Dave Snowden

Should we start again?

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I interrupted this series for yesterday’s brief tribute to Ursula Le Guin. In the first post a couple of days ago I asked if, realistically, one can start from scratch in any organisational change initiative. In my first post I pointed out that the past was a significant filter that would overcome any idealistic future oriented speech in other than a crisis. I also argued against the evangelical attitude of many change advocates and how that was counter productive in creating real change. Finally I suggested that change could be shifted towards an adjacent possible but that major change, other than during a near catastrophic failure of existing practice and certainties, was impossible.

Today I want to ask the ‘should’ question. There seems to be an orthodoxy in many organisations that change is, of itself, a good thing. If people complain, or something doesn’t seem to be working then we generally end up blaming culture or mindset rather than questioning what we asked for, or the realities of the current situation. I see a range of contexts here that people tend to ignore and which trigger an inauthentic need for change:

  1. In some types of work failure is inevitable and triage decisions may be needed.  We’ve seen multiple re-organisations in the NHS based on stories of failure, when that failure is a part and parcel of the job itself.  Some people will die, from time to time your ingrowing toe-nail might involving you waiting four hours to be seen in A&E and so on.
  2. There is a desired to save cost and further than the route to doing that is to re-organise, create an efficiency programme etc.   Again I will use an NHS example where outsourcing core services meant that changing a £3 light bulb cost £70 and medical staff were not allowed to make the change.  More dangerously this type of re-organisation may destroy the dark constraints, the ways of doing things that have grown up over the years and are not fully understood; a very common aspect of a human complex system.
  3. We have a new executive and he wants to lay down a mark.  A lot of corporate rebranding has become like this.  More the new alpha male pissing on the trees to mark out their territory rather than any genuine need.  Change becomes fashionable and it is often linked to the latest ‘big thing’.  Many, many examples in the past – BPR, LO, Blue Ocean etc. etc.   Its like a form of infection in which Executives (and consultants) want to be seen to be doing things.  Too many re-organisations are all about creating busy work for internal and external consultants alike.
  4. The desire for a crusade, driven by zealots who have believe in something a little too strongly.   In 1212 children or various classes of the wandering poor (its disputed)  left Northern Europe too recover the Holy Land  Two out of three died on route and none got much further than Brindisi.   I see a lot of this around Agile at the moment where people make the means an end in itself.  Anything evangelically touted as a great good that will replace a terrible evil should be carefully questioned and deeply mistrusted.
  5. Finally, and the worst, by canny executives who realise that announcing a major change that will take two to three year to implement is a way of looking good without taking responsibility for what happens.  I saw a lot of this in IBM, in fact one guy Andrew practiced it to ‘perfection’.  He constantly was heralding as an agent for change, but always got promoted before the consequences of his latest initiative came home to roost.  Reality was never allowed to catch up with him.

So there are all sorts of reasons to question if we should attempt to start again. More tomorrow.

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

    Thanks for the summary of “Can we start again?”

    Doesn’t the liminal domain between between Complex and Chaos offer the possibility of major change, too?
    Or only a false promise?
    And a plunge from Obvious into Chaos, of course.
    But yes, these all involve Chaos (near catastrophic failure).

    I understand ALL liminal domains as attempts for major change:
    – extending Obvious (predictability),
    – extending Complicated (professional control) and
    – extending Complex (professional inspiration & motivation).
    Of these only the last (with ‘aspirational & visionary goals’) is desirable.
    Extending professional control (‘creating a [new] profession’) that infringes on complex adaptive systems is at best neutral.
    Extending predictability, avoiding both Chaos and just complicating things (by extending control), is not really possible, so a sham (i.e. it abuses ‘a cliché of platitudes & the tyranny of the explicit’).

    For the rest, yes: evolution is better than revolution, as ‘revolution devours its own children’, at least at the social level (social systems/patterns/collective habits/material culture).

    From a social level (relatively slow evolution) perspective intellectual level changes (systems of ideas & other symbolic content) CAN be major, without affecting the social level a lot.
    The intellectual/symbolic level is the level of hypes, memes and social media.
    It is not ‘much ado about nothing’, because the intellectual level occupies a lot of our attention, of our experience, of our reality.
    With ‘thought experiments’ we CAN and -often- SHOULD start again… with our systems of ideas, in order to effect small, incremental changes on the social level.
    That -for me- is the purpose of fads like Zero Based Budgeting and Beyond Budgeting.

    • Dave Snowden

      Well the essence of liminality is a ‘holding’ prior to transition so any major change not be the starting point. Entering Chaos from Complexity (as opposed obvious is about contained experimentation or situational assessment so less so. There is no liminal boundary to obvious. I don’t agree with associating control with complicated and inspiration/motivation with complex. You keep doing this and I keep pushing back to say the need all three of those in both but they manifest differently. I wrote a whole series of posts on goals so I won’t repeat myself. Evolution or revolution are contextual. Inappropriate revolution creates tyranny, but so can not having a resolution. Cynefin is all about both/and not either/or ….

      I reject any dichotomy between intellectual/practical or the social I’m afraid and I’ve always rejected the idea of memes as a false metaphor – look up my posts on tropes.

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

        The incomplete grammar makes it difficult for me to understand your first two sentences.

        Pushing back and stating disagreement/rejection without sufficient explanation to convince me won’t change my mind.
        If they would, I would be treating you as guru, which you don’t want me to.
        The ideas you disagree with will then stay part of my repertoire.
        I will keep using them when they seem appropriate.
        Being who I am (Dutch, Quaker, critical) you even risk additional stubbornness on my part when just pushing back and stating disagreement/rejection without giving sufficient impression that you try to understand me.

        I associate ‘control’ with hierarchical management and thus with both ordered domains, as is customary in my (financial) profession.

        I took “aspirational & visionary goals” from the explanation of the liminal domain between Complex and Chaos in your own image (13/1/18).
        In my interpretation of liminality as attempts for change originating in one of the primary domains (‘an extention of that primariy domain’ or ‘a preparatory domain for transition towards another domain’) that implies ‘aspiration & vision & goal setting’ originates in the complex domain.
        The agency implied in these concepts made me associate them with the professionals who are -in my understanding- the guiding actors in organizations in the complex domain (rather than leaders/governors/managers).
        “Aspirational & visionary goals” inspire and motivate people, everywhere where professionals have a role and enough freedom to act, not just in the complex domain.

        Please try to understand what I am trying to say without requiring me to have read everything you have written and aligning myself with your use of words and your every preference for using them or not.
        That is also what I am trying to do from my side.
        Also be aware, please, that I am not a native English speaker and may use and understand words in a less precise meaning than you do.

        • Dave Snowden

          I added a comma and some inverted commas although I think the meaning was clear. Liminality is about holding things in a state of transition, so it really can’t be about major change in other than exceptional circumstances.


          – I am showing you the respect of being direct. If I disagree with you `i will say so and the risk is something I’m happy to live with
          – This blog is where I develop ideas and welcome comments and debate. However I also reserve the right to reference prior work. I’m not under an obligation to try and repeat in a comment material I have spent time crafting for an article or a blog post when those are available.
          – In that respect I’ve extensively written (and recently) on control. goals etc. Your understanding of liminal domains is not comparable with that writing so I’ve said so.
          – I’ve consistently resisted your desire to allocate things like professionalism, leadership, management etc to domains. I’ve said repeatably that you should look at aspects of those qualities and how they differ. I referenced the first major Cynefin article ‘Complex Acts of Knowing’ to illustrate that. It is your call if you read that or not.
          – This blog is about exploring and creating the language of anthro-complexity and I’m going to carry on doing that. I’ve explained before why I don’t like the way you use symbolic etc. and I’m not prepared to confirm my theory to language which I consider inappropriate.
          – You don’t have to read everything `i have written, but recent blogs and the main articles seem a reasonably expectation if you want to make comments on ~Cynefin

          Finally please be aware that `I get between 100 and 200 emails a day, I write a blog daily when possible, I try and respond to all queries and I have books to read, software to design and projects to run. That means I have to make choices about when i engage, or rather with what I engage and when I don’t.