Dave Snowden


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One of the more fascinating aspects of human systems, and one of the most significant differences with the wider field of complexity is that of identity. Humans beings rarely have single agency. Not only that our identities can flex and change instantly and in context. Identity switches also change the way we perceive the world, they create cognitive activation patterns that filter what we see. In other words the idea that there is an agent with a strategy is far too simplistic a way of understanding what, when, where, why and who has agency in human interactions. Of course we also have ways that stabilise identity. Donning a uniform, performing a role can do that. A social context or physical trigger can also apply. But, and this is more scary, the narrative patterns and feedback loops can have a profound effect on who we are, how we perceive the world and how we act in it.

Now we get to one of the bigger changes to organisations design and understanding that distinguishes complexity thinking from most of the work that loosely self-labels itself as systems thinking. Most of those approaches assume the primary unity of analysis is the individual and the matching of competences to roles and individuals to both. When we start to think through the implications of identity everything changes. What now matters is the context, our ability to manage the context and the way individuals/teams interact with each other and the context. Now this will be a whole chapter in the book, and it will be referenced constantly so I can’t fully summarise stuff here and its not the first blog post I have written. However I do think its useful to start (but this is not complete) a list of the factors that determine identity:

  1. The roles we play at anyone time, or the balance between those roles. An event may trigger specific alignment but generally we are balancing several at the same time.
  2. Ritual within teams can trigger identity with role
  3. The physical environment, either designed or not associated with different activities.  I perceive things differently walking the Glyders than I do climbing the stairs to the amphitheatre in the Royal Opera House
  4. Social triggers: meeting old friends can rapidly re-associate old memories, actions and interactions; a crying baby changes our perception and priority …
  5. Authority and fear, the two are obviously related to a degree and one can probably add in carrots and sticks there.  Common threat binds people together, gaining authority changes perception and so on.

All of these and more modulate identity

  • Sherry Johnson

    Having a Jesuit background, Dave, I wonder what you think of the Enneagram, well-applied? Essentially, that “personal style,” “orientation,” or “preference” isn’t the emphasis, but Riso & Hudson’s interpretations of “holy ideas” and “primary fixations” that operate across contexts…

    • Dave Snowden

      I lump it with Myers Briggs, Spiral Dynamics et al – its a construct without evidence that some facilitators may be able to provide utility but they might as well use astrology

  • http://www.thebrokeronline.eu Wim Nusselder

    Sure astrology can essentially be just as useful as Myers Briggs and Spiral Dynamics. 😉
    Myers Briggs can be seen as a simplification of astrological phychology.
    I don’t think astrology is necessarily less useful than Cynefin
    Astrology just has a bit of a bad press nowadays.
    That bad press is due to the social status of science, which has a ‘business model’ (the ‘scientific method’) that claims exclusive access to ‘truth’.
    Behind that lies the quintessential human assumption you unearthed in your blog post December 31st of causality as generic explanation of ‘reality’ (i.e. of our experience).
    Don’t all ideological constructs have utility only to the extent that and because they are used by many people and thus enable communication and construction of social reality?
    The Thomas theorem comes to mind here.

    • Dave Snowden

      If are being serious about astrology then you have my sympathy, but I think you. Is the point I was making. Otherwise I reject a social constructivist position and I think naturalising approaches make more sense

      • http://www.thebrokeronline.eu Wim Nusselder

        I am an amateur astrological psychologist for 30 years now, so yes, I am serious about it.
        I am kind of a social constructivist though (for some 90% of social reality): I take the Thomas theorem, double hermeneutics & performativity very seriously.

        • davesnowden

          OK that explains some of the differences. MB is simply a partial Jungian take on astrology anyway and that means neo-Platonist at best. I can see at lease one reason for past disagreements now
          Prof Dave Snowden
          Cynefin Centre & Cognitive Edge
          Sent from my iPad Pro