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If you are building a business case to use narrative techniques in your organisation, here are some great quotes to spinkle throughout the story you might tell your executive.
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Steven Johnson writes an essay in the New York Times pondering the future of writing with the availability of tools like DEVONThink. It helps you locate those ideas you managed to type into your computer and then promptly forgot by feeding the system a sentence of two, such as a paragraph from the new book you are writing. Steven tells us about the interesting new trains of though which have emerged using this approach.
If navigating complexity requires us to detect new and emerging patterns, tools which alert us to new connections and provide new perspectives will be valuable aids. As Johnson suggests, we are beginning to see our multiple intelligences augmented by a silicon one.
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Complex systems lack explicit boundaries. Any boundaries which exist are imposed by people who are attempting to constrain and simplify the system for a particular purpose and therefore these boundaries are artefacts affected by the designer’s biases, interests and vision. This is not bad situation, we just need to remain aware of how boundaries were set. Boundaries are essential because without them we are forced to consider an infinite number of connections—everything is connected to everything else—which is hopeless. Designers, therefore, need ways to define system boundaries which delineates the system in ways which are both relevant and manageable.
Typically, boundary definitions are set without thought. Designers rely on their intuition and make decisions like: “the culture change programme will focus on the call centre and we will concentrate on the managers’ viewpoints.” This decision leaves out other stakeholders such as the call centre operators and the human resources department in headquarters. Whenever boundaries are set people are left out. The question for designers is simply: “are we leaving people out for the right reason?” Boundary setting is the first important step in designing interventions for a complex system. A practical approach to boundary setting is a fundamental tool for complexity-base designers.
Weiner Ulrich (1983; 1996) provides a practical boundary-setting approach based on considering four types of stakeholder and asking three questions from the perspective of each. The four stakeholders are:
- clients—the people or groups who benefit from the interventions;
- decision-takers—those people who allocate the budget to implement the interventions; and
- planners—the people responsible for designing the interventions;
- bystanders—people affected by the decisions but not involved in the process (Ulrich called this type, the witness).
Ulrich suggests the questions be asked from two perspectives: what ought to be the answer and what is the answer. These questions can be summarised as having the following dimensions:
- client—1) sense of purpose; 2) clash of purposes;
- decision taker—3) control of resources; 4) lack of control (environmental conditions);
- planners—5) types of expertise; 6) likelihood of success; and
- bystanders—7) voice of the affected; 8) clash of worldviews.
Designers can run a simple workshop format with representatives from each stakeholder type. I have used a challenge-and-respond format combined with mixing people throughout the workshop to ensure we expose the maximum variety of viewpoints.
Setting boundaries in this way ensures the system is defined so that it is both relevant and manageable. Perhaps more importantly, it specifically includes a broad set of stakeholders in the improvement process. Complex problems never have a right or wrong answer. In fact it’s impossible to objectively measure whether a complex problem has been ‘fixed’. Rather, the stakeholder must believe that improvements are being made and this requires their active involvement in the intervention design and monitoring.
Ulrich, W. 1983. Critical Heuristics of Social Planning: A New Approach to Practical Philosophy. Bern: Haupt.
Ulrich, W. 1996. A Primer to Critical Systems Heuristics for Action Researchers. Hull: Centre for Systems Studies, University of Hull.
Thanks to Bruce McKenzie for putting me on to Ulrich’s work.
Filed in Communities of practice.
Farida Hasanali works at APQC and coordinates their communities of practice. She has written a series of interesting posts from a practitioner’s perspective. Farida covers ROI, IT support, roles, activities and all from a personal perspective.
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I’ve just been reading about wicked problems and I’m struck by the similarities between the characteristics of a complex system and how Rittel and Webber defined a wicked problem back in 1973. Jeff Conklin nicely summarises wicked problems as follows:
- You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution. Indeed, there is no definitive statement of "The Problem." The problem is ill-structured, an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints. Rittel said, "One cannot understand the problem with knowing about its context; one cannot meaningfully search for information without the orientation of a solution concept; one cannot first understand, then solve." Moreover, what "the Problem" is depends on who you ask – different stakeholders have different views about what the problem is and what constitutes an acceptable solution.
- Wicked problems have no stopping rule. Since there is no definitive "The Problem", there is also no definitive "The Solution." The problem solving process ends when you run out of resources, such as time, money, or energy, not when some optimal or "final and correct" solution emerges. Herb Simon, Nobel laureate in economics, called this "satisficing" -- stopping when you have a solution that is "good enough" (Simon 1969)
- Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong , simply "better," "worse," "good enough," or "not good enough." With wicked problems, the determination of solution quality is not objective and cannot be derived from following a formula. Solutions are assessed in a social context in which "many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge [them]," and these judgements are likely to vary widely and depend on the stakeholders independent values and goals.
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel. There are so many factors and conditions, all embedded in a dynamic social context, that no two wicked problems are alike, and the solutions to them will always be custom designed and fitted. Rittel: "The condition in a city constructing a subway may look similar to the conditions in San Francisco, say, but differences in commuter habits or residential patterns may far outweigh similarities in subway layout, downtown layout, and the rest." Over time one acquires wisdom and experience about the approach to wicked problems, but one is always a beginner in the specifics of a new wicked problem.
- Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation," every attempt has consequences. As Rittel says, "One cannot build a freeway to see how it works." This is the "Catch 22" about wicked problems: you can’t learn about the problem without trying solutions, but every solution you try is expensive and has lasting unintended consequences which are likely to spawn new wicked problems.
- Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions. There may be no solutions, or there may be a host of potential solutions that are devised, and another host that are never even thought of. Thus, it is a matter of creativity to devise potential solutions, and a matter of judgement to determine which are valid, which should be pursued and implemented.
And here is how I’ve roughly paraphrased Paul Cilliers description of complex systems:
- Complex systems have a large number of elements.
- The elements must interact.
- The interaction is fairly rich, i.e. any element in the system influences, and is influenced by quite a few other ones.
- The interactions are non-linear.
- Interactions have a short range, i.e. info is received primarily from immediate neighbours.
- There are loops in the interactions: positive and negative.
- Complex systems are usually open, i.e. they interact with their environment. Actually it is difficult to define the borders of a complex system. Therefore the scope is defined by the purpose and therefore influenced by the observer position.
- They operate far from equilibrium. Equilibrium equals death.
- They have histories. The past influences current behaviour. Must take account of time.
Each element is ignorant of the behaviour of the system as a whole, it responds to information available locally.
It is interesting that these two perspectives don’t make much reference to each other. While there is mention of social complexity in Jeff’s work, there is little said about complex systems from a complexity science perspective. On the other side I’ve never seen wicked problems or Rittel and Webber mentioned in the complex adaptive systems literature.
Rittel, H. & Webber, M. 1973. Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4: 155-169.
Cilliers, P. 1998. Complexity & Postmodernism. London: Routledge.
Conklin, J.; Wicked Problems and Social Complexity; http://cognexus.org/wpf/wickedproblems.pdf; 25 January 2005.
My first ‘real’ job was working as a research assistance at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies. We had a similar setup for our Tektronix terminals taking snaps of primitive geographic information systems.
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In our work to design complexity-based interventions our aim has been to create small initiatives, which in themselves are designed to address specific issues, that when taken together over time have a widespread effect on the broader system (organisation, division, team). Today I discovered Gareth Morgan’s description of essentially the same approach which he calls the 15% concept. Here are a couple of quotes:
Most people have about 15-percent control over their work situations. The other 85 percent rests in the broader context, shaped by the general structures, systems, events and culture in which they operate.
The challenge rests in finding ways of creating transformational change incrementally: By encouraging people to mobilize small but significant "15-percent initiatives" that can snowball in their effects. When guided by a sense of shared vision, the process can tap into the self-organizing capacities of everyone involved.
Gareth illustrates the approach with an example of education reform and the evolving relationship between teachers and parents within a school.
The key point is to get people identifying the 15% initiatives where they can make a difference and the broadscale transformation will emerge.
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The concepts of an attractor and strange attractor from complexity science can be difficult ideas to grasp, but I came across this metaphor by Bill McKelvey which you might find useful.
“As a metaphor, think of a point attractor as a rabbit on an elastic tether—the rabbit moves in all directions but as it tires it is drawn toward the middle where it lies down to rest. Think of a strange attractor as a rabbit in a pen with a dog on the outside—the rabbit keeps running to the side of the pen opposite from the dog but as it tires it comes to rest in the middle of the pen. The rabbit ends up in the ‘middle’ in either case. With the tether the cause is the pull of the elastic. In the pen the cause is repulsion from the dog unsystematically attacking from all sides.” (McKelvey,2004: 43)
McKelvey, B. 2004. “‘Simple rules’ for improving corporate IQ: basic lessons from complexity science.” Pp. 39-52 in Complexity Theory and the Management of Networks, edited by P. Abdriani and G. Passiante. University of Lecce, Italy: Imperial College Press.
For one month Edward Tufte is making available a chapter from his upcoming book, Beautiful Evidence. Tufte wrote 3 of my favourite books which I love because of their simple beauty and their insightful portrayal of how to best convey information with graphics: Envisioning Information , The Visual Display of Quantitative Information , Visual Explanations.
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Ken Baskin presented this paper at the 2004 International Workshop on Complexity and Philosophy. I haven’t had a chance to read the paper yet but the topic seems interesting.
Thanks to Fabio Boschetti at CSIRO for alerting me to this one.
Thanks to Bill Gibson for this one.
Filed in Communities of practice.
I totally agree with Mitch Kapor’s when he says:
“Open source heralds a global paradigm shift in social and economic value creation of enormous proportions, the extent of which is almost completely unappreciated.”
While Mitch admits he is going out on a limb with this statement, I think the simple idea of a distributed community parcelling work out work and collaboratively building an information source which, in turn, is valuable to the community that builds it, appears to be a model which can create significant value in an information economy. The key ingredient is the group development of an artifact which provides value back to the group. A positive feedback loop which we know sets the stage for interesting complexities and emergence.
The open source model, with some modifications, could also be applied to cultivating a community of practice. I’m a member of a community called ActKM, which is a group of people interested in knowledge management in the public sector. At the moment this group of more than 1,000 members simply passes emails to one another on YahooGroups. Imagine if an open source model was applied. The the group might identify a set of tasks they would like to have done for the community, such as building new tools to map knowledge. These tasks would result in an accumulating body of knowledge that would form the basis for new discussion. New comers would be referred to the knowledge base and be encouraged to update, modify based on the new perspectives they bring to the group.
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Dave Snowden frequently says: “Humans are not ants. We have ‘free will’ and can impose order on an otherwise complex system.” This sounded like a sound statement to me and I happened to mention the idea to Sue Blackmore while at a meeting of complexity scientists (and a ring-in like myself) in Canberra—we were considering how the theories of complexity and memetics might be combined. Sue scoffed at the idea and questioned whether human actually possess free will. BTW this link to Sue’s short statement on ‘free will’ is in response to a question by the Edge: “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” Some of the world’s great minds have made contributions (eg. Richard Dawkins, Stuart Kauffman, Daniel C. Dennett, Paul Davies, Howard Gardiner—120 in all). Sue has also address the topic in her latest book on consciousness .
Regard ‘free will’, I’m still not in a position to decide one way or the other, but the following thought rattles around in my head. Gary Klein has shown that many of our decisions are made without weighing the options (Sources of Power). Rather, when faced with a decision we match the situation with patterns from our experience, do a quick mental test to see whether they action might work, and if it makes sense, we take action. This doesn’t sound like free will.
Do you think we have free will?
Filed in Communities of practice.
Government agencies have for some time embraced the idea of communities of practice. Australia seems to be behind the US and Europe in adopting CoPs but it might be simply that Australians tend to avoid trumpeting their successes and agencies haven’t described their CoP activities. I’m personally aware of a number of CoP efforts in the following Australian government agencies, but to my knowledge they haven’t been publicly described:
- Australian Tax Office
- Victorian Department of Justice
- Department of Defence
- Department of Immigration
Do you know of others?
I decided to have a look on the web for other public sector cases studies. Here is what I found so far after a preliminary search.
Communities of Practice: A New Tool for Government Managers is an excellent 84 page report by William Snyder and Xavier de Souza Briggs. It describes 4 case studies, 3 are examples of interdepartmental CoPs and the fourth operates within an agency.
The mission of the Education Community of Practice is to:
The mission of the Education Community of Practice is to ‘promote and support the adoption of the philosophy, methods, tools and techniques of Excellence by all education organisations in Europe and the rest of the world to develop and share good practice amongst ourselves and the other networks we belong to’
The World Bank has 79 internal communities of practice they call Thematic Groups
The Department of Education for Northern Ireland has implemented a set of technology to support their community of practice initiative.
US Department of Navy and Defense Acquisition University have developed a Program Management CoP Risk Management Community. To quote from this article:
The PM CoP Risk Management Community, which currently has over 500 members including many of the top government and industry risk professionals, has developed just-in-time learning, collaboration, and performance support tools to improve overall on-the-job risk management performance.
If we are to see communities of practice widely adopted we will need access to more case studies. Decision makers need to know other organisations like their own are taking this approach and it is delivering benefits.
Do you have any favourite case studies that illustrate CoPs in government agencies?
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After hearing Dave Snowden describe the importance and application of stories in organisations for the first time, I became extremely excited by the idea and raced off to write a story. I was in the middle of a project helping a client develop a competitive intelligence capability and the engagement was exilarating. So I wrote the story based on that experience to illustrate some of the characteristics which I thought helped form a successful team. A couple of days later I showed this story to Dave and he simply said: 'You missed the point entirely. You've written your story. We are interested in collecting the stories which are currently told in the organisation and then we help the organisation make sense of them.'
Here is a copy of that story
I wrote. People have used it as a discussion starter in team building exercises.
I was chatting to Bill Godfrey today and we got onto the topic of Denham Grey's top 5 KM books. We were both surprised that Max Boisot's Knowledge Assets didn't get a guernsey. I have used Boisot's I-space a number of times to illustrate how commercial value might be derived from organisational knowledge. Bill has a review of the book and a full summary for those who are pressed for time. The summary sits behind a password protected section but I believe Bill is open to trial memberships of his system. Just send him an email.
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On the 1st March I will be offering a one-day workshop for particpants to learn the Cynefin narrative techniques. My aim is to provide all the nitty gritty detail you need to run your own narrative projects. The details of the workshop and registration form can be found here.
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Papers which provide practical advice on the design of complexity-based interventions for organisational issues are rare. E:CO (a new complexity journal) is attending to this shortcoming by including a practitioner’s section in its journal. In the latest volume, Glenda Eoyang presents her practitioner’s landscape based on more than 15 years of applying complexity science to organisational development and management practice.
The practitioner’s landscape is a matrix for categorising complexity-based tools and techniques. Its two dimensions are: 1) the conspicuousness of the issue of interest, which Eoyang calls the ‘phenomena’; and 2) the type of complexity-based techniques and tools in relation to its level of abstractness.
Phenomena—issue of interest
The dimension labelled ‘phenomena’ has three categories:
- surface structures which represent issues which are evident to anyone in the organisation such as interpersonal conflict, lagging sales and client dissatisfaction;
- evident deep structures which initially reveal themselves as a sense of disquiet or an uneasy feeling by people in the organisation that something is wrong but they are unable to detect the cause. With exploration, however, these patterns can be revealed and upon discovery make sense to the organisation;
- subtle deep structures where neither the instincts nor first order investigations yield explainable patterns. Here Eoyang (2004: 56) suggests more analysis is required: “The complexity of these situations transcends the capacity of one level of complexity tool and demands more subtle and/or complicated methods and models.”
There are four tool types starting from the least abstract (practice) and moving to the most abstract (mathematics):
- practice is the act of implementing an intervention and discovering the outcome without predicting, in fine detail, the outcome at the outset;
- descriptive metaphors use the rich language of complexity science, such as ‘attractors’, the butterfly effect and fitness landscapes, to help people see problems from new perspectives. These metaphors are simply ‘descriptive’ as they don’t attempt to accurately describe the human process in motion using complexity science.
- dynamic metaphors focus on the similarities between the underlying dynamics of the human system and other non-linear dynamical systems. It is interesting to note that like other authors writing on the application of complexity science to management practice (notably Ralph Stacey) Eoyang primarily views complexity science as a metaphor for human systems.
- mathematics which represents the many different mathematical models, such as agent based modelling, which simulate complex systems.
Eoyang wrote this paper specifically for practitioners to help them identify a range of different types of complex issues they might face in an organisation and assist them in selecting an appropriate tool.
Most importantly it provides a useful language for discussing organisational issues in a new way which will create quite different conversations. Solution designers will be asking questions to discern the depth and conspicuousness of the structures in operation and in doing so a greater awareness of the complex nature of many issues will be developed by decision makers. Hopefully this will lead to organisations investigating and applying techniques other than those which assume a rational, linear world.
This paper, however, subtly suggests that answers will come with the right amount and depth of analysis, applying the right technique. Here we must show caution. Complex systems are unpredictable, especially in the long-term. In many cases, the only option available to us is to act and see what happens. Eoyang describes this approach in the ‘practice’ toolset yet seems to contradict the principle in the ‘mathematics’ category where models are thought to be able to discover the subtle structures mostly hidden in the complex human system. Mathematical models are exception of discovering counter-intuitive phenomena which help understand a system but should only be viewed as simulations rather than predictors.
While it is important to introduce new and vibrant language in order to conceive new solutions based on complexity science, complexity based management practice will continue to be held back if we over complicate what we say. For example, rather than say, “These descriptions are based on apparent isomorphisms between chaotic or complex adaptive patterns in physical systems and emergent behaviour in human systems.”, say the descriptions are based on apparent similarities. Simple language will help the discipline being labelled a fad by the hard-nosed, battle-weary, managers who we must convince of its usefulness.
It will be interesting whether practitioners embrace this framework and begin to populate the matrix with examples of techniques and tools. It seems to me that many of the Cynefin techniques fit in the ‘practice’ and ‘descriptive metaphor’ categories and probably have been mostly applied to the ‘subtle deep structures’ issues such as understanding tax payer behaviour, occupational health and safety and the role of trust.
I believe this will be a useful framework which I will use to discuss issues with my clients.
Eoyang, G.H. 2004. "The practitioner's landscape." E:CO 6(1-2):55-60.
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E:CO is a new journal exploring the theory and practice of applying complexity science concepts to organisational issues. The entire content of the current issue is available online. Interestingly it includes a section called 'classic papers' featuring Ross Ashby's (Ashby's law a requisite variety) 1962 paper, Principles of Self-organizing Systems.
I think the following papers are some of the modern classics in this field.
Kauffman, S.A.and W. Macready. 1995. "Technological Evolution and Adaptive Organizations." Complexity 1(2):26-43.
Kurtz, C.and D. Snowden. 2003. "The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-making in a Complex-Complicated World." IBM Systems Journal 42(3):462-483.
Stacey, R.D. 1995. "The Science of Complexity - an Alternative Perspective for Strategic Change Processes." Strategic Management Journal 16(6):477-495.
What would you regard as ‘classic’ references in the field of organisational complexity?
There are relatively few available case studies that document projects using Cynefin techniques. I believe this will be remedied in the near future on the completion of the new Cynefin web site. In the meantime here is a brief description of a lessons learned project done by the Bank of Thailand which applied Cynefin narrative techniques. My friend and colleague, Warwick Holder, helped the BOT in developing their narrative skills on this project.
One view of the various flavours of knowledge management.
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Thanks for your comment Matt. I agree, the diagram does suggest that 'known' is a subset of 'knowable' etc., and this wasn't my intent. Here is a new version of the diagram.
The space between the boundaries indicates the breadth of possibilities. The wider the space, the greater the possibilities. In the complex domain it is impossible to explore the entire possibility space. There are just too many interrelated, potential outcomes. I have kept the angle of the complex boundary acute to depict the point that while the possibilities are large their is still a desired purpose in an organisational system.
Of course the question now is what do you do with this conception of the Cynefin framework. I think the most important outcome is how one designs projects/interventions depending on the nature of the problem one is facing. If the issue is 'known' then search for a best practice and apply it. If the problem is 'knowable' then investigate, analyse, search for good practices, and apply them.
The complex domain requires quite a different approach. As I have mentioned in a previous post, it is important to design small interventions and then monitor the results, which are largely unpredictable. It is like navigating a sailing boat across a rough sea. You set a course and then take stock of your current location, which is never quite where you expect it to be, before setting your next course. If your course is heading in the same direction as you roughly intend, then it is a succesful intervention. If, however, the intervention results in a course which heads in the wrong direction then you must quickly intervene to correct the error. Here is another diagram to illustrate this idea.
There is a growing interest in capturing employees stories using video or audio. Experienced employees are walking out the door and taking their knowledge with them, leaving little behind. Senior managers are rightfully concerned; especially in government. Understanding why policies are they way they are and knowing what has been tried and what has failed is vitally important.
The oral history tradition will have a significant impact on how organisations tackle collecting these experiences. An example in the news at the moment is the mammoth oral history project underway by the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. Their subject is Senator Edward Kennedy. Oral history techniques are well document and appear ideally suited to this task of capturing employee experience. But there is a danger to be aware of.
It appears that the oral history field is heavily influenced by journalism despite oral history practitioners drawing a distinction between the purpose of a journalist--getting a good story--and an oral historian--capturing information for historical interpretation. For example, whenever the topic of interviewing is mentioned, tremendous emphasis is placed on the interviewer preparing for the interview so that they might develop and ask the right questions. On this topic the Cynefin narrative techniques take a slight different approach.
Firstly the interviewer (we would call them a facilitator) would only make a cursory effort to familiarize themselves with the subject because we are concerned that the facilitator might quickly develop a view of the stories they would like to hear and then ask questions which don't prompt what is meaningful and important to the subject. So the question is, how does the facilitator jog the memory of the subject without predetermining the outcome? We do this by conducting the interview with a group of peers. The conversation that ensues helps the group remember important events, insights and experiences they have had which can then be recorded.