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What is it about context?

November 16, 2009

These days I am more aware of the importance of context than ever – especially when it comes to dealing with complex systems. When people ask about the application of Cognitive Edge methods to their specific issue, often the first words that come out of my mouth are “it depends”. This is not uttered with the aim of being unhelpful, but rather with the need for the person to understand that “one size does not fit all”.

These days I am more aware of the importance of context than ever – especially when it comes to dealing with complex systems. When people ask about the application of Cognitive Edge methods to their specific issue, often the first words that come out of my mouth are “it depends”. This is not uttered with the aim of being unhelpful, but rather with the need for the person to understand that “one size does not fit all”. Indeed this is a point we stress in the accreditation program – that the methods taught are not meant as “vanilla” methods applied as recipes, but rather as assemblies that are to be customised according to the specifics of the issue at hand. It also means that tailoring them is required – the language used and the ways they are put together can give some amazing outcomes. In a recent Hong Kong course I facilitated with Steve Bealing, we had a Cognitive Edge accredited practitioner who had returned for a refresher, provide a case study on how he used Archetype Extraction in a market research project using photos. The outcome in the context of his culture and market was very successful. Would the approach he used work in Australia to the same degree – probably not.

The other important aspect of context that both Viv and myself regularly battle with, is the boundaries of the system being considered. Viv uses a very technical approach to this – asking the question: “are the boundaries to the issue you are considering too fat or too thin” If they are too fat, then the system is too large and you are likey to not get any useful insights – probably ending up with a bunch of motherhood stuff. If the system is too thin, then why are you bothering with complexity tools, as you probably could ask a small group of people and come up with the answers anyway. Believe it or not, this is a very successful way of getting people to truly focus on the issue at hand. In the majority of situations this leads to a restatement of the issue itself. When doing a SenseMaker project, we find a significant amount of time and effort is spend at this stage.

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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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