Transcend II: Learning and ritual

November 13, 2020

440px Gen Con 20030724 Giant Settlers of Catan GameI’ve never really been a player of games.  I dabbled in chess when young and the family rituals on wet days on summer holidays involved Monopoly, Buccaneer, Sum-it, and the like.  To be honest, I was more interested in reading, debating, sailing, or walking. When computer games came along I was briefly enthralled by Space Invaders and from time to time threw an axe at a dwarf on the mainframe terminal when I should have been coding but I never could get excited by the activity.  In more recent days I’ve got interested in Settlers of Catan (illustrated left) in which a part of the game is to create the board and I am looking at ways to incorporate that into our planned development of facilitation kits for the rich set of methods we have developed over the years. But games have always had an adult purpose from political simulation to war games and that activity I have always enjoyed and also developed one game technique Anthro-simulation which involves human games masters controlling an eco-system where whatever you do, you fail.  You can tell I watched too much Star Trek when young!  Games provide a safe learning environment.

Anthro-simulation works by creating parallel teams in an open space who are presented with a current situation for which they have to complete a situational assessment and come up with a next steps action plan.  Each work area is miked up so the games masters can hear the conversations.  This is done for two reasons (i) to monitor how the decisions are being made for analysis and (ii) to allow the game masters to feed disruptive data in real-time to each group.  When a halt is called the teams are sent away for an hour and when they come back they discover that whatever they did turns out to be a disaster.  This is easily done, just pick up a weak signal that they missed and extrapolate it.  This is repeated three times and they all start to realise they are doomed.  Because it is happening in parallel to other teams this is not personal and by the end of the process, the amount of data being scanned before a decision increases significantly.  Failure engenders more learning than success.  Thought out the process all team members journal their experience as do the observers of each time into a SenseMaker® database.  That creates a narrative learning environment of simulation failures that can be used as a knowledge repository.

Linked to the idea of games is the displacement of confession into fictional story forms including the use of archetypes.  Archetypal story forms historically have been used to distribute learning of failure within the need to admit personal.  I’ve often quoted the stories of the Mullah Nasrudin, the wise fool.  In societies familiar with such stories if you do something foolish you create a story about how the Mullah did it, and it then spreads without attribution of blame.  In a lessons learned environment it is a powerful and easy-to-use technique, and more ethical than exhorting people to be open about failure as they have nothing to fear: a Darwinian technique to eliminated the fatally naive early on in their careers!  I was talking yesterday about resurrecting an old project designed to gather medical stories around the general theme of the day I know I first killed someone  Not an easy topic but the reality is that regret and hindsight often point to something you could have done differently.  By displacing those stories onto archetypal characters we effectively allowed people to use an actual experience, a synthesis of experiences, or just a just-so story to convey learning to the current and following generations.  People always get this wrong, they think lessons learned is a drains up search for the truth.  It isn’t, it is about creating learning and that can come from fiction as much as from fact.

So how does all of this link to our theme of post-crisis recovery?  Well first and foremost is that the trauma of the crisis will have generated multiple learning opportunities and those will fade over time.  So in our four-stage Assess-Adapt-Exapt-Transcend we need at the end to focus on learning and preparation for the next crisis., and also ritualise that learning as a means of understanding that we have moved on.  The initiation of a highly visible and mass engagement learning process is a way of signaling the end of a crisis and the need to move on.

So what are the key elements here?  Well I can think of seven, readers may think of more

  1. The simulation stories go into the same database as the real-time journaling by actors and observers of actors which I talked about in yesterday’s post.  Narrative databases disclose complex patterns of meaning over time and allow serendipitous encounters with material you didn’t expect to find.  Humans like stories more than doctrine or best practice statements, but those can be enhanced by hot links to the narrative database.  Narrative is a halfway house between deep expertise and codified knowledge, something on which I have written recently and the material from that reference should be read in parallel with this.
  2. The database and other linked material should be distributed to the workforce and narrative clusters used to stimulate people to come up with how we could have done that better stories which are also placed in the database linked to their originating material.  The material can be used to stimulate micro-scenario planning and MassSense exercises using SenseMaker® and also provide an evidence base for rule revision and the like as discussed yesterday.
  3. Creating scenarios from the material for anthro-simulation games for key players (or ideally all the workforce) allow the learning to be embedded while the need to learn is still front and centre of people’s minds.  You don’t wait until everyone has forgotten what happened!
  4. Combined with a narrative audit of assets the situational stories can be used to create exaptive clusters in which links are made between the situational stories and existing capability to suggest ways in which we can radically repurpose things we are already competent in for novel purpose.  This is of course ongoing but will provide opportunities to gain a competitive advantage of the novel situation that a post-crisis always brings.  It is part of the future direction as much as past reflection.  The artifacts of the crisis management process become a part of the strategic and tactical process thereafter.
  5. The widest possible engagement is important and that can extend to customers, citizens, retired employees (a much-underused resource in all companies) as well as potential recruits still in college. The more perspectives you get the better.
  6. The material thus gathered creates training datasets that will allow anticipatory triggers for early signs of a future crisis.  This is also known as an abductive trigger and comes from my years of working in counter-terrorism with its emphasis on weak signal detection.  That includes warning of excessive constraint bringing you to the catastrophic boundary between Clear and Chaotic in Cynefin.
  7. Micro-narratives and mass participation provide a more effective source of material for effective internal and external communication than carefully formulated statements.  Similar control, but a lot more effective.

As you see the process of managing and exiting from a crisis is also a process of creating a sense-making infra-structure that will sustain the organisation into the future.  Never miss the opportunities presented by a good crisis.


Banner picture is of the Lewis Chessmen in the British Museum released to under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Opening photograph is of people playing “Settlers of Catan” use licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

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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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