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Dave Snowden

We need an new Albigensian Crusade

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If I had to choose a heresy (and it may be heretical to even pose such a question) then it would be Pelagianism: the belief that human nature can choose between good and evil without the intervention of some paternalistic and anthropomorphised Deity. Under some variations of this, original sin is more the acceptance of the gift of knowledge than some rejection of authority imposed for its own sake (which has always been my reading of the Genesis story). In contrast the least attractive heresy, but the one which persists into the modern age, is Catharism, also known as the Albigensianism heresy which derived from a much older Iranian religious movement Manicheanism. Here the belief is that one will be constantly re-incarnated until you realise that the material world is evil and abandon it. While it had a positive impact in the role of women it is a doctrine that rejects the world and creates a dichotomy between that which is good and that which is evil. The brutal suppression was both politically and theologically driven and was appalling in nature. Visit the Cathar Castles of the Pyrenees and wild romanticism of the locations contrasts with the brutality of mass burnings of the Albigensian Crusade initiated by Innocent III. I’m not advocated similar tactics (although I am at times tempted) but the prevalence of a needless dualism in which somethings are designed as good and others as evil at times tempts me to seek out a new Simon de Montfort.

So why do I think we need a new crusade? Well on the political front in the US and elsewhere we are increasingly resorting to a new form of totemistic tribalism in which truth, facts, compassion and understanding are thrown out of the window in favour of a tribal identity entirely defined by being for something or against something, absolutely without qualification or nuance. But this post was less promoted by that aspect than the constant tendency of consultants and practitioners to create two column tables or illustrations which distinction between the evil past and a heavenly future. The latest version of this is a rather oddly titled article from the end of the last year Is the era of management over? This, like many other examples attempts to besmirch the past creates a either/or set of alternatives. Now to be clear if this is seen as a switch en emphasis, taking a both/and approach then I’m happy to buy into it. But instead it is presented as an either/or; a way of seeking to validate an unknown future by demonisation of a partial perspective on what has done before. To be clear – I think the original intent of those who created this picture is to shift, not displace, but its subsequent propagation in social media have moved away from that.

So why should we be worried about this? Well lets look at each of the polarities:

  1. An unholy focus on profit at all costs lacks morality and probably effectiveness, but purpose without profit cannot survive in a capitalist society – and realism says that need to accept that is the case. The purpose of medical aid to the whole of a population, to my mind at least, should not be constrained by profit. However if you want to start a software company at some stage no amount of purpose will allow you to retain the surfaces of the purposeful as you won’t be able to pay them. Within an organisation some focus on profit and cash flow will always be needed.
  2. For most professions a hierarchy is important, its not all about networks.  If you don’t have a hierarchy of some type in an organisation then the alpha-males (or more scarily the alpha-females) will create one anyway.  Its one of those natural human tendencies and this represents a context in which making something explicit is more likely to prevent rather than create abuse.  In a crisis hierarchy comes into play, which is not to say it is universal or even, when contextually appropriate, not with the out the need for consensus and consent (not the same thing by the way).  In Cynefin hierarchical control is valid in the chaotic and obvious domains, while complexity requires network centring and complication peer based consensus.
  3. A lot of control is empowering.  Interestingly here one of my complaints about holocracy is that it is an application programme that reduces agency to role and is thus un-empowering.   Empowering can be top down (in which case it is control) or bottom up in which case at some stage authority will creep in.  Ideally it is co-evolutionary with modification of constraints as needed to affect the balance between them.  Empowering by the way implies power – the issue is allocation, acquisition and control.  If you want full empowerment then the world is more likely to be Lord of the Flies than The Choral Island.
  4. As to planning and experimentation; you can only experiment if you do plan.  Experimentation without some test for coherence and a constraint on time and resources is a license for failure.  Planning is a process of preparation which does not of itself assume a rigid set of task definitions and monitoring.   I find it ironic that we hear a lot about this change within the Agile community whose Kanban boards and backlog lists all demonstrate the value of plans, if only for the process of task allocation and accountability.  The issue is not planning, but the nature of the plan.
  5. Then to the most dangerous dichotomy and one that creates much harm: the assumption that transparency is of itself good and privacy is evil.  The reality is very different.  If you have a state where there is no transparency then systems easily become perverted and corrupt.  But equally if everything is transparent then experimentation and risk taking will reduce.  Again its a matter of context and degree and an ability to move between the two, and with different people is key.  Also some personalities are better equipped to handle one than the other.

For me we need a lot more contextual views of both/and rather than either/or. I called it bounded applicability in the early days of Cynefin. Management is about knowing and enabling that balance in practice as well as their. The death of management is a nonsense concept, the issue is what and how we manage, with whom and in what context.

The Consolamentum of the Albidensian’s was a means of rejecting temporal pleasure or rather engagement in the temporal; the word made spirit rather than the word made flesh if you like. The idea of a fully networked, transparent, empowered purposeful experimental organisation similarly lacks engagement with reality.

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