Using, not avoiding conflict

October 17, 2012

My second session at KM World was a facilitated 45 minutes on how to solve intractable problems.  I prefer intractable to wicked as its more descriptive of the nature.  These problems are not impossible, they are simply difficult to get a handle on.  Solving these sort of issues for your organisations is a good way to get noticed and considered strategic.  Something that is going to be a survival need for KM people as the recession continues to bite.   The slides were brief, but do contain three pictures taken on the coldest (and the best) section of the Thames Path earlier this year.  The basic form of the opening presentation was as simple as I could make it while not loosing context.  So I did a very brief presentation of Cynefin, using the magnets metaphor to describe complex systems. That included the key point that we need to think about modulators not drivers.

 I then went on to make two critical points about conflict:

  1. Most conflict in organisations takes place within the complex domain of Cynefin.  Attempting to resolve that conflict is a mistake as the available evidence will support many different and contradictory hypotheses about what is happening and what might work.  All may be right and all may be wrong.  Yes you can negotiate a compromise but that reduces the range of options you scan and is a mistake.
  2. Related to the above, far too many facilitators have a deep seated aversion to conflict in any form.  It's one of my objections to Appreciative Inquiry as a method in other than strictly constrained circumstances.  Always looking on the bright side of life may make you loved as a facilitator but it does little service to your client as it radically reduces the range of plausibilities scanned and increases the downside risk of strategic surprise.

So one of the uses of Cynefin is to break a problem over the various domains then quickly resolve the simple issues by actioning the self evident and the complicated ones by assigning experts or initiating analysis.  That complete we can now move on to the more interesting and highly conflicted issues with the complex domain.

Here we need to examine all and any ideas present and then construct a series of safe-to-fail experiments.  Complex systems are understood by interaction with them.  I summarised the criteria for such experiments as follows:

  • Taken as a whole the portfolio of experiments should have contradictory elements
  • All should be coherence, there must be some reason for the experiment
  • All must be safe to fail, that means as a minimum the proposers must have worked out the early signs of failure or success and devised appropriate strategies to respond.
  • A part of the portfolio should contain oblique or indirect solutions.  I referenced John Kay here; many intractable problems are solved indirectly not directly.
  • Ideally you get some people from a naive perspective to come up with solutions.  Naive does not mean ignorance, it means unengaged, coming from a completely different perspective.  I mentioned out use of a Lutheran Liturgical to come up with ideas for improving knowledge transfer in a medical context as an example.   Liturgical design compresses complex ideas into simple forms.
  • Finally, with a portfolio you can start to target responsible executives to fail!   Of your approved experiments 20% should fail, if not you are not stretching the range enough.

So basics over we introduced them to one of the most popular of Cognitive Edge techniques: Ritual Dissent.   I didn't have any masks with me so we did the more common turn your chair around.   I gave each table a complex domain action form.  They were then instructed to come up with a safe-to-fail intervention then ran one round of ritual dissent (all we had time for).  As ever energy levels in the room jumped, there was a real buzz and the overall response was excellent.  

Finally I pointed out that planning and strategy sessions in any field that ended up with a wall of scores of hundreds of such forms, all of which had been refined through three to five rounds of ritual dissent was a damn sight more resilient than a nice comfortable collection of platitudes that no one was prepared to disagree with.

FYI Ritual dissent and the intervention methods are taught on our two day foundations and advanced courses.  I will be announcing a discount for KM World delegates on Friday for the Seattle, Boston and Washington (not up yet but it will be) so keep an eye out for that.


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About the Cynefin Company

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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