorities have been linked to that; peer to peer narrative learning during the crisis for example.
  2. Setting up task teams to use the evidence from the journaling and other information sources to look at reform before you get to far away from the crisis.  The trio idea can work well here.  For example an auditor, a frontline worker and a manager form a trial and you throw five or six of these to work on the problem in parallel and see what comes out of it.  safe-to fail experimental change also works.
  3. Very specifically look at the human elements involved in making decisions without excessive control.  Some people are better at it than others, but it can also be a professional issue.  I’ve seen a significant difference in quality decision making between hospitals run by professional managers and those run by former doctors training in management.  The latter have a broader knowledge of the implications of decisions and understand that it is not a context free process but a context specific matter of judgement.  A part of your change maybe to define the boundary conditions within which created autonomy can be permitted.  That includes rules about when rules can be broken and heuristics to come into operation when that is initiated.

The metaphor of the brake is important here; if you want to get to your destination you can’t have the brake in constant operation but the more experienced the rider the higher velocity they can manager.  I’m not incompetent there but I am not in the same league as a professional cyclist in managing a steep descent.  Context sensitive not context free is the mantra of complexity and it applies here.

Of course, if we look at fixed gear bikes, they have no brakes and a fixed gear system so you manage braking by cadence.  If you can do that great, but for us ordinary mortals we need two systems and they need to change in context.  Proper management of cadence and control also allows you to determine if you are really out of the crisis yet ….

Oh, and if you hadn’t realised it; you haven’t had a book in twenty five years, now four are going to come along within a twelve month.  To quote someone whose ability to weave meaning into the English language I miss and envy, namely Terry Pratchett: “Be careful what you wish for. You never know who will be listening”.


Banner Photo by Beau Runsten, Stone balancing by Daryl Baird both on Unsplash

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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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