Twelvetide 20:09 Manege and menage

January 2, 2021

49315689383 ba400b58f7 oI think a lot of people don’t realise how novel the complexity stuff still and how threatening (needlessly) it is to established management practice.  Those of us engaged in taking a more humane perspective a decade or so ago were a merry band of mavericks from many different backgrounds. I still treasure the various meetings and sessions we held both when I was in IBM and after I left.

For me, complexity was always the science of common sense.  It gave a theoretical understanding of what anyone with experience already knew.  In particular, it challenged the engineering metaphor which had dominated since the 1980s and some like Stacy just wanted to throw the engineering stuff out of the window along with anything he chose to label as systems thinking (which generally meant anyone Ralph disagreed with). To my way of thinking that was a mistake, engineering approaches were right up to a point but plan bloody dangerous beyond that.  I cut my teeth as a manager when process approaches were starting to take off and I saw the need for standardisation and creating cross-silo flows of information.  All of that had value but it suffered from what has been a perennial problem of management theory, namely the failure to realise that manufacturing is a special case of a highly constrained system and in many ways is a closed system.  It’s good for researchers and consultants because you remove uncertainty, or treat any uncertainty as an example of correctable deviance.  The problem is that it fails to grasp that as interactions increase the boundaries of the system become permeable that this breaks down.  What works in manufacturing should stay in manufacturing.

The issue then arises as to can we manage if we are dealing with inherent uncertainty? That, together with a summary of key aspects of anthro-complexity as a field is the subject of this final post in the section before I go on look at the wider perspective of naturalising sense-making which will occupy the final three posts in the main sequence of this series.  The heading of this post is drawn from a key book chapter I wrote with Cynthia and the difference between training a horse (menege) over household budgeting (menage) the essence of which I have blogged a few times, this being one example. That was one of the many blog posts where the pictures have been lost in two web upgrades so I added a rather nice image of Amish farming when I found it.

So in looking at what we can manage I came up with three main points about human purposeful (but please don’t confuse that with the purpose cult)  interaction with a complex system:

  1. We can create order, and to do so is valuable when the context is right Humans can and do create order and predictability and to do so is desirable as I explained in a post last November.  Further that the process of creating order has value but we need to be careful, which is where the liminal aspects of Cynefin come into play.  Critically humans can be ontologically aware, we can understand the nature of a system and modify our behaviour accordingly either as an act of will or through, ironically, a process including the use of ritual and habituation.  While sometimes we just respond to what is happening, termite like in predictability, but it ain’t necessarily so and we can choose to both act differently and also to create social systems that initiate such change.  That was one of the things that got excited as it meant we didn’t have to keep throwing everything out and starting again just because we had reached a boundary for the applicability of then-current practice.  Our epistemological approach(s) can be aligned with ontological reality.  We can menege and we can manage and move between the two, even combining them at times.  this is known as bounded applicability.
  2. There are aspects of a complex system that can be known and managed A key aspect of a complex system is that there is no linear material causality, but the system is dispositional and its behaviour is modulated by constraints.  Those constraints can be managed and their nature understood, or our lack of knowledge acknowledged (dark constraints).  My recent blog post updating this work was provisional and I am still thinking about the categories and the language, but the essence is right.  Getting managers to map constraints and then look at ways to alter the constraints to stimulate safe-to-fail probes also has the benefit of avoiding bias of situational assessment.  The parallelism of safe-to-fail is important here and they are probes not experiments.  By instituting this we create an expectation of failure rather than the foolishness of admonishing managers to tolerate failure.  Complexity is not chaos, there are patterns and with that there are possibilities.  One phrase we use a lot here is the idea of messy coherence which is a good way of thinking about things.
  3. Understanding that we are in flux is key to managing and living with and through complexity
    Ann Pendleton-Julian has a key phrase, namely that we live in a white-water world.  It is worth buying the new Cynefin book for her article alone but I won’t summarise it here although I want you to hold the image.  Any complex system is in a state of flux and we have to navigate it.  Now if we take the kayaking metaphor then you can paddle upstream, but you do it via side channels and eddies with spurts between.  If you are coming downstream then you have to paddle enough to get steerage.  Trees and other obstructions can create temporary points of calm but small changes can dislodge them with significant changes in the situation.   You have to be able to right the kayak and keep moving if you capsize, the Eskimo roll that I learned to do in a swimming pool when young.  You have to read the affordances of the flow of the water, but if you can survey it in advance it is safer and feedback from observers can be key.   This is not difficult, we do it every time we interact with friends and families or walk down an icy street.   But we evolved to handle uncertainty, we just seem to forget the capability when we manage an organisation.  That is one of the main points behind the Children’s Party Story and also the mapping in real-time, all of which is summarised in my TEDx.

I think this last point is the critical one and it brings me full circle to the earlier posts on knowledge and ASHEN.  Humans have evolved things like apprentice schemes, education, and a host of other things that allow us to cope and adapt to a changing world.  We are an adaptable species and while we are Homo Sapiens, we are also Homo Faber, Home Narrans, and Homo Ludens – think about all of those and I can now move on to the final three posts on the overarching theme here of naturalising sense-making.

Principles of Anthro-complexity

  1. Human complex systems are differentiated from others in nature by intelligence, identity shifting/merging and intentionality
  2. We are capable of being ontologically aware, epistemologically responsive (sorry couldn’t resist that)
  3. We can understand and manage constraints within the system and reinforce good patterns while disrupting bad ones
  4. The principle of bounded applicability is key, different things can work in different situations
  5. Complexity allows ontologically contradictory states to co-exist (this is very important I haven’t taken about it in this series but I am noting it for the moment)
  6. There is nothing wrong with order, it has value if it is sustainable
  7. We live in a state of flux and we evolved to handle that state, we don’t call this ’naturalistic’ for nothing

Now I am not 100% sure of those, but for the moment they will do!  I will expand on them and the earlier two sections in the final three posts.  I also promised to talk more about identity today but I am not going to be able to do that.  The good news, for some people, is that I do plan to bring back the ABIDE framing and that will be in one of the next three posts so I will handle it then.

Postscript on intelligence

I should probably have spent more time on the thorny question of intelligence, and it is an area where there is always an immediate sense of trespass of some type.  Also if you read science fiction enough then you realise the danger of limits here.  Think of the feminist science fiction writer Sheri S. Tepper and her Arbai Trilogy in which the first novel Grass is considered a classic, winning the Hugo and Locus awards back in 1990.  Or the Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky which explores the social implications of spiders accidentally gifted with intelligence.  There are multiple explorations of intelligence other than in humans.

One of the things I said in an earlier post was that I wanted to avoid a human-centric perspective by which I meant taking a view that the world and its species were created for the enjoyment and use by mankind.  I’ve seen people try and use that as a Christian v Buddhist argument but like so much of the West v East nonsense, it is generally stereotyping and doesn’t represent all thinking in either tradition.  So we are mammals, experiments on olfactory senses in rabbits can have implications for human decision making (Freeman’s work here is fascinating), my life is ruled when home by the whims of two white cats whose liking for ritual is sure and certain proof that not only were they once Gods but they still are, we just haven’t realised it yet.  I’m going to say something about the role of religion in the final three posts by the way.

My use here relates to contrast with hive intelligence, the response to a stimulus that characterises ants and termite nest structures, or the flocking behaviour of birds.  Humans have the ability to reflect on behaviour, to avoid (but not completely) the stimulus-response mechanism.  We also have a highly symbolic language with the use of metaphor (think of Deacon’s Symbolic Species) that means we do things not in our short or long-term interest.  We have literature, we can be changed by art, and so on.  There is some evidence of symbolic thinking in higher apes but not developed in a social context like humans.  Yes, other creatures including Rooks create and use tools (Homo Faber) and evidence humour if not irony (Homo Ludens) but do they tell stories (Homo Narrans)?  They may, but if so we have not heard them.

So I am not saying that only humans have intelligence, but I am saying that the nature of human intelligence (posts 4-6 in this series) means that the study of complexity in human systems is qualitatively different from simulation models and the like in what I have called computational complexity.


Continuing my pick-up on my New Years’ trip to Snowdonia two years ago and this time the Carneddau, one of the great circular walks in Wales.  The full walk continues to Pen yr Helgi Du but it was winter and time was running short them I got to Bwlch Eryl Farchog so I took a shortcut back to the A5 and then the side path back to the car.

The descent to the Bwlch is the one hazardous section of the walk, easy to go up but always problematic going down and people have slipped and died here. The guide books really don’t give enough warning of this especially as it comes towards the end of a long day when people will be tired.  If you ascend from Tal y Llyn Ogwen at the eastern end of the Llyn Ogwen then everything has been easy to this point assuming a clear day.  Never ascend Per yr Ole Wen from the Ogwen Cottage unless you are a masochist by the way,  and the direct descent is even worse than the ascent.  The other hazard, if visibility is poor, is the ridge from the summit of Dafydd to the point where it turns left to Llewelyn as it tracks Ysgolion Duon or the Black Ladders to the left which are a rock climbers playground and a lot of good tracks lead directly from the ridge to the tops of climbing routes and a wrong stop there will see you tumbling down 400m without the chance of arrest. Stay right and use a compass or Sat Nav if in any doubt.  Equally, you need good navigation skills to get the right exit from Llewelyn so unless you are experienced this is a good weather walk and the views will reward you.

Both pictures are looking south from a position close to the summit of Carnedd Dafydd.  Winter light as ever is good for the photographer as there is no haze.   I didn’t take any stone wall pictures on this walk so I picked a natural pile of stones as an alternative.  Other pictures from the day can be found here.



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