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Dave Snowden

cum hoc ergo propter hoc

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The fact that a rooster crows at sunrise does not mean it causes the sunset, the fact that you find sick people in a hospital does not mean that the hospital makes people sick. Of course it might, but you can’t draw the conclusion from the observation. It’s a variation on the better knownPost hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. The error is so common in much popular management ’thinking’ that it has the status of a plague and it takes the form of confusing symptoms with causes. The subject came up again this week in a discussion about engagement as a determining factor in successful team management. It was in an Agile forum and common in that field to see lists of qualities of this nature and in some cases training events or even two or three day courses devoted to happiness. The latter borrowing heavily on religious cultism in content, motivation and marketing skill.

Now I think most of this is understandable, but it is also dangerous. The reality is that these abstract qualities arise as a result of complex interactions between people, between people and process and between people, process and context. At key points articulating a need may help trigger a switch, but the dispositional state has to be ready for it. In complexity terms these qualities are the emergent properties of multiple interactions over time. They can be influenced, stimulated, catalysed or reinforced but there is no linear causal pattern or prescription that can be followed. Defining roles and interactions so as to remove absolutism, but not authority is one way to do this. Creating exemplars for the more stories like these, fewer like those approach approach to change management helps people understand what do do without having to spout platitudes or preach sermons. Its easy to list a set of words or phrases that no one will disagree with and trot out the list as an excuse whenever things go wrong. The harder, but more resilient path is to set things up so those qualities are more likely to evolve naturally and nudge them from time to time in the right direction. Its less dramatic, less likely to sell and won’t get many likes on facebook but that shouldn’t be the objective.

And don’t get me started on the Mindset word

  • Larry Browning

    nice text

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