Coping with complexity

Disorder, says Dave Snowden, is an essential part of human life. The trick is to work with it rather than always try to impose order on it.
The man who heads IBM’s Cynefin (pronounced Kun-ev’in) Centre for Organisational Complexity at Cardiff University in Wales is in New Zealand talking about ‘organic knowledge management’ and why treating people as if they’re computers is doomed to failure.
It’s all to do with the fairly long-running romance we’ve been having with the idea of the rational mind and the belief there is always linear link between cause and effect. Computers are very good at linear thinking but humans have much better “peripheral vision”, says Snowden. They’re very good at seeing/sensing complex patterns of relationships – unless they’re trained out of it.
“One of the dangers of the current focus on rational empirical analytical thinking is that we’re training generation of people who only think like that. There’s standard joke: Will computers exceed humans in intelligence by the year 2020? The answer is yes – because we’re planning to meet them halfway.”
He wants to reverse this dumbing-down process by “de-toxifying” or retraining people out of rigid analytical processes and encouraging the use of tools and techniques that recognise and work with complexity.
“Part of the problem is that most management science can be traced 100 years back to Frederick Taylor who took the ideas of Newtonian physics and applied them to management,” says Snowden. “It’s to do with efficiency, repeatability and standardisation which is very valuable applied to things like quality management but doesn’t work when applied to human interactions.”
Knowledge management (KM), for instance. When it got under way in the mid-’90s, the concept was that people had all this valuable information which companies couldn’t own because it was inside their heads. So the idea was to download it – put it on databases where it could be turned into corporate asset, says Snowden.
“So you got this tacit/explicit knowledge concept in which we share tacit knowledge, which is then made explicit and is combined with other material which people read and it then becomes tacit again.
“It reminds me of using translation software – you take an English phrase, translate it into French, then back into English and after three iterations, it’s gobbledegook. Which is actually what happened to most of those big KM efforts over the past six years. They largely failed.”
One reason for that can be found in his three laws of KM.
“We always know more than we can say and can always say more than we can write down. So if you rely on written knowledge, you’re only dealing with partial representation of what people said and that’s dangerous.”
It helps explain why mentoring works, as do the old models of apprenticeship – because humans learn best by working alongside someone who has the expertise they want to acquire.
The tools and techniques being developed at Cynefin are based on complex adaptive systems theory, which has emerged from such areas as biology and chemistry. What Snowden calls the “science of many connected things” may show patterns of causality but they’re not repeatable – despite our desire to impose on them some “retrospective coherence”.
That, explains Snowden, is key phrase.
“Loosely translated it means when I look backwards it all makes perfect sense – but nothing makes sense in advance. The interesting thing about complex systems is no matter how often you look at the past, you can’t predict the future.
“For instance, once snowflake has formed, I can tell you how it formed… but it doesn’t mean I can predict what the next snowflake will look like because the pattern doesn’t form until it forms.”
There are cause and effect relationships in complex space, but they are unknowable because they are constantly changing and shifting. The whole is not the sum of the parts and has to be looked at from many different directions.
September 11 is good example of retrospective coherence. When people in the US look back through the lens of those events, they see bright red line connecting the dots – but they couldn’t predict it.
The analogy is very relevant one for Snowden who was running what turned out to be weirdly prescient workshop in the US immediately before the terrorists struck and is now involved in US$20 million project on dealing with “asymmetric” or uneven threat.
“Just two weeks after September 11, I had to get group of American policy makers to see the event from an Islamic perspective. It was difficult experience.”
He used narrative tool called resonance – using story (in this case the Americans as “terrorists” in the 18th century war of independence against English dominance) that helps create recognition of/empathy with different viewpoint. Part of the Cynefin approach, it’s powerful means of reframing or shifting existing thought patterns, says Snowden.
The Cynefin model for dealing with organisational complexity can be applied to range of management issues ranging from knowledge management to strategy, decision-making, or the melding of two different organisational cultures.
It represents major re-think of traditional management methods and is finding receptive ears in smaller countries that understand the need for innovation, says Snowden. Like New Zealand, for instance which is one of the countries piloting Cynefin’s global “paradox of culture programme”.
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