Dave Snowden

In the salt marsh

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I’m still working on the new use of coupling and boundary constraints for Cynefin so readers will have to wait a few days for that. So I thought I would continue by theme of yesterday, namely the organisational use of narrative. I’m also saving myself a double task as I need to write some of this up for the client I was working with in San Jose this week. One of the strong points I made yesterday was that setting goals and announcing programmes is not the way to go in narrative based communication.

Now that attracted some comments as the idea of goals, common vision, alignment etc. is all pervasive in management science and organisational development in particular. We see the same with the obsession with defining learning outcomes etc. in education, something which means students write to marking schemes rather than explore knowledge and develop wisdom. We haven’t yet got to family goals, mission statements and KPIs but I am sure some idiot will come up with the idea sooner or later. I’ve long applied a simple test in theory here – if you wouldn’t do it in your family or with a bunch to teenagers why are you doing it in your organisation? Note this is a question, I’ll accept sometimes the context is so different that the answer to that would be No, but there again …. But all in all its a good test, and especially so where motivation is a necessary precursor of effective action.

The facts are absolutely clear. There is no question that in virtually all circumstances in which people are doing things in order to get rewards, extrinsic tangible rewards undermine intrinsic motivation
New Scientist 9th April 2011. pp 40-43

The above reference is one I have used before but it is further evidence for the general approach I am taking here. Goals and targets are, in the main, inimical to intrinsic motivation and tend to be a function of growing bureaucracy and control rather than a characteristic of enterprise and innovation.

In the context of narrative work there are three basic reasons I don’t buy goals as such:

  1. Ethically I think there are issues in many goals which are based on something internal to the person – attitudes, beliefs etc.
  2. Goals tend to focus on goal achievement rather than discovery and in a complex world chance discovery may be more useful than goal achievement.
  3. In general it produces perverse results in a complex system which has no linear causality so a priori goal setting cannot be based on knowledge of what is needed.

But, and it is a very important but, goal setting is not the only way to give a sense of direction. Part of our work on narrative landscapes (derived from but not the same as, fitness landscapes in biology) is to indicate the dispositional state of a system, something we now do with contour maps. To take up the metaphor here, it is easier to walk down a valley than strike over the hills. So given the choice most people will channel, they will take the lower energy gradient of the valley. So if you map the narrative landscape of your organisation you may find:

  1. that the system is already disposed to achieve the sort of direction, even the end point you want. In those circumstances direct intervention is likely to make things worse not better.
  2. that the dispositional state is such that attempting to change direction by simply setting goals will take so much energy and enforcement that the energy cost is too great.
  3. That the state indicates an adjacent possible, a position in the present which is not dominant but is a better place than the main dispositions.  This is known as an adjacent possible and can be targeted with what do we do tomorrow to create more like this and less like that.  A key theme of our new theory of change linked to complexity theory and true nudge (not yank) approaches to behavioural change.

Whatever, any explicit initiative will trigger partial memories of previous initiatives and filtering will take place based on those memories Given than most initiatives in the past have promised much but delivered less you are starting from a position of major disadvantage.

So what do we do? Well the idea of channelling is key. Faced with an adverse disposition state you start by seeing how to change that so it is more favourable before you even think of setting an end point. If the overall disposition state allows change then:

  1. Reinforced the boundaries with negative stories (don’t go here) is more effective that setting specific goals with idealised stories of how things should be. Its how fairy stories work and have worked for centuries. Its also more ethical, you are indicated where you don’t want things to go but leaving a degree of flexibility (and therefore discovery) how where and how change is to be achieved.
  2. Using adjacent possibles allows you to pull people over an initial obstacle.   Getting people to make a short climb to drop into an adjacent valley which goes in the direction you want rather than continuing as they were.
  3. Using metaphor based instructions linked to heuristics.  That deserves a post in its own so I will not elaborate it today.

So the overall message here is simple. Understand where you are and then start to initiate achievable change based on that knowledge. Don’t start with where you want to be and assume people can be dragged there regardless of their starting point. Lots of small initiatives and changes without grandiose declared objectives and promises also helps. Remember your dealing with a complex ecology in which the complexity is compounded by the nature of human decision making, intelligence (or lack of) and multiple often unarticulated intentions and identity states. It is not a machine that can be engineered or built to spec.

I used the image or channels in the marsh deliberately by the way. Navigating marshes is a skill, understanding currents, realising their may be false pathways is key. Even an aerial picture may not tell you everything and most of the time we are down there in the creek surrounded by vegetation.

  • Greg Brougham

    Dave, I think this pulls a few of the threads together really nicely. The New Zealand equivalent to marsh walking would be jet boating – it takes time to develop the skill for reading the channels and even the goods guys get it wrong from time to time. Occasional you can take a short cut, running the boat up and over the the ground between channels.

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