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We’re all learners now

March 13, 2008

If you’re involved in organisational change you’ll be aware that – like reincarnation – four box models are making a big comeback at the moment. I thought I’d use my guest blog opportunity to run through a few that seem pertinent from a change perspective. And where better to begin than with Cynefin? After all, once you strip away the squiggly bits, ditch that awkward disorder space and straighten a few lines you have a proper looking four box model:

COMPLEX: “learners and participants” COMPLICATED: “celebrity chefs”
CHAOTIC: “moving in mysterious ways” SIMPLE: “control freaks”

A great improvement – but so what? Well, assuming that we are interested in creating change, the so what is to speculate about the forms of consultancy that align with the Cynefin domains in order to characterise the sort of skills and mindsets we might need in order to be effective – basically a bit of sense making from a practitioner perspective.

The simple territory is the land of best practice – what we know we should be doing. The consultancy style that best reflects this domain is “control freak” – after all no one is arguing about what should be done it’s more a matter of cajoling them into doing it. Examples include health and safety, quality systems in all their guises – especially where processes are documented in endless folders. I may have a slightly prejudiced view but, in the UK at least, this seems to attract ex members of the armed forces or people spawned out of organisations with a reputation for success in a particular area e.g. Dupont on safety. Maybe an area for implementing change but not much to offer from a change creating point of view.

Moving on to complicated – the land of “celebrity chefs” and recipe driven change. I think the connection with food here runs deep – fortunes are being made daily by transforming the basic discipline of weight management into an elaborate process that requires expert guidance. The art of the celebrity chef is to make the recipe simple enough to explain but sufficiently difficult in practice for you to conclude you need a bit of assistance – whether or not the meal is right for you is another matter again. In organisational change terms I’m thinking of things like balanced scorecard, business process reengineering, any form of government led intervention in the UK (increasing literacy, reducing teenage pregnancy rates), leadership development programmes, multicultural awareness, culture change, blah, blah, blah. The underlying belief here is that organisational change can be understood – and if you understand change maybe you control change. The lack of satisfaction attributed to large scale change initiatives seems to challenge this understanding however. Does acting like a celebrity chef bring anything worthwhile to the change party? The relatively static nature of offerings in the change market for the past few decades suggests not.

In the chaotic zone the consultancy model is “moving in mysterious ways” – the messiah who pushes the right button at the right moment. Perfect for those moments of crisis but not much good if you are trying to build a sustainable and resilient organisation.

Which brings us to the land of the complex – and given that by definition there is no predictability – the land of consultants as “learners and participants”. We need to act like learners and experimenters in order to discover more about the situation we wish to change and we are participants in the sense that without prior knowledge we don’t have an advantage, or power, over anyone else. So you could say in order to be more effective as a consultant in a complex environment we need to let go of the need to be in a role and start acting more like human beings. More ideas on this to follow tomorrow

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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.
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