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All is vanity, nothing is fair

By Dave Snowden  ·  December 10, 2012  ·  Managing Complex Systems, Polemic

Isn't it nice to be nice?  To talk only about how things would be so nice.  To posit a future where leaders and managers are nice people who believe in nice things and have nice values and beliefs.  Its so safe to be nice because no one can really disagree with you.  Changing anything in the world is then about making everyone nice, once that is achieved niceness will abound.  In the near term if someone isn't nice, well then just stop listening to them, pretend they don't exist, hang out with the nice people.

OK I'm being satirical and cynical, but that is because its the cynics who care.  The nice people who never challenge or upset you just want to be liked or possibly they really believe.  But I have always been with my favourite Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray from whose Vanity Fair, a novel without a hero,  the title quote comes, as does the following: 

The wicked are wicked, no doubt, and they go astray and they fall, and they come by their deserts; but who can tell the mischief which the very virtuous do?

Thackeray is so much better than the anodyne, everything has a happy ending, and if you just wait around some nice gentleman with money will solve the problem for you Dickens.  Which is probably why he is not as popular.  However the mischief of the virtuous is an ever present theme in history, good intentions not withstanding, and not just in a Victorian context.

I remember back arguments back in the 70s between extreme evangelical Christians and those of us engaged in what was then known a Liberation Theology that are replicated in management and organisational science today.  The evangelicals were concerned with personal salvation, by coming to know the Lord Jesus as your personal saviour you were redeemed and your task was to bring others to the same enlightened state.  Justification by faith alone to place it in a more historical context.  In opposition there were those of us who were with James 2:24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.  Our view was that engagement with the world, with its political and other realities was at the heart of justification and also redemption.

Over the last year I have been emphasising the differences between complexity thinking and systems dynamics/thinking.  At the softer end of systems dynamics we get the emphasis on common values, on setting some desired future state of personal competence or belief and orientation which will in turn lead to a better type of organisation.  Complexity thinking in contrast focuses not on closing the gap to some ideal future but on describing the present and making small changes now, in order to evolve to some future state which could not be anticipated but which is more stable and resilient than any idea.

I realised the other day that its the same debate as that of the 70s.  Dealing with the present involves getting down and dirty, yes we have some form of purpose or direction, but we don't preach it, we practice it and see what happens.  We don't attempt to change people per se, or to be more accurate write or speak about how they should be, instead we change the nature of the system in which they act, and the nature of their interactions.  Authenticity (something on which I will post in its own right) is key to purpose here, and heuristics and parables more important than rules and value statements.

Of course its not comfortable to deal with reality, its a lot easier to talk about how things should be.  And of course if reality intrudes you can just got yourself off and retreat to a safe place where you only talk and listen to people with whom you feel comfortable.  I know a fair number of conference speakers and bloggers who fall into this category and I think its a loss.  What the world needs is engagement, not personal enlightenment.  Ok if that comes good, but depending on it is not a resilient strategy, although it is comfortable, and oh so nice.