two ships passing …

November 26, 2008

Prior to training in Cognitive Edge and SenseMaker (in Amsterdam, Sept. 2008), I hadn’t been excited by a “new way” since Enron – specifically, the ways of Enron as told to us by the holy writ of the McKinsey Quarterly (which, in those far off days, circa 2000, was available free online!). For those few who might not know the Enron story, suffice to say that it did not end well. And I was left with, shall we say, a certain cynicism about “big concepts”.

So, I hadn’t tried to sell a “big concept” for quite a while. But SenseMaker was different. I saw how it could open whole new vistas of market information, finding and sometimes even “seeding” emergent patterns in the complex domain of socially constructed reality (whew!). Of course, this is a lot to sell at once. I figured that if I could just connect with a marketing person who understood complexity, I could close the deal.

Luckily I knew of just such a person, a friend of a friend, and managed to get a meeting …. and fell absolutely flat. I failed so completely that the feeling was oddly exhilarating – like eating a pepper hot enough to make your mouth go numb, and yet wanting another one (a few days later).

In my previous posting, I talked about the Cynefin framework as literally incoherent to the large portions of the population that either only love, or only hate, “the numbers”. It is starting to occur to me that “complexity” is now a big enough movement that these same patterns are repeated within it.

Dave Snowden recently blogged on seven approaches to complexity (also useful in this vein are his postings getting started in complexity and complexity articles and books). And somewhere I saw a great 4-way typology (and now can’t find it – suggested references would be welcomed).

So far, my typology is simpler. If they talk about John Holland, I’m pretty sure I have a math lover. If they talk about Margaret Wheatley, odds are good that I have a math hater.

Cognitive-Edge seems to me to be most amenable to what, unfortunately, seems to be one of the smallest “schools” (it wasn’t mentioned in my lost 4-way typology) – a love-hate attitude that flowed out of operations research, as some OR practitioners began to explore the ethics and proper domains of their models. I’m thinking of Ackoff, Checkland and Werner Ulrich.

As I can now testify from experience, each of these schools uses the same word – but have very little agreement on what it means! To the two schools in my simple typology, the Cynefin framework has no meaning. To the math lovers, the left-hand side merely represents “what we will model soon”. And to the math haters, the right hand side merely represents “what we have not yet realized is complex”. (And I can’t resist mentioning that, to Harvard Business Review readers, the whole thing is probably just blurry, like the execrable diagram that we gave them).

Note – while thinking about this post, I found a pretty complete complexity bibliography.

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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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