Dave Snowden

Towards a new theory of change

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Metamorphosis aug 1st.jpg A few things came together this morning: the quote on growing people through empowerment from yesterday’s tribute, Accenture giving up on annual assessments & ranking and my pending keynote at Flourish in South Africa. The Flourish event by the way has a picture of me taken by Steve Barth at a KM event in California the best part of two decades ago! I’m looking forward to the event as it will be first one at which I put together a body of work on change, that I have been developing over the last decade, into what I hope will be a coherent form. Aside from the need to do in general, the application of Cynefin to Organisation Change is a book chapter I am working on over the next month. It also links to my chapter in the 2nd edition of Jonathan Passmore’s Leadership Coaching which has just been published.

That chapter, which contains the latest version of Cynefin, focuses on change through small day to day actions that will manage vectors (speed and direction) rather than outcomes. Linked to that, but not in that chapter is a wider theory of transformational change based on the phenomena of metamorphosis which will also see its first outing at Flourish. I will be making a strong distinction between gradualism with narrative feedback which is comparatively easily, and achieving significant ‘transformational’ or better exaptive change which is far more difficult and can be painful. The conflation of the two in most organisation change engineering projects is part of the problem, both conceptually and practically.

The other interesting aspect of the Flourish event is that some of the things I will say will be fairly challenging to some members of the organisational change community. The opposition to social engineering is common in many practitioners, but they have their own weak point which is a post-colonial approach to ‘psychological’ change at an individual level. A criticism I levelled at Peter Senge at a recent conference in Washington where we were both keynotes. My general argument is that we need to stop talking about how things should be, and start changing things in the here and now. My own sessions at that event can be found here and here.

Now there are a whole group of consultants in this field who focus on the idea that changing individuals is the best way to change an organisation. The worse ones come with a ideological view of what sort of people they want to create and a process of self-reflection that draws on the worse excesses of the counselling movements that took off a few decades ago. The really pretentious start by quoting continental philosophers to give themselves an apparent air of authority or pickup on some pseudo-scientific nonsense such as NLP or Spiral Dynamics. It’s the preacher man phenomena, in which the preacher is the privileged interpreter of the word and has achieved a heightened state of enlightenment to which they invite to you to seek to attain.

Now don’t get me wrong, individual change is important, meditation has huge value (I am less sure of mindfulness as that has become a simplistic fad), most practitioners are well intentioned. But the real change in organisations is when you change the way that people connect, and the most profound way in which that connection can be achieved is through small actions that change perceptions in an evolutionary way.  People argue that it is easier to change an individual that to change the system and that may be right.  But if you want systemic change there are simply too many individuals to change to achieve it and it is a lot easier to change the interactions and allow people autonomy over what they are.

The implication is that those who oppose cultural engineering at a company level, talking about dehumanisation and the like are frequently guilty of exactly the same sin at the level of attempting to engineer the individual and/or abrogate the role of management and leadership in providing direction.  They claim to be paradigm changing, but that practice is rooting in the engineering paradigm of outcome based control, of dichotomies not dialectic, or dilemmas rather than paradox.  Just like those they oppose they do not understand the value of the present, preferring to live in the comfort of a platitudinous future.

More on this in future posts, this is just the starting point.  There are strong links with my post on Cynefin Dynamics a few days ago by the way.  I’m not going to number the posts in this series by the way, they will be characterised by pictures of metamorphosis.

  • RichardL

    Thanks for this David. I sounds like a series of Adaptive Actions : making sense of the connections and patterns that exist–> taking action to add new connections –> that will morph into a set next “wisest actions” that emerge in the “here and now” from the new set of connections –> to evolve to new patterns…and the cycle continues.

    • Dave Snowden

      Yes, but the nature of who determines the intervention and how it is determined is different

  • Tom Grant

    Boy, this discussion is giving me some political science flashbacks. One of the first puzzles that the field tried to unlock was the rise of fascism, particularly in Germany, which shattered the faith of many political scientists in the strength of formal institutions. Weimar Germany was supposed to have had one of the best constitutions ever drafted, but the Nazis brushed it aside like so much wet tissue paper. People got more interested in political culture, and how it supports formal institutions. Then people argued about how formal institutions generate or support culture.

    However, both perspectives were rooted in the same notion that you cited, David: “The real change in organisations is when you change the way that people connect.” Both formal institutions, like election laws, and manifestations of political culture, such as culturally-favored models of leadership, shaped how people connect. In no way were the two sides in this debate arguing over how to make people better. In fact, that was the failed effort of totalitarianism, either in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, to create a new kind of person.

    Sorry for the detour from organization change, but I thought I’d share a similar discussion from another discipline.

    • Dave Snowden

      Thanks for that, hadn’t thought of it in that way but its useful

  • Cory Banks

    Looking forward to the reading the chapters. The evolution of the application of Cynefin has followed a similar direction to my own professional movement and thinking from KM to Change Management.