Breakfast with Dave Snowden and an Epiphany

A synopsis of a recent breakfast meeting with Dave Snowden, head of the Cynefin Centre and thought leader on complex systems and narrative and their application in business.

Last week I attended a breakfast presentation by Dave Snowden of the Cynefin Centre in Toronto. He provided us with an entertaining recounting of his disenchantment with traditional consulting and his realization why most of what management and experts and consultants try to do in organizations has no significant, durable impact whatsoever. As he described his learnings and discoveries about complex adaptive systems and how pervasive they are in our business and personal lives, I began to realize that appreciating enterprises, organizations and systems as (mostly) complex rather than merely complicated is more than just a basis for re-framing business methodologies, it is a completely different way of sensing and dealing with the world. It changes everything. Here are just a few of the extraordinary paradigm shifts that this reframing provokes:

Complicated World Complex World
Assumption of order (“research this to find out if there’s a market for it” Realization of unorder (“let’s explore what might happen if we did this”)
Importance of aggressiveness and charisma to “lead the change” Importance of collaboration and humility to participate in the evolution
Actions driven by authority-based direction Actions based on learnings from conversations, consensus and freedom to act bounded by personal responsibility
Top-down hierarchical communication and knowledge transfer Peer-to-peer (networked) communication and knowledge transfer
Military win/lose competitiveness Natural win/win cooperation and coexistence
Emphasis on action (making decisions quickly and ‘expertly’) Emphasis on paying attention (making decisions continuously, improvisationally)
Assumption of rational choice (“tell people why they should buy X”) Realization of entrained behaviour (“study people to discover if they might buy X”)
Primacy of objective reality (“what’s happening here”) Primacy of perception (“what do people think is happening here”)
Changing the way things are Understanding why things are the way they are
Assumption of intention (“why did this happen”) Realization of meaning (“what do we learn from this”)
Assess causality Look for pattern and correlation
Focus Experiment
Leadership is everything Membership is everything
Strive for stability Strive for resilience
Exploit weaknesses, opportunities, needs via speed-to-market Explore weaknesses, opportunities, needs via continuous environmental scan
Mechanistic (machine) models of behaviour, relationship, order, connection Organic (natural) models of behaviour, relationship, order, connection
How do we solve the problem How do we deal with the situation
Set “go-to-market” mission, objectives, strategies, actions Understand the market and actors’ identities and influence the attractors and barriers that bring the market to you
Market as rational Market as emotional

Here are some of the highlights (to me) of his presentation:

  • Innovation today is driven by networkers, not by scientists or marketers
  • Networks are only as good as their perceived trustworthiness, reciprocity and quality (personal value of contacts)
  • ‘Edge Cultures’ like Singapore, New Zealand and Canada are using the networked economy to become highly innovative, both because they can and because they must
  • Management science is finally getting more like real science, through the use of complex adaptive systems theory, cognitive science, and anthropology etc.
  • Taylor’s mechanistic view of organizations and markets dominated management science for a century, and was still evident recently in the passion for business process reengineering
  • Senge et al (learning organization, systems dynamics) challenged the mechanistic aspects but not the hierarchical aspects of Taylorism (people were still expected to align themselves to the strategy, not the other way around); DNA and information ecology metaphors were first used by this group
  • <>Then knowledge management challenge the Taylorist model further (saying people can’t be ‘reengineered’), but too much of the initial KM focus was on the futile effort to make tacit knowledge explicit (“expecting you to learn how to ride a bicycle by reading the manual”), and because codifying knowledge erases most of its context (“You can teach in three days what it takes three years to write in a book” (and the context-rich hands-on teaching is more effective)

  • KM began to realize that informal networks are far more important than the ones on the organization chart, and to realize that the most innovative people are under 25 (few preconceptions on how things should be done) and over 45 (time and perspective to become aware of alternatives)
  • Narratives (stories) are the only effective mechanism for translating concrete (hands-on) knowledge into abstract (codifiable) form, and are also very motivating (e.g. power of myths)
  • KM has recently spawned a new discipline Narrative Inquiry to understand through large collections of anecdotes the true nature of the market (they catch ‘weak signals’ that questionnaires and focus groups etc. miss)
  • KM has also spawned a new surge in Non-Hypothesis Based Research, where direct observation with no preconception is used (a form of anthropology) to acquire learnings
  • There is an increasing awareness that dominant companies lose their position because their cultural filters blind them to much real knowledge, as happened to IBM when they passed up early adoption of the PC and the innovations that led to Sun’s and Microsoft’s successes (this is entirely consistent with Lakoff’s and Lappe’s framing theories, except it is applied to organizations and management rather than to individuals)
  • This use of narrative-based, Non-Hypothesis Based Research actually costs less than traditional analytical hypothesis-testing methods, and produces far more innovation opportunities
  • Such research can be made even more powerful by the use of Alternative Simulations, a technique that involves asking people to imagine what would have resulted if something happened in history that didn’t really happen, and which allows preconceptions and blind spots to be overcome, so participants can begin to ‘think ahead’ from the patterns found in the true anecdotes that come out of Non-Hypothesis Based Research
  • Such thinking is needed to deal with what Dave calls the impending “demographic time bomb” (far too few companies are thinking ahead to the needs of a much older market population)
  • There is a big difference between creativity and innovation — the latter requires starvation because it entails risk and unorthodox thinking that are rarely tolerated until there is no alternative (this is consistent with Christensen’s observations about disruptive innovations, which I wrote about on Wednesday)
  • The adoption of complex adaptive systems theory seems to be currently strongest in the pharma, telecom, defence and banking industries
  • The current focus of this theory is on what Dave calls ABIDE: Attractors, Boundaries, Identities, Dissent, and Environment; its objective is to get executives thinking about how to have an impact on complex systems by changing attractors (the people, groups, qualities and benefits that attract stakeholders) and removing or changing barriers (the conditions that impede or inhibit stakeholders) in stakeholders’ various personal identities, rather than focusing on traditional ‘complicated’ systems approaches like missions, strategies and objective-setting

Dave uses this story to illustrate why ABIDE works better than traditional approaches in complex situations::

Imagine organising a birthday party for a group of young children. Would you agree a set of  learning objectives with their parents in advance of the party? Would you create a project plan for the party with clear milestones and empirical measures of achievement? Would you start the party with a motivational video or use PowerPoint slides? No, instead like most parents you would create barriers to prevent certain types of behaviours (“the bedrooms are off-limits”), you would use attractors (party games, toys, videos) to encourage the formation of beneficial, largely self-forming identities; you would disrupt negative patterns early to prevent the party becoming chaotic or necessitating the draconian imposition of authority. At the end of the party you would know whether it had been a success, but you could not define (in other than the most general terms) what that success would look like in advance.

If you think the example is unfair because it refers to children, just substitute ‘cocktail party’ for ‘children’s party’. The point is that we see a complex situation as a merely complicated one, we form an exaggerated sense of our understanding of the system and what could happen, our knowledge of all the variables and their causal relationships, and our control over the situation, and so our behaviour doesn’t ‘make sense’, sometimes with terrible consequences. In every situation there are attractors and barriers over which we have some control and many others over which we have none. So rather than being presumptuous, making inaccurate assumptions and setting naive objectives, we should focus on the attractors and barriers we have some control of, pay attention to what’s happening, what’s possible and what’s needed, and improvise sensibly to optimize the situation. As in the party example above, we often have a lot more control over the initial conditions than we have over eventual outcomes, and we should use that to advantage.

I hope to be able to write about some specific business applications of this approach soon, and I suspect it will play an important role in the design and operation of AHA! The Discovery and Learning Centre.

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6 Responses to Breakfast with Dave Snowden and an Epiphany

  1. Martin Roell says:

    Dave, thank you for writing this up! It is beautiful to be able to learn from you and Dave Snowden in this way.

  2. I have linked to this post on my weblog. My point is that the notion of identities, attractors, and barriers is very much akin to improv and its long form the “Harold” (see link in post). The problem many of us confront in areas like educational reform is that we have to recreate the wheel, but we don’t. The ‘unordered systems’ are already in place; they arise from the natural creative systems that our brain is. The question I want to answer is this: how did so many pathologies (read almost all school-type systems) develop? Thanks for the most thought provoking post and links. I am ‘eating’ it up like a snake–whole. Now to find a quiet place to digest for a few months.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    Delicious .. and why I stopped being a management consultant .. and also why I think “wirearchy” may become a real word some day in the distant future.Much to be unlearned, undone, re-learned and rebuilt … not re-engineered.

  4. Hi Dave, thank you for coming to the breakfast with Dave Snowden, 27 May. Also, thanks for blogging about the event. You make some astute comments on Dave’s point of view. As you know Complexity Management is about recognising when one has crossed a ontolgical boundary, say from complicated to complex, controlling the starting points of the engagement, identifying patterns – via narrative collection, stabilising the desired patterns and destablising the undesired patterns. It allows for the development of multiple perspectives on an intractable problem, a problem that is not going to be fixed by traditional linear management approaches. Phenomenology and Action Learning (in the Reg Revans tradition) are key to this type of consulting.Look forward to seeing you in the near future.Cheers,geri

  5. Gill Wildman says:

    Dave, what a refreshing viewpoint! Yours and Dave Snowden’s. I’d like to add to your points about consulting based upon complexity, where not just in KM, but also in the design industry we have been using observational techniques to understand people that elicit richer responses than the focus group allows. Designers are increasingly drawing on the power of deep interdisciplinary collaboration, and using this in their work with organisations to create innovation. We’re trained to take complex problems, turn them into scenario narrative forms and make them human facing and appropriately pleasurable to interact with. The growth of service design as a new form of designing experiences, rather than things bears this out, I think. Thanks again for blogging something so powerful.

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