All that jazz … making coherence coherent

One of the assertions I make quite often nowadays, is that we need to move from focusing on alignment, to focusing on coherence.  I’ve found it interesting that out of all the potentially controversial statements I make, this one seems to generate an inordinate amount of questions and disagreement.  It is understandable as this notion of needing alignment as become best practice dogma over the last few decades.    Most of us have never really thought about questioning this need for alignment.

Another problem is that “coherence” is not a familiar term, and it is hard to define.  We know when something is incoherent e.g. when someone has had one drink too many and their sentences no longer make sense. But, while we can intuitively recognise whether or not something is coherent or not, it is hard to articulate what coherence actually is.

Before we dive into this, a quick reminder about the importance of context.  One of the reasons why I find Cynefin so useful is the notion of bounded applicability that underpins it.  In ordered contexts (obvious and complicated domains of Cynefin) that are stable, where outcomes are known, causality is linear and we typically deal with technical problems,  alignment is necessary.  Without alignment, our linear processes can’t function properly and we are unable to co-ordinate.  In complex environments however, where we’re dealing with adaptive challenges and non-linear interconnectedness, alignment becomes problematic.  Here we need a requisite level of local diversity and even dissent in the system in order to have adaptive capacity.  In short, in these contexts we need coherence not alignment.   (I wrote about this in more detail in a recent post.)

So what is coherence?

According to the dictionary coherence is:

“the quality of being logical and consistent  OR the quality of forming a unified whole.”

synonyms include: consistency, logicality, good sense, soundness, organization, orderliness, unity

To my mind, while coherence is all those things, it is also much more.  I don’t feel that either of these definintions capture the true essence of how we use the word.

Those who’ve been following my writing for a while would know that I tend to think in metaphors and analogies.  I doubt I’d be able to describe any of the concepts I work with without analogies or stories.  I thought I’d try that approach to describe how I see the difference between alignment and coherence.

Pictures of coherence:

I came across the work of Ursus Wherli a while ago.  He is a Swiss artist with a very quirky sense of humor, known mostly for what he calls “tidying up” art.  His 2008 Ted talk is well worth watching.

The images he creates are perfect analogies to illustrate the difference between alignment and coherence.

Images by Ursus Wehrly

The images on the right are perfect examples of alignment.  Everything is neatly structured, linear, homogenous … aligned, but they make no sense.  The images on the left are messy, but they make sense.  They are coherent.

A musical analogy

A different analogy could be contrasting a symphony orchestra with a jazz band.  Here both make sense, but they are fit for different purposes.  In an orchestra, we focus on,  and need alignmen); in fact, the context is set up with governing constraints to ensure this alignment. Everyone literally has the same “hymn sheet”; the conductor’s role has overall visibility to co-ordinate and everyone knows when to play their assigned parts.  Each instrument grouping are seated in their own sections; they are able to practice separately and then come together and play in perfect unison because of this focus on alignment.  They are aligned to the purpose of replicating or interpreting the musical compostion to the best of their ability in a structured and disciplined way.  Improvisation is not welcome as it would break the alignment and the music will become incoherent.  They make beautiful music, but it is not fit for a context where responsiveness or adaptation is required.

A jazz band on the other hand functions within enabling constraints.  Genre, rhythm, musical patterns as well as organizing principles (e.g. take turns to improvise) create a context where the musicians can coherently improvise and co-create emergent, responsive music in the moment.  Without these constraints, e.g. if they all play in different keys, they would make noise … i.e. become incoherent.   This way of being is fit for complex contexts where we need to respond to a rapidly changing environment.  Where there are no existing musical compositions and where no conductor can have all the information to be able to co-ordinate.  Here, alignment is too rigid and constraining, i.e. it is not fit for the context.

In our organisations we have both contexts:  in those that are ordered we still need to focus on alignment; however, these contexts are increasingly being automated or at least require less attention.    In order to remain competitive and thrive in the new world of work, we need to focus our organisation design, leadership and strategic efforts on the complex contexts and create the conditions for coherence.  This will require a tolerance for ambiguity and a true value for diversity.  It will also require a shift from imposing governing constraints and control mechanisms to implementing enabling constraints to facilitate emergence.

I will explore this more deeply in my next post which will introduce the Waysfinder framework I have been working on for the last few years.
If you have examples or analogies for coherence, I’d love for your to share them in the comments section.

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3 thoughts on “All that jazz … making coherence coherent

  1. The analogy I was thinking about is some part I recognize when diving at coral reef for instance. The small (and some times bigger fishes) ability to move from “shoal-formation” to “school-formation”. Don’t know if you’ve seen it but that’s awesome.
    Fishes swims in large groups with some kind of coherence, when attacked or when some meals are served, they change the shape into another mode. Both are for survival, but used in different context. Any thoughts?

    1. Thanks Jim. I often use starline murmurations as an analogy for coherence, which seems similar to what you are describing. The flock of birds and school of fish remains coherent, even while shapeshifting. So in short, I like your analogy!

  2. Hi. I have observed children in a standard classroom, sitting at their tables and aligning their behaviors and actions with the requirements from their teacher. Also I have observed children in a Montessori environment where the group is self-organizing around a spot, on the floor and is on continual evolution, both in structure/arrangement and topics discussed.

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