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Think anew, act anew #failfaire

Posted by RimaAlcadi Tuesday, November 5, 2013

by Rima Alcadi

Dave Snowden, seen here at IFAD’s FAILFaire,
is the founder and chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge,
a research network focusing on complexity theory in sense-making.
A great piece of advice that I offer today – if you have an hour available, don’t bother reading this blog and go directly to the real thing (click here for the complete intervention). Dave Snowden is a great speaker and his intervention is certainly worth listening to.

Dave kicks off with the concept of naturalising sense-making: how do we make sense in the world so that we can act in it? do we know enough to act? In development, we never know enough to act with certainty and we should build on the way people have evolved to be, rather than on how we would like them to be.

Systems thinking is different from complexity thinking. In systems thinking an ideal future state is defined and then there is an attempt to close the gap. In complexity thinking, the starting point is to describe where we are, and from there, determine what we can change. There is a fundamentally different shift in thinking – from an engineering approach to an ecological approach, whereby we manage the evolutionary potential of the present.

There are several techniques for sharing failure, Dave tells us. We have become very good at this since we recognise that avoidance of failure is a more successful strategy than imitating success. So the brain imprints failure faster than success. Dave describes three techniques for us:


  •  Displacement. Don’t tell people to tell the story of their own failure as they will gain it. Ask them to tell a story to show failure. If you ask people to tell a story of how things could fail, they will revert to the truth - as it is difficult to invent such stories out of the blue.
  •  Ritual. Rituals change cognitive paths in the brain. Changing costume changes the way people think, allowing people to do/say things they wouldn’t otherwise do/say.
  •  Process. In modern organizations, there are extensive rules about what you can and cannot do. Modern organizations are dependent on their employees to break the rules in order to get the job done! Most rules are to protect organizations against prosecution and not about what they are purportedly for. Dave underscore the importance of cognitive activation: when you break a rule, you need to use heuristics and you therefore become a lot more alert and thus a lot safer. Heuristics is a dominant control mechanism used by humans for conditions of insecurity and that allow for ambiguity.

Dave also delves into three key concepts:

  • Exaptation. Many things did not evolve for a purpose. It is not about survival of the fittest, but of the luckiest. A capability that evolved for one function exapts into another. Generalists can exapt better. Exaptation is a key process, especially in development.
  • Coherence. Coherence is neither empirically true nor a gut feeling – it is half way. We do something not because it is a good idea, but because it is coherent.
  • Complexity. Agency in human systems is more narrative-based than it is people-based. If you don’t understand the stories of a group you will not understand how they make decisions.

Systems can be orderly, chaotic or complex-adaptive. Orderly systems are rule-based. The more bureaucratic an organization, the more people have to work in order to make the system work despite itself. So failure is disguised and when it comes it is catastrophic. A huge amount of energy is invested on managing the system and there is massive inefficiency. Chaos, on the other hand is a system in which there are no constraints and complete randomness prevails. If chaos is understood, it can be used constructively. For example, there is a “wisdom of crowds”: averaging individual assessment of many knowledgeable people can bring to greater precision. In a complex adaptive system, the constraints modify the behaviour and the behaviour modifies the constraints. So here the constraints and the behaviours are co-evolving. Once a pattern forms from the interaction, it cannot be reversed. The system is constantly evolving, constantly changing.

In systems thinking, there are multiple drivers, and there is little or no evidence to understand what the causes are. Levels of uncertainty are very high and often, we are confusing correlation with causation. A complex adaptive systems is not causal, it is dispositional. We can measure its disposition to move in certain directions, but we cannot predict that pulling a certain lever will lead to a specific outcome.

How do we measure success without people defining in advance what success would be? Meaning is emerging and is not objective. People interpret stories differently. We need to start democratising the process of meaning making and cannot have only a few people interpreting meaning. “Meaning” needs to become a problematic word and stories should be captured in multiple languages, recognising that once a story is transcribed, we lose the meaning.

What are the implications?
Dave wraps up by quoting Lincoln’s famous phrase: “As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” We need to deal with high levels of uncertainty. It is not about creating failure but learning from it and learning before we have it. People can be triggered into a heightened state of alert when it is more likely that failure may happen.

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