Dave Snowden

Humans are messy

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Day three of the Cynefin and Sense-making course focuses on new forms or organisation and the various aspects of cognitive science and anthropology that we have brought into play in both methods and theories.  It is the day that tends to go through more flux than the others as it is a growing area of both theoretical understanding and experimentation for me.   As it happens I’ve been more focused on the wider society issues but all things complex in general ending up as fractal in some way or another most things work in most places.

The practical methods we teach are things like Social Network Stimulation and various short and long term methods for the use of Crews.  That then leads into decision and knowledge mapping and some deeply pragmatic approaches to portfolio management.   Methods aside a lot of the day is focused on getting people to think in different ways given what we now know about people and systems.   A lot of it contradicts received wisdom so it can be a bit of a conceptual leap, but once made things become fairly simple.   A lot of it comes back to applying the three basic heuristics for complexity based design and interventions:  Use finely grained objects. distributed cognition into a network and remove interpretative layers between subject/object and decision maker (disintermediation).  However in this are of our work the big switches are worth summarising:

  1. The odd misguided soul has been known to suggest that changing the system is too hard, but changing an individual is easy.   I can agree that, the trouble is the effort to change enough individuals in order to achieve a systems change is generally too much, too hard or takes too long.   We are not social atoms anyway so it’s a lot better to focus on ways to change the interaction between people and objects.
  2. Then again, we are generally working with identities, which are not aggregations of individuals but orientations that impact on many individual behaviours.  So we don’t have to swing the pendulum between focusing on the system and focusing on the individual, there is a much more nuanced and economical approach.   Proximity, informal flow and the like are far more influential on individuals that some implied inner qualities.
  3. We can’t change the organisation or the world by idealistic statements about how people should be.   You make some aspects of what they do more transparent (more or that tomorrow) within a local context (a sort of localised virtual panopticon); you increase interdependencies between people with little or no previous contact and so on.   If you have teams that don’t like each other, break them up and throw elements together in some unrelated task.
  4. Remember that tools, humour, art and narrative are all critical aspects of what we are, and what we can become.  Few of those are included either in the New Age Fluffy Bunny facilitation and coaching approaches, or the indifference of process reengineering.  It is not about formal design, communication and committment.
  5. The cartesian model of the human brain, namely the assumption that mind and body are somehow separate is deeply problematic and in turn had resulted in computer models of the brain (very common in HR departments) and information not human centric design.

There are more, but that is enough to be going on with!

Oh, and remember, humans do well with just a little mess.  So those neat and tidy organisational charts rarely conform with reality.   With that in line I could not resist the mug that opens this post.  So I hope I am not breaching IP terms if (i) I have bought one and (ii) I provide the linkso others interested can also buy one.