“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Jonathon Gray, Director of Ko Awatea and I recently spent 4 days in Wellington getting our minds stretched, and occasionally our hackles raised (perhaps they are an inevitable pairing?) as we were taken on a deep dive into the world of complexity and how to work with it.
Much of the mainstream wisdom on managing and improving organisations tells us to look around for best and good practice examples in other organisations on which to base our designs for a better one for our own. In other words the approach is to create an idealised future state and then develop strategies to close the gap between our current and this idealised future state. The compelling metaphor here is one of “engineering” our future.
However, very often the things we plan to change in this way lead to frustration and disappointment. Well known research tells us that 70% of organisational change efforts fail. Is it perhaps because, as Mark Twain’s quote above suggests, what we think we know about how to change our world just isn’t so?
Underlying the mainstream approach to change – engineering a preferred future state – is the assumption that our world is ordered and that we can control cause and effect relationships at will. This idea that there is a discernable cause and effect relationship that structures our current state and that change is simply about engineering new ones means that when we fail to establish this new future state we blame our tools – and in particular people – rather than question the deep assumptions that shape this traditional approach to change.
The new approach that we have been immersed in at this workshop is premised not on a look to the future but a very detailed and particular look at the present. This approach means giving up the assumption of order, in the sense of control, to discover a deeper sense of order; an order of patterns. While these patterns cannot be controlled in a deterministic fashion they can be influenced. And while we can influence them in the sense of disturbing these patterns we cannot predict with certainty, the effect of our influence.
The language and the tools of this new approach are very different to those with we are familiar. The language comes from the science of complexity and the tools function to help us discover possibility rather than establish certainty.
The tools are focussed on developing a heightened state of anticipatory awareness of the evolutionary potential of the present. We change our current system by “working with” rather than “dealing to” our system.
The tools help us discover weak signals present in our current system that we either want to encourage – a strategy known as “amplification” – or discourage – a strategy known as “dampening”.
The raw data for this is qualitative rather than quantitative in nature; it comes from narrative not numbers. And so the key heuristic that informs this approach to change comes in the form of a question that shapes strategy: “how can we have more of these stories and fewer of those stories?”
There is an amusing video clip (below) that uses a metaphor of organising a child’s birthday party that caricatures the difference between the mainstream approach to change and one predicated on complexity.
Jonathon and I are convinced there is a great unifying theory to help us all make sense of everything we do at Ko Awatea, buried in the structure of the Cynefin Framework described in the diagramme below.
Our job now is to help share what we have learnt with you, start to apply the learning in the things we all do and use the framework to help us understand and promote the work we do to others.
Campaign Manager, Ko Awatea