Dave Snowden

The bunny of disappointment

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Yesterday I referenced the Melvyn Bragg podcast on complexity with Ian Stewart, Jeff Johnson and Eve Middleton-Kelly.  Now I am a great fan of his In our Time series but I always find it interesting when a subject comes up in which I have some expertise.  In this case I do and have varying degrees of acquaintanceship (no more) with all three protagonists.  Now I was listening to the podcast while engaged in the soothing rhythm of pairing which is a great aid to concentration but which should not be disturbed.

I think the best description I can give is that of the description of Earth in the revised edition of the Hitch Hiker's guide to the Galaxy, namely mostly harmless.  So there was nothing to disagree with but it was also a huge missed opportunity.  Bragg himself gets frustrated then at least partially disinterested as the discussion stays at a high level of abstraction.  Ian defined complexity as mathematics (which is not surprising), Jeff as a part of systems theory and modelling in general.  Eve made a bid for the social scientists but rather ruined it by referencing the need for using established qualitative methods.  That as readers know is something I find problematic on both practical and theoretical grounds.

Despite numerous attempts by Bragg there was little reference to the unique practical opportunities provided especially in the area of governance.  OK there were some references to modelling where if you know the field you can work out the potential, but a naive listener would find it hard.  Eve made a couple of sales pitches for work she is doing, but again it lacked detail or excitement.  No definition or metaphors were used to illustrate just how different this is.  Bragg asked questions about the differences between complexity and chaos theory and between complex and complicated and got partial responses but again no excitement no differentiation.

No one really separated human complex systems from those in nature in general.  The reading list is woeful so all in all a real missed opportunity and Bragg does not often revisit a topic.  In memory I have bought the T-shirt that goes with the opening image

  • John Pearce

    I listened to this podcast only this week – on a long journey. I had intended to listen to others but my head was full with it. For me, it was more like “The Trojan Mouse of piqued excitement”. I am, as you know Dave, a novice in this field and yet, like the art lover, “I know what I like when I see it”. I was provoked in my view of the social world by, especially about Eve’s comment, “We can ask human participants”…

    First an image, a metaphor, or a maybe a truth… bear with…

    I feel like one of those birds in a flying formation… I’m in there, but unhappy with it. I know how it works, or think I do, and what I am to do to stay with the migration. I am accepting we are moving from where we are to where, someone up front seems to know, where we are going. But every now and then I fly off, on a maverick swerve of a loop to – feel free – test out my view of things and think… Could I? Should I risk it and go on… further and away from the flock? This means that I am often alone and sometimes followed by a few others. Other times, I see one of my kind, fly off alone and I follow.. wondering if s/he a better new direction… I am, essentially, confused, or unsure and a little frightened when I am away from the mass of my contemporaries and so I tend to return to the group and then the frustration sets in again and wells up until I have that need to peel off. I am about to resign from the Labour Party again – I am always thinking of resigning from things…

    That’s why I contacted you Dave, as a free-flier but we didn’t break cake because you don’t eat cake – you can’t eat cake. Now to my reality – not so different to the metaphor…

    I came to, what I understand as Complexity, from a different standpoint (flypoint?). I see the complexity and the complicated and have two main responses.

    The first is to stand back and look at it – let it sink in and try to make sense of it.. Sometimes I think I can make sense of it (Cynefin Model to hand as a check) and then I enter the system, tweak it and see if it improves… Sometimes, often times, it progresses – slowly. There are times when there is an immediate change for the better. I don’t like slow but have come to accept it, although, not as quickly, or obviously as you Dave, I get angered by slow thinkers and frustrated at their pace.

    The second response, often in the midst of the first, is when I see an individual, or small group, who seem to be on an interesting flight-path. I warm to these folks – they may be designated leader, the cynic in the corner, the creative and divergent team, the devious, delinquent. They are, in my mind, the freer flyers and in them I see a precious thing – potential! A will, determination even, to get the thing going despite the system. A lot of my work is with these middle leaders (muddle leaders spellchecker corrected me once – I like that). Much, if not most of my successful work has been with free-fliers.

    So, what am I getting to? Well my question – my thinking is about.. How we might affect, recharge, motivate, empower, enable, facilitate the thinking and actions of those with potential IN the system. I wanted to hear from Bragg et al, ways, not to just how to describe the forming and formulae of formations but rather a consideration of the accuracy, activation and action of those individuals IN that crowd moving, obediently, through the building.

    Up to now, and it has been a long up, I have reified my thinking and practise into a model I call simple. Now a little cul-de-sac… One of my 2 key maxims is, “keep it simple it will get complicated anyway, start complicated and you don’t stand a chance”. In Our Time on Complexity really challenged me on that, “Who is this fool who looks at what we see and know as complex and calls for simplicity?”. So, am I on a literal blind goose fly?

    I am, at this moment, clinging on to my hunch, hypothesis, infatuation, belief.. that the complex is actually made up of of a mass of simples. I am still believing that many of the individuals who walk, fly, work in systems are CAPABLE of changing it for the better. Even moreso and philosophically sensibly, “We do no harm in believing this – we have to believe this” That it is critical that we develop, up from thinking individuals, the CAPACITY for thought through change. This has to be better than the ouijaboard, emojiboard (thanks spellechecker!) approach to politics we have seen, most recently in the Arab Spring, Brexit, Trump phenomenon – when it seems that many have flown along with the crowd, only to regret the consequences when they see where the eagles have landed.

    This is why I developed The iAbacus to be – yes a deceptively simple tool – but more importantly a process that sets the individual’s hopes and fears within and alongside the directional instructions from the Head Birds. I designed this way of working, that starts with the individual’s vision, in order that he/she/they can make a better informed decision about their direction of travel. We are hoping and finding, so desperately few, iAbacus users who “get this approach” and use it to refine, redirect, nudge not only their own work and lives, but also the surge within their organisations.. Maybe we only need a small few free-fliers for it to prove its value?

    I suppose I am asking in all this complexity… Is there, in your complex view of things, any space for iAbacus this maverick’s Map o’Monday? (That’s next Monday – go to start soon!)