Dave Snowden

Change through small actions in the present

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2740716264_5b28122a58_o.jpgI wrote my first post Towards a new theory of change some weeks ago, but life has been frantic since then so this is my first blog post following that initial set of thoughts. I am now in the second week of a trip to South Africa and today is the first time I have had a couple of hours free. Not just work I have to admit but also hospitality. A part of the trip involved two fascinating sessions in Stellenbosch, working with their Complexity Centre, reaching provisional agreement on a series of partnerships with my new Centre for Applied Complexity. Those sessions also involved some brilliant conversations, some fuelled by Cape wine, that encompassed some genuinely original trans-disciplinary thinking of which more in future blogs.

I’ll be speaking on the subject of change this coming Monday, and if anyone out there wants to contribute some narrative around surviving in a VUCA world then your contributions would be welcome over the weekend. VUCA, for those not keeping up with the latest management fads, stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. I find it a little problematic as it doesn’t use complexity in the sense of complex adaptive systems and (more importantly) it tends to focus on VUCA elements arising from an unknowable future, where the unknowability is seen as problematic. Now from a true complexity perspective the future is inherently unknowable and a lot of the problems people have come from either trying to make predictions or getting themselves all het up about the need to predict. But that point aside it’s a useful entry point to thinking differently about management, although it too easily becomes an excuse for inaction or analysis as a substitute for action.

In contrast with trying to get a handle on the unknowable, I have long argued that exploring the evolutionary potential of the present is a key aspect of managing uncertainty. In addition, the wider engagement you can get from various actors for change, the more sustainable or resilient the solutions that emerge. A third point is that description is more important than evaluation in managing the present. In general the more you evaluate the more you start to close down options. If you can hold at the descriptive level for longer then you get a wider range of intervention possibilities.

So where we are looking at culture change (to take an example), we first map the narrative landscape to see what the current dispositional state is. That allows us to look at where we have the potential to change, and where change would be near impossible to achieve. In those problematic cases we look more to stimulating alternative attractors rather that attempting to deal with the problem directly. Our method is the look at the narrative landscape and then ask the questions What can I (we) do tomorrow to create more stories like these and fewer like those? The question engages people in action without analysis and it allows us to take an approach that measures vectors (speed and direction) rather than outcome. The question also allows widespread engagement in small actions in the present, which reduces the unexpected (and potentially negative) consequences of large scale interventions.

Over the weekend I am going to work on a typology of such interventions ready for the Flourish conference on Monday, and I will publish them in a follow up to this blog. A part of that is trying to get the ideas behind Nudge Economics to work by nudging rather than yanking; a comment I will explain in that future post.

Photo credit via Flickr to Jeremy Pullen

  • http://www.ecosapiens.co.uk Andy Middleton

    Excellent, clear post, highighting the risk that over-evaluation ironically creates, when it’s action that produces the information that was needed in the first place.

    • Dave Snowden

      Thanks Andy – like that way of putting it

    • Chris Corrigan

      Agreed. Really helpful.

  • http://www.consciousbusinesspeople.com/ Pete Burden

    Interesting post – thank you.

    I really can’t quite imagine what other kind of change there might be? Anything else would, for me, be pure fantasy. Something we make up, or construct.

    The practical question that comes to my mind is what can people actually do with this important insight – that we need to take action in the present.

    I like the idea or asking questions (some (eg Schein) might call this enquiry) like the one you propose: “What can I (we) do tomorrow to create more stories like these and fewer like those?”.

    There are several types of questions to consider – for example, I think of those listed by Nancy Southern in the recent book Dialogical OD, such as affirming, generative, critical, strategic etc.

    And in terms of a broader typology of actions I’d add noticing (perhaps an example is exploring the dispositional state of the ‘system’ – but I’d also add noticing internally – what is my body telling me, emotionally, for example); naming – speaking up about what we notice; and also holding.

    Holding – in the sense of holding a container for a conversation to evolve towards its potential -seems to me a vitally important step, and probably a learnable ability.

    • Chris Corrigan

      The question os “What can we do to create more stories like these and less like these?” as well as the proper evaluation tools to make sense of whether you are actually doing that does indeed lead into these whole set of practices called Dialogic OD (disclosure: I authored a piece in that book). As to what you can do, the answer is to develop probes, and be very intentional about the ways you learn about what happens to those, in essence, keeping people together and making sense of the emerging reality. This requires techniques that don’t entrain us to look for the answers we want to see, and so having a large group work with dozens small anecdotes and insights helps them to continually explore and define the patterns of strategic action. My guess is that overtime people adopt good abductive capacitices, but it requires alot of practice in some disciplines (especially those that serve the ordered domains well) to strengthen this muscle.

      • http://www.consciousbusinesspeople.com/ Pete Burden

        Yes, and perhaps a lot of ‘unlearning’ for all of us educated in a different way. :)

        I really enjoyed your chapter in the book Chris.

        I was interested in your comment that ‘containers are intangible yet real spaces’. I think from that it might be easy to imagine a physical space – with dimensions etc.

        Dialogues do indeed need physical spaces – an arrangement of chairs, a room etc.

        But I am guessing you as much mean a conversational space? Or perhaps we should say a conversational *flow*? Organisations are, in my view, as much conversational flows as anything else.

        Thinking about organisations in this way also puts the emphasis back on the ‘holders’ of the conversation, those who interact within the flow, as much or more than the space itself.


        • Chris Corrigan

          Yes. Both physical and intangible spaces. The influence of the facilitator is as important to attend to as the quality of the space.