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