“When you got a problem, work out where it begins”

January 14, 2008

A great line (the title) from Caroline Green’s class in California, in the context of their use of the Cynefin Framework for sense-making. One of the main problems with normative/recipe book approaches to organisational issues is that they focus on what you should do now, as opposed to firstly understanding the nature of the system within which you have to make a decision.

This is the classic Let’s all ignore the context approach which has at least three manifestations:

  • Following best practice, which means doing what other people reported they did in different circumstances. This is not only a context issue (your circumstances may be different) it also assumes that people will accurately report what happened. In all my experience people attribute success to their insight and failure to bad luck or circumstance.
  • Following industrial best practice, a variation on the above which manifests itself in Government. This is one of the great consultancy con tricks; after something no long sells into industry (mainly because it has failed or its limitations have been realised) go and sell it to Government.
  • Case study approaches, in which academics or consultants (or various mercenary and other combinations thereof) study a range of companies who exhibit a desirable quality and then confuse correlation with causation by linking various properties of those companies behaviour or actions to the outcomes they have achieved.

All three of these fall foul of retrospective coherence and fundamental attribution error. You see it in Weick and Sutcliffe work on high performance. They study the behaviour of groups such as fire fighting crews in sharing failure (a desirable quality in any organisation) and fail to adequately take account of the context: they are dealing with crews working in extreme circumstances on a regular basis. This is a very different environment from an organisation facing uncertainty. OK if you burn the office down you can create the same context, but that is not a sustainable solution.

What I am finding is that the more accurately you can describe the situation, the less you need formal intervention methods. For example if I can show a statistically valid trend, supported by narrative then most people in leadership or management positions can work out what they need to do. I should emphasise that this is not a matter of responding to a consultancy led investigation in which people’s narrative is reinterpreted by consultants or deconstructed by academics. I am talking more of our narrative work here, in which the decision maker is responding to hundreds or thousands of fragmented narratives, interpreted by their creators.

The corollary of this is that the more structured your intervention approach the more likely it is that your diagnosis methods are weak.

Human’s are very good at contextual decision making, the issue is to increase the number of patterns from which they can synthesise a contextually appropriate solution, rather than following a prescriptive recipe derived from a partially, ill understood and critically subtly different environment. Of course following a prescribed recipe seems comfortable and can be a risk avoidance measure. However when you go into a restaurant do you expect food prepared by someone from a recipe book or would you prefer a Chef who understands cooking, the nature of the ingredients and who can adapt to the context? Of course to become a Chef requires formal training, and critically experience and a willingness to cope with uncertainty. All of which to my mind are essential characteristics of leadership which are undermined by best practice and case studies.

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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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