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Dave Snowden

Sea wall or salt marsh?

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When we lived in St Albans, way back in the days before children, we occasionally made a winter day trip to the Essex Coast (pictured). The cost is flat as is the land and bleak. In winter that can be attractive and there are some good coast walks. A fair number of flight paths into Heathrow come in over them and from the air the distinction between salt marsh and sea wall is distinct. I use this a lot to talk about the difference between robust and resilient constraints. The sea wall is robust, distinct, defined and is pretty absolute in nature; it contains in a predictable and reliable way. The salt marsh on the other hand is a lot more messy. It’s boundaries are far from clear and its nature is constantly shifting. But it is resilient, it can take a lot of water and doesn’t break although it may finally get saturated, but it still carries on. The sea-wall on the other had when it breaks it breaks; the shift from high utility, predictability and security to catastrophic failure is sudden and calamitous in nature.

I realised today that it is also a useful metaphor for understanding the capability of individuals and/or teams. Some people are good at the detail, things are done to a high standard and consistently so. They provide an aura of security and reliability up to the point where it all gets too much for them. Then they either withdraw or break. Those of us (confession time here) who are more salt marsh in nature are nearly always messy, but we can absorb more than most and carry on functioning even at high levels os saturation. It’s been driven home to me both with my immediate circle and within the wider political situation. Although we might want to add fragility and false promise of stability to that one in respect of narcissistic personality styles!

As I thought about this it also has implications for organisational design and cultural mapping. You need to have both, you need to know the who and the where of both as a manager. It also starts to create an interesting metaphorical mapping idea. As a side bar there is an interesting bit of research on the degree to which sea walls marry salt marshes or seek out like minds but that is definitely for another day. As I say I’m playing with metaphor in the context of constraint management and also in mapping, but over multiple metaphors seen as modulators of identity. So a bit of fun but with some serious intent; more dichotomies in future posts …

  • martinowen

    Taoism and Confucianism?

    • Dave Snowden

      The classic, I may build up to that one

  • tonyjoyce

    Your comment on fragility, false promise and narcissism has started me down the road of authenticity and in-authenticity. Little white lies and boldface BS, compounded in our daily news. I haven’t sorted it out myself yet; am looking forward to your views.

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