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Non-linear tools in a linear attitude or vice versa?

September 30, 2010

Complexity theorists have often indicated that complex social problems appear intractable because they are approached in a linear and simplistic way. Instead, as they suggest, a multi-dimensional approach should be employed that could probably identify the interacting elements of a complex problem space.

However, in real world applications, complexity is usually understood in terms of complex adaptive software or adaptive engineering methodologies that would meet (as their designers hope) large-scale commercial needs. Sometimes, this assumption enters the field of social issues and generates the obsession for predicting the future. Quantitative indicators that should be constantly monitored, algorithms that assess the existing status, and scenarios that advise how to impose best solutions calculated by simulations bring forward a rather familiar tapestry; it is familiar because under all this complicatedness it is linear.

Moreover, there are many occasions (and I speak from personal experience) that complex methodologies are conducted in a linear attitude. For example, we pay little attention (if any) to the subtle indications that a context is always ready to provide to a willing facilitator. Other times, we are too focused on the deliverable at the end of the process (related to our payment) that we miss some crucial issues related to the emotional status of the target group. Furthermore, we often conceptualize and explain rationally everything, leaving no space to the real protagonists to "play" and reflect.

In my opinion, instead of seeking for complicated tools and using them in the usual linear attitude, there is an interesting alternative: to use linear tools in a non-linear attitude, as Andrew Tait suggested at the 1st International Workshop on Complexity and Real World Applications.

Two are the main advantages of such an idea. First, simple tools are more attractive to people than complicate ones; for people always need to simplify real life procedures. Second, if used properly, they can challenge easier the established assumptions of the target group; for they are considered more trustworthy than any “new fad”.

A non-linear attitude can refer (among others) to:
- look for the subtle or voiceless parts of the system
- allow different interpretations and focus on diversities
- trust the (self-organizing) process and provide time and space for its emergent outcome and
- know that you cannot control or change a complex system but only to disturb or tune it.

Because of its inherent ability to be described in plain terms (even sometimes different), the Cynefin model is ideal for such a task. It can bear different labels for its domains and "host" the outcome of interesting "games" or "exercises" that derive from other methodological frameworks.

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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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