December 6, 2013

Complexity, snake-oil and silver bullets

I just returned from a trip to London to experience the updated 4-day Cognitive Edge accreditation training and to meet some of the CE'rs I've known virtually for many years (like Michael Cheveldave and Peter Stanbridge) face to face.  Several new ideas were introduced, probably the biggest one being the renaming of the simple domain of Cynefin to "obvious".  

It's been interesting to reflect on my experience of hosting Dave in SA in October where we had an overwhelmingly positive response and seeing the response of international course participants in London.  If the positive reception we've been getting from senior executives (among others) is any indication, complexity certainly seems to have "crossed the chasm" in terms of adoption.  It is becoming increasingly mainstream, and while positive for those early adopters (like me) who've been struggling to convince decision-makers to do things differently for the last 10 or so years, it's also led to a proliferation of consultants wanting to "jump onto the complexity bandwagon".

The problem with complexity is that it is hard to accurately define it.  Dave used this quote from the Bible to illustrate:  "For now we see through a glass darkly ... now I know in part" - 1 Cor 13:12.  When it comes to complexity, we can definitely say what it's not, but not what it is.  It is not just an extension of systems thinking, and it is not the same as chaos theory.   For decision-makers and business in general, it requires a paradigm shift: a completely different way of thinking and seeing the world as well as completely different methods.  Old methods that have been slightly reworked and re-badged with complexity terms will not be effective.  Decision-makers need to beware of complexity "snake-oil salesmen" selling methods with no grounding in science.

There are also some who want to make complexity the solution to everything: a silver bullet.  While ordered systems approaches have overly dominated management thinking for the last few decades, we must be careful that the pendulum doesn't swing too far in the other direction.  Claims that everything is complex and therefore un-manageable;  that things should be left to spontaneously self-organize (which Dave satirizes to be similar to spontaneous combustion in human systems) and that management is now superfluous are dangerous.  

One of the things I've always appreciated about Cynefin is the idea of bounded applicability and multi-ontology sense-making.  One kind of system (and it's methods and approaches) is not privileged over another.  Order and un-order are equally valid.  The Key is to know which system you're in and to act appropriately.


One comment on “Complexity, snake-oil and silver bullets”

  1. Hi Sonja,

    Nice blog. I have one remark. IMHO "reality" even when seen from a single perspective, but certainly when from multiple, cannot be said to be obvious or complex or chaotic, but there are usually patches or aspects of reality that are one of those.

    So saying "Key is to know which system you’re in and to act appropriately." is in my view not the best advice. Rather I say to customers "which aspect | patch are we dealing with (also known as focus) and what is its nature: obvious, complicated, complex, chaotic.

    With this one doensn't separate "the system" and denote its status, one rather considers a certain aspect of the whole and acts accordingly.

    Hope this helps.

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