Twelvetide 21:02 mass habits

December 26, 2021

IMG 1300Yesterday I opened up this year’s Twelvetide series with a brief discussion on habits referencing the long-standing philosophical divide between seeing them as hindrance or help. I also used Carlisle’s four distinctions from which I intend to derive a typology of habits and a series of related disclosure questions. As you can see the overall theme here is about improving our understanding of decision making, not in the sense of cognitive rational processes but looking more widely including intuition and non-cognitive decision making. I am taking the position that things like habit and ritual provide low energy cost capability that should free us up to better handle novelty. Of course, we don’t want to be trapped by custom and practice but neither do we want to reject, without caution the value of more traditional and implicit processes and practices.

Treating everything rationally will take a lot of energy both individually and collective. It’s fairly easy to get into greek words here – I introduced pharmakon (a drug can either kill or cure depending on context and use) and overall on the non-physical side of habits I am going to talk about hexis, in the Aristotelian sense of a way of being, something of particular importance when we move to collective habits. We also have sophia and phronesis which apply here.

Now of course decision making, or more specifically decision support is where all of my work got started and it’s still a central theme to my work. That in turn takes me to my ASHEN typology.  For those not familiar I summarised, updated and found new uses for ASHEN in a series of three posts just over a year ago.  The ‘H’ is ASHEN originally stood for heuristics, but was extended to include habits in use.  The idea of ASHEN is to look at things from the perspective of assemblies of knowledge rather than linking material to a specific person. So instead of saying How will we ever replace Dianna? we instead say Dianna provides this combination of ASHEN elements, how we will replace that assembly? It’s an important way to reframe what is a wider issue and in this post, I want to look at it more collectively in terms of how habits and rituals can instantiate collective wisdom, and if poison rather than cure, prevent progress.

I’ve opened this post with a picture of my old Altberg boots, resoled twice and well worn which now act as a back up pair.  I bought them at a specialist boot fitter who are located 200 miles away from where I live.  The insoles were made for me after a gait assessment with my podiatrist and they have served me well.  The leather was sweated out in part to accommodate a couple of bunions and I take good care of them.  Aside from learning I have both a leather softener and a wax that I rub and brush in between extended trips.  I always scrum them at the end of a day’s walking given that peaty water can rot the leather early.  Notice there is a whole eco system here, its not just the manufacturer of the boots although they are interesting – Italian leather but a British last.  The fitting process is elaborate and involves some specialised artefacts as well as an apprentice model of learning how to do it.  I got a long lecture about over waxing a year or so ago and also got taught a new method of top lacing.  When I got the new boots last year I was recommended to Cobbler John in Keswick who repaired some of the internal leather and put a hard insert in the heel of the old ones.  I keep them for when there will be significant road walking in winter – something that shortens the life of boot soles considerably.  Very low cost and he has been trading and building a reputation since 1972.   Contrast with my first real boots bought before a YHA walking holiday walking through mid Wales back in 1966.  There were not many stockists, My mother bought them for me in the YHA shop in Cardiff six months before the holiday.  I then soaked by feet in potassium permanganate (which gave them a purple tinge) and wiped the feet with surgical spirit.   I wore two sets of socks and expected to suffer a degree of pain for several months while the leather softened up and they started to shape themselves to my foot.  Neatsfoot oil was the waterproofing (but never perfect, no Gore-tex liners back then) or dubbin and as a special privilege I got to do all the family boots after a walk or two!

Now let me jump sideways for a moment. Those in the Agile Community will know my (and I am not alone) dislike when people say they are adopting the Spotify model. Spotify hate it as they don’t really have one. What they have is an evolving set of practices, methods, rituals and habits that have evolved over time. Some consultants have taken a snapshot of that journey and tried to replicate it. OK, you can learn from what others have done but you haven’t lived the journey which gave rise to those practices and they may or may not be appropriate to you. To take another example, I’ve been involved in three software startups in my life. Two within a large company and one, SenseMaker® within my own. In all three cases they have been first in class, no one had done anything like that before. I’ve always specialised in taking academic ideas and converting them into practical methods and tools. In the early days of that work we were all amateurs, we were selling to people who were enthusiastic about the novelty, who understood things as well as we did and wanted to contribute. Wonderful people to work with but getting money out of them is not easy. As the field developed we built up knowledge in our teams – both the application consultants and the programmers and critically expanded those teams by taking on apprentices. When I started to work to scale SenseMaker® I created the Cynefin Centre and paid for the first two staff out of my own pocket – the rest of the company was more geared to one-off projects with consultants. Over time that built and while the first two were thrown in the deep end, they have created a take on process for new staff and we have a six to a twelve-month training programme. For a start, the software does far more than even I envisaged when we started and there is a body of experience and knowledge which is as much tacit as it is explicit and requires experience and time to acquire. We also have a vision for where the software is going, and thus the work we have put in on the architecture over the last two years getting ready for the Genba launch (more on that in January) has been with a view to something very different. During that time we have had three organisations copy what we had at a single point in time, but they don’t have the infrastructure, the training, the experience, the customer base. Neither is there the network of expertise and publications that grow around a maturing process in what has some time to go before it becomes a commodity. What you might do at the start, is not what you do as something matures and is ready for scale. But the mentality of someone who copies is not the same as the mentality of a pioneer; passion and a few other things are missing.

The overall point I am making there is that as a body of knowledge grows, significant elements of it are unstated habits of mind as well as of body. They are the unstated assets of maturing practice and the acquisition of that knowledge requires a body of staff and expertise as well as third party material. When I was working on a complex approach to design thinking  Ann Pendleton-Julian took her concept of scaffolding and my idea of dark constraints to talk about the complex structures that build up around extreme sports. We can’t see everything that goes into current practice, but we know we want to work with those who have the experience and the habits that make you safe. It also means that we may not be able to map directly what a habit is, or its function, but we can map where we need to know that they are in play. Now, this is not to say that there isn’t a time to challenge an apex predator, but that is at the commodity stage where throwing out the old and starting afresh may (and I say may) have utility if you have exaptive capacity. But that is for future posts. What I wanted to do today is to establish the collective aspect of habits and rituals before I move on to the typology, mapping and management thereof.





The banner picture shows the sun setting over Mynydd Twr taken from Porth Swtan this evening.  I stopped off having spent half a day between rain exploring it.  The opening picture is of my old boots, scrubbed but not cleaned which have a hard insert in the heel and which I keep for when there will be significant road walking in winter – something that shortens the life of boot soles considerably.

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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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