February 19, 2018

Dave Snowden at TedX: A succinct overview of his groundbreaking work

I first met Dave in 2002 when we were both employed by IBM.  I remember experiencing an immediate resonance with his work, especially the inherent integrity of honoring context and not mindlessly applying best-practice recipes as the big consultancies tend to do.

It is now 16 years later, and it has been a privilege to be part of his journey, and to see the thinking and methods become more and more coherent over time.  This talk is an excellent resource for anyone who wants an introduction to the thinking, or who wants to introduce others to it.

In less than 18 minutes, Dave manages to introduce complex systems theory; tell the children's party story (3 mins 30 secs) and introduce a new theory of change based on the power of micro-narrative and vector measures enabled by Sensemaker (7 mins).

Watch it ... It's 18 minutes well spent.

Some stand-out nuggets:

On our over-focus on order and measurement (40 secs)

Order is hugely valuable to human beings, on a negative side a fear of chaos has been used to impose order unnecessarily and destroy creativity and freedom.

Over the last 40 or 50 years we've taken an engineering focus on society and an engineering metaphor. We've actually compounded order with excessive outcome based measurement. If you actually look at the history of last 40 or 50 years, everything has to have a target;  everything has to have a defined outcome and it has to be a number. Whether it's KPI’s, number of published papers or whatever else.  The reality is all of the scientific evidence says that when human beings are pursuing explicit targets it destroys intrinsic motivation, there is no evidence to contradict that. 

Where do we most need intrinsic motivation? In health and education. And where do we impose the worst targets? In health and education so we need to start thinking differently about this and move away from a primitive dichotomy.

On managing Complex Adaptive Systems (2 mins):

Complex adaptive system:  it's a system defined not by its structure by it by its connectivity. In a complex system everything is connected with everything else but many of the connections cannot be known. …

… Understanding how we manage them is critical and it's not about control it's about understanding the connections and changes in the linkages.

3 mins 30 secs: Children's Party Story

6 mins 30 secs:

… what we manage is the emergence of beneficial coherence within attractors within boundaries and we manage the only three things that you can manage in a complex adaptive system: the boundary conditions; the probes and the amplification strategy.

Management and governance is much simpler when you understand the nature of the system and you stop trying to treat an ecosystem as if it was an engineering problem when it's an ecological problem.

On micro-narrative and a new theory of change (7 mins 10 secs)

We need to understand what’s going on, and you can only understand a complex system by understanding the small particular parts of day-to-day interaction. For humans those are the anecdotal data of the school gate, the street stories, the beer after work; not the grand narratives of workshops but the day-to-day anecdotes of people's existence.

And we need to understand them through the voice of the people who tell them not through an AI machine interpreting the text or an expert making them fit their cultural expectations.

The people's own voice has to be subject to their own interpretation.

And then we need to allow those in power at any level of society to have direct access to the raw stories of the people they govern, without multiple levels of interpretation which allow them to hide from reality behind the guise of policy reports.

On change (nudging towards adjacent possibles) (15 min 40 sec)

… they can all nudge their systems in a direction appropriate to their context rather being subject to the tyranny of the average approach: the global campaign.

We need to start doing small things in the present rather than promising massive things in the future because that just leads to perpetual disappointment.

We are Dave's exclusive South Africa partners, so if you want to explore how to implement these ideas in your own context, please contact us to find out more.

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