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Calculating upon the unforeseen

whiskey river, for many many years, one of my regular blog reads, has been sharing some good stuff from Rebecca Solnit’s book A Field Guide For Getting Lost.  Here’s something from today:

“How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.”

I think this will be something of a theme for me in the work I am doing over the next year, as it has been in one way or another over the past 15.

Travelling on Christmas Day

Every Christmas Day, our nuclear family heads off Bowen Island to travel into Vancouver and celebrate with cousins and grandparents, feasting, gift giving, hanging out and catching up.  The weather is always different.  Some years the ferry ploughs through a fierce Squamish wind blowing down Howe Sound from the north and freezing salt spray covers the cars on the ferry deck.  Other years it is rainy and blowing from the southeast, as it was much of this month.  Once – only once in thirteen Christmases of doing this – did we have snow, and that was back in 2008 when the whole country experienced it’s first completely white Christmas in 37 years.  Alas, our little pocket of green on the west coast of BC is usually the reason why the whole country isn’t covered in snow.

This year, the weather was sunny and calm, about 8 degrees and the Queen Charlotte Channel between Bowen Island and Horseshoe Bay was like glass.  I stood at the front of the car deck on the soon to be overhauled Queen of Capilano and shot this little time lapse of the voyage, which normally takes under 20 minutes.  This is the first leg of every trip I do to anywhere in the world: across this gorgeous fjord.


Spellbound this morning watching Sean de hOra, a famous old Irish singer, performing his version of the Irish air Bean Dubh an Ghleanna (The Dark Woman of the Glen).  He is a gorgeous interpreter of the “sean nos” or old style of Irish singing, which is deeply emotional and moving evoking in the performer something of the duende that Lorca wrote about in flamenco.  In both flamenco and sean nos, there is a sense that supernatural creatures are near by, and there is tradition that links the singing of these songs to the kidnapping of the singer by fairies, so powerful is the song.

For these reasons – the weight of emotion being communicated and the fear of being lost – a tradition in sean nos singing is to have someone engage in “hand winding” with the singer and you can see this in this video.  It is a gesture of amazing empathy, and it brings the singer into the fullness of the expression of the song without him fearing being lost or taken away.

Here is Ciaran Carson:

In the ‘hand-winding’ system of the Irish sean-nós, a sympathetic listener grasps the singer’s hand; or, indeed, the singer may initiate first contact and reach out for a listener. The singer then might close his eyes, if they are open (sometimes he might grope for someone, like a blind man) and appear to go into a trance; or his eyes, if open, might focus on some remote corner of the room, as if his gaze could penetrate the fabric, and take him to some antique, far-off happening among the stars. The two clasped hands remind one another of each other, following each other; loops and spirals accompany the melody, singer and listener are rooted static to the spot, and yet the winding unwinds like a line of music with its ups and downs, its glens and plateaux and its little melismatic avalanches.

What do you notice here?

Losing Dr. Brenda Zimmerman

As I have been diving into the worlds of complexity and especially the question of evaluation in the complex domain, one of the people on my list to meet was Dr. Brenda Zimmerman, who taught at York University.  News finally came through today that she died in a car accident on December 16.  Her work is summed up in this notice from the Plexus Institute:

Dr. Zimmerman is co-author of several books, including Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed, which she wrote with Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patton, and Edgeware: Insights from complexity Science for HealthCare Leaders, which she wrote with Paul Plsek and Curt Lindberg. She wrote the report “Complicated and Complex Systems: What would Successful Reform Medicare Look Like?” with Sholom Glouberman, published in 2002 by the Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada. She also wrote numerous book chapters, including “Generative Relationships: STAR,” with Bryan Hayday, in Glenda Eoyang’s book Voices from the Field, and she authored two chapters in the book On the Edge: Nursing in the Age of Complexity, by Curt Lindberg, Sue Nash and Claire Lindberg.

Curt Lindberg, a founder and former president of Plexus Institute and another of Dr. Zimmerman’s co-authors, called her death a tragic loss. Henri Lipmanowicz, a founder of Plexus and its Board Chairman Emeritus, said, “We were lucky to have known her. She was one of a kind. A beautiful and caring person.”

Michael Quinn Patton is an organizational development and evaluation consultant, and complexity scholar. “Without Brenda there would have been no Getting to Maybe book and no subsequent Developmental Evaluation book,” Patton said of the book he co-authored with Dr. Zimmerman and the pioneering book on evaluation he later wrote. He noted that Chapter 4 in Developmental Evaluation tells something of Dr. Zimmerman’s influence on his own work and on the evaluation field generally.

via Brenda Zimmerman: Complexity Scholar and Mentor to Many – Plexus Institute.

A huge loss to her family and friends of course, and to the field in general.

The bench that awaits the return of the light


The bench at Killarney Lake on Bowen Island that looks out across a rock and the calm surface of this afternoon’s gloaming.  I love the word “gloaming.” It refers to the dusky twilight that is practically what passes for daytime now, so close to the solstice, when the grey clouds that envelop us dim the already weak northern daylight even further.  I love the cool air and the damp and wet, I love the contrast of walking into a friend’s house full of the smells of spiced ginger tea and welcomed with warmth.  I love that we can huddle together against the chill to sing, as we did tonight with our local men’s and women’s Threshold Choirs, wrapped in blankets in a yurt, singing chants we practice for singing to the dying, accompanied by the random percussion of the rain.

I am built for gloaming of Advent, a northern soul, a winter lover, one who can wait and wait and wait for the returning of the light, for the summer’s long in breath that begins a 2:03 on Sunday afternoon.

Until then, enjoy some other amazing gloaming.

How the Harvard MBA model fails the world

Henry Mintzberg revisits some of his research and conclusions about the methods used to teach MBAs at Harvard, and his conclusions point to the near complete saturation of analysis and control that now drowns the business, government and non-profit world:

When I studied management across the river in the 1960s, at the MIT Sloan School of Management, the Harvard Business School was just as renowned as it is today. But it was weak in research—in fact some of its prominent faculty derided research. The turnaround since then has been quite remarkable. In the areas I know, Harvard’s faculty is fantastic, especially in the ability of many to relate concrete issues to conceptual understanding. Too bad that they have to devote so much of their teaching efforts to a method—and its view of management, like that of other business schools so concentrated on analysis–that is doing such great harm to our organizations and the societies in which they function (see

We are mired in a heroic view of management (now called leadership)–centralized, numeric, individualistic and often narcissistic–that is too often detached from what is supposed to be managed. People who believe they can manage everything often prove themselves capable of managing nothing. We don’t need generic managers; we need engaged ones. The problem has been bad enough in the private sector; its infiltration into other sectors of society is far worse. Do NGOs need “CEOs”, business models, strategic plans, measures galore, and all the rest? Harvard and most other business schools have to be doing better than that.

via The Harvard 19 | Henry Mintzberg.

What happens at places like Harvard matters, because it sets the standard for what passes as responsible management in organizations.  And there are many fatal flaws with the way Harvard teaches business, and those are magnified and distorted in the hands of the amateur quant jockeys that reduce everything to numeric analysis.  This is the finest and most concise articulation of this problem I have read in a while and it matters that it is Henry Mintzberg who is saying it.

Disintermediated sensemaking

2014-11-25 20.43.23

Hmmm…maybe I should have let the group do this…

When I popped off to London last week to take a deep dive into Cognitive Edge’s work with complexity, one of the questions I held was about working with evaluation in the complex domain.

The context for this question stems from a couple of realities. First, evaluation of social programs, social innovation and other interventions in the human services is a huge industry and it holds great sway. And it is dominated by a world view of linear rationalism that says that we can learn something by determining whether or not you achieved the goals that you set out to achieve. Second, evaluation is an incredibly privileged part of many projects and initiatives and itself becomes a strange attractor for project planning and funding approval. In order for funders to show others that their funding is making a difference, they need a “merit and worth” evaluation of their funds. The only way to do that is to gauge progress against expected results. And no non-profit in its right mind will say “we failed to achieve the goals we set out to address” even though everyone knows that “creating safe communities” for example is an aspiration out of the control of any social institution and is subject to global economic trends as much as it is subject to discrete interventions undertaken by specific projects. The fact that folks working in human services are working in a complex domain means that we can all engage in a conspiracy of false causality in order to keep the money flowing (an observation Van Jones inspired in me a while ago.) Lots of folks are making change, because they know intuitively how to do this, but they way we learn about that change is so tied to an inappropriate knowledge system, that I’m not convinced we have much of an idea what works and what doesn’t. And I’m not talking about articulating “best practices.”

The evaluation methods that are used are great in the complicated domain, where causes and effects are easy to determine and where understanding critical pathways to solutions can have a positive influence on process. in other words, where you have replicable results, linear, summative evaluation works great. Where you have a system that is complex, where there are many dynamics working at many different scales to produce the problems you are facing, an entirely different way of knowing is needed. As Dave Snowden says, there is an intimate connection between ontology, epistemology and phenomenology. In plain terms, the kind of system we are in is connected to the ways of knowing about it and the ways of interpreting that knowledge.

I’m going to make this overly simplistic: If you are working with a machine, or a mechanistic process, that unfolds along a linear trajectory, than mechanistic knowledge (problems solving) and interpretive stratgies are fantastic. For complex systems, we need knowledge that is produced FROM the system and interpreted within the system. Evaluation that is done by people “outside” of the system and that reports finding filtered through “expert” or “disinterested” lenses is not useful for a system to understand itself.

Going into the Cynefin course I was interested to learn about how developmental evaluation fit into the complex domain. What I learned was the term “disintermediated sensemaking” which is actually the radical shift I was looking for.  Here is an example of what it looks like in leadership practice.

Most evaluation uses processes employing a specialized evaluator undertaking the work. The problem with this is that it places a person between the data and experience and the use of the knowledge. And it also increases the time between an experience and the meaning making of that experience, which can be a fatal lag with strategy in emergent systems. The answer to this problem is to let people in the system have direct experience of the data, and make sense of it themselves.

There are many many ways to do this, depending on what you are doing. For example:

  • When clustering ideas, have the group do it. When only a few people come forward, let them start and then break them up and let others continue. Avoid premature convergence.
  • When people are creating data, let them tag what it means, for example, in the decision making process we used last weekend, participants tagged their thoughts with numbers, and tagged their numbers with thoughts, which meant that they ordered their own data.
  • Produce knowledge at a scale you can do something about. A system needs to be able to produce knowledge at a scale that is usable, and only the system can determine this scale. I see many strategic plans for organizations that state things like “In order to create safe communities for children we must create a system of safe and nurturing foster homes.” The job of creating safe foster homes falls into the scope of the plan, but tying that to any bigger dynamics gets us into the problem of trying to focus our work on making an impact we have no ability to influence.
  • Be really clear about the data you want people to produce and have a strategy for how they will make sense of it. World Cafe processes for example, often produce scads of data on table cloths at the centre of the table, but there is often so little context for this information that it is hard to make use of. My practice these days is to invite people to use the table cloths as scratch pads, and to collect important data on post it notes or forms that the group can work with. AND to do that in a way that allows people to be tagging and coding the data themselves, so that we don’t have to have someone else figure out what they meant.
  • Have leaders and teams pour over the raw data and the signification frameworks that people have used and translate it into strategy.

These just begin to scratch the surface of this inquiry in practice. Over the next little while I’m going to be giving this approach a lot of thought and try it out in practice as often as I can, and where the context warrants it.

If you would like to try an exercise to see why this matters try this.  the next time you are facilitating a brainstorm session, have the group record dozens of insights on post its and place them randomly on a wall.  Take a break and look over the post its.  Without touching the post its, start categorizing them and record your categorization scheme.  Then invite the group to have a go at it.  Make sure everyone gets a chance to participate.  Compare your two categorization schemes and discuss the differences.  Discuss what might happen if the group were to follow the strategy implicit in your scheme vs. the strategy implicit in their scheme.

How to work with a complex system: lessons from an Osteopath

My mate Geoff Brown has a great post on complexity in practice as he aimed to get well after an injury.  This is a fantastic story.

After a couple of session of observations, conversations about pain sites, work habits and past physical/medical history, my Osteopath discovered a complex pattern of underlying, causal factors that contributed to my injury. Together, these factors like tight hamstrings and assymetrical posture interact with each other to create an emerging pattern of dysfunction. Translated to English = the many little problems with my body mechanics create weaknesses that make me more vulnerable to injury.  So, like in all complex systems watch the Wolf in Yellowstone National Park video below the underlying cause of my sudden injury is not that clearcut. The remediation of these multiple factors is even more complex.

Hope you’re feeling better Geoff!

via How to work with a complex system – lessons from an Osteopath | Tangent Consulting.

The daughter’s pretty good, eh?

My daughter Aine is a musician.  She is a singer and also a songwriter and she loves collaborating.  She has a Soundcloud channel where you can hear some of her stuff accompanied by herself on guitar.  And while she is pretty good on guitar, it’s really cool to hear what happens when she works with a collaborator, in this case her friend Zach Brannon, a local shredder from here on Bowen Island.  They’ve been working on an album together and have just reeased an acoustic version of a new song called “Not Afraid to Cry.”

It’s pretty good.

Nuanced preferences instead of voting for sense making

St. Aidens pref


This afternoon I’m coming home after a morning running a short process for a church in Victoria, BC.  The brief was pretty straightforward: help us decide between four possible scenarios about our future.  Lucky for me, it gave me an instant application for some of the stuff I was learning in London last week.

The scenarios themselves were designed through a series of meetings with people over a number of months and were intended to capture the church’s profile for its future, as a way of advertising themselves for new staff.  What was smart about this exercise was the fact that the scenarios were left in very draft form so there was no way they could be confused for a “vision” of the future.  It is quite common in the church world for people to engage in “visioning exercises” to deal with the complex problems that they face, but such visions are doomed evermore to failure as the bigger organization is beginning to enter into a period of massive transformation and churches are suffering from all kinds of influences over which they have no control.

Visioning therefore is not as useful as selecting a lens through which the organization can make some decisions.

Each scenario contained some possible activities and challenges that the church would be facing, and the committee overseeing the work was charged with refining these down to a report that would, to use my own terms, be a collection of heuristics for the way the organization would act as it addressed future challenges.

Our process was very informed by some thinking I have been doing with Dave Snowden’s “Simple rules for dealing with complexity.”  Notably principles about avoiding premature convergence, distributing cognition and disrupting pattern entrainment.  Furthermore, the follow up work will be informed by the heuristic of “disintermediation” meaning that the team working on the project will all be working with the raw data.  There is no consultants report here.  The meaning making is still very much located with the participants.

So here was our process.

  1. At small tables of four, participants were given 5 minutes to read over the scenarios silently.
  2. We then entered a period of three 15 minute small group conversations on the topic of “what do you think about these scenarios?” Cafe style, each conversation happened with three different groups of people.  I was surprised how much introduction was going on as people met new folks.  The question was deliberately chosen not to be too deep or powerful because with a simple question, the participants will provide their own depth and power.  When you have a powerful need, you don’t need to contrive anything more powerful than what people are already up for.
  3. Following the cafe conversations, a round of silent reflection in which people were given the following direction.  “Express your preference for each of the scenarios on a scale of 1-7.  Seven means “Let’s do it” and one means “No Way.”  For each scenario write your preference on your post it and write a short sentence about the one concrete thing that would make your vote one point higher.”  So there is lots in this little exercise. First it’s a way of registering all of the objections to the scenarios without personalizing them.  Secondly it gets at concrete things that the team can do to improve scenarios and third it harvest preferences and not simple yes/no decisions which are not appropriate for this kind of work.
  4. At each table someone gathered all the posts its of the same colour and by colour folks came to the front and placed them on the scale.  Doing it this way meant that no one was sure whose preference was going where and it also meant that people couldn’t revise their post its once they saw how the preferences were being expressed.

The whole thing took about 75 minutes.

The result of this sense making was the chart you see above.  Two hundred pieces of finely grained information ordered by the people themselves.  The project team now has at least three things they can do with this material.

  1. They can recreate the scale, as each post it is colour and preference coded.  That way they have a rough idea of the scenario with the greatest support, and they can show anyone who wants to see metrics where we stand on the proposals.
  2. They can cluster post its for each scenario according to “work that will make it better” which means they don’t have to pay attention to the scale.  The scale is completely subjective, but each of these post-its contains one piece of concrete information to make the scenario better, so in some ways the numbers don’t really matter.  They can cluster these ideas by each scenario AND they can re-cluster them by each topic to give an idea of overall issues that are happening within the organization.
  3. If we wanted to go a step further, we could use these post it notes to do a number of Cognitive Edge exercises including a Cynefin contextualization (which would tell us which things were Obvious, Complicated and Complex (and maybe Chaotic) and we could also do some archetype extraction which might be very useful indeed for constructing the final report, which would stand as an invitation to thier new personal and an invitation to the congregation.