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Dave Snowden

Curmudgeon, cynic and contrarian

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img_5762 copyThe American writer Jon Winokur defined a Curmudgeon as Anyone who hates hypocrisy and pretence and has the temerity to say so; anyone with the habit of pointing out unpleasant facts in an engaging and humorous manner. In philosophy the Cynics saw the purpose of life was to live in virtue, in agreement with nature, not to simply accept, in the manner of the Stoics (well the Roman version for sure). I’ve always happily embraced both definitions, sometimes simply with intent, frequently with malice aforethought; some conference speakers simply ask for their trivial assumption to be challenged. The latest example of that was my talk at UX Brighton when I followed some misguided soul who wanted to measure happiness by utilising smily face responses and creating a happiness map of the organisation. The night before he sort of implied that because he had given a Ted talk on the subject his views deserved more respect that I was giving them. I was less tactful the next day …

Either way, to get to the point I landed in New York yesterday and after a morning of conference calls headed downtown to a session on the role of art in community change – something I have a passion for. I went along with having to express myself through dance, as I know dancers have a belief that everyone really desperately wants to be like them. A common issue with facilitation by the way and I think we need to make a stronger distinction between performance (which artists like to do) and participation (which is also done by audiences). I’ve used actors to represent people rather than force people to act, to give an example of the latter. By observing someone who knows how to do something following your actual instructions in a group setting you learn more than by stumbling through something you are no good at, nor likely to be. The assumption that everyone wants to be like us, and live through our own experiences, using our language is dangerously pernicious.

So when it came to my turn to introduce myself I decided to adopt my three C’s of personal behaviour in a Complex word: Cynicism, Curmudgeonliness and contrarianism, while trying to avoid conflict and combativeness with partial success. I do love C words! So having given my background, picking on aspects like early engagement with liberation theology and social activism I went on to list things that I find problematic generally, but in particular from a perspective of trying to intervene in a complex system.

  1. Empiricism, or case based approaches to understanding complex social systems.  There is always too much context to allow for the creation of a casual connection between a human observation of the past.  Instead I argue for an approach constrained by natural science, informed by practice.
  2. Complexity people who assume that their subjects are ants.  That is to say, those who don’t realise that anthro-complexity is very difference from complexity in the sense of birds flocking, termite nest building etc.  We have intelligence, intentionality and flex out identities, and that is just for starters.  So human complex systems is a new, trans-disciplinary area of study and practice.
  3. People who get fixated on the Forest Cycle and the necessity of chaos for new things to emerge.  Even assuming it is the case that the Forest Cycle, as depicted in Panarchy and others is correct which is dubious then humans are not condemned to enter chaos before discovering novelty and new ways of working.  It may happen, but it is not a necessity.  One of the points of Cynefin dynamics is to show why not.
  4. Attempting to reduce an artisan capability to a process or a trivial exercise.  I had much of design thinking in mind here, but with the benefit of hindsight I was probably also making a point about the use of art in which performance is privileged of participation.  The main issue however is that many social and individual capabilities take years to acquire and any attempt to short circuit that is to trivialise the capability.
  5. Social atomism, the belief that everything is about the individual, individual choice and individual responsibility; the idea that all society is a construct of human choice and an aggregation of individual interests.  It is a particularly Anglo-saxon way of thinking and aside from being wrong in terms of cognitive development, communication and so many other scientific insights it is dangerous to mental health and to genuine change.  The neo-colonial approach of well intentioned people such as Senge and The various Theory-U adherents would be other examples.

I could have gone on, but that is enough, it was a way of setting the scene for the morrow.  Oh and if you don’t understand the image you need to read more philosophy and think metaphor – I chose the partially completed barrel deliverable

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