In the last year of applying Cynefin theory to my practice I’v e made a few conclusions about things. One of these is that what Dave Snowdon calls “pattern entrainment” is probably our achilles heel as a species. Pattern entrainment is the idea that once our brains learn something, it is very difficult to break that knowledge. And while we may be able to change our knowledge of facts fairly easily – such as admitting a mistake of a factual nature “you’re right, there is no 7:30 ferry after all!” – changing the way we make sense of facts is surprisingly hard.
It’s like water flowing into a whirlpool. The water coming into to the whirlpool is entrained into the pattern, and finds it impossible to escape.
For example, with the recent spate of massacres around the world, the social sphere has been full of people seeking answers. And the kind of answers people are seeking are firmly rooted in an entrained set of patterns of how we make sense of and solve many problems in the world: linear causality.
A belief that there is a clear set of steps that solves things like gun violence or war assumes a kind of order that isn’t there. Dave Snowden points out that our ability as humans to see in retrospect how something came to be leads us to believe that if we just get the steps right going forward, then we can prevent future bad things from happening. All we need to do is put the right things in order and follow the plan.
This act of “retrospective coherence” fools us into believing that we know what to do, and because decision makers in the complex space of social problems rely on retrospective coherence to understand how we got to where we are, this particular assumption – that problems have a linear causality – has infected discourse, policy making and politics. In short, research and investigations show the chains of causes and effects. Policy recommendations often advocate solving problems the same way we make sense of them. And we can’t.
This is becoming quite dangerous now. A tendency and romance of simple and well ordered solutions has resulted in Donald Trump getting away with identifying Muslims and Islam as the sole cause of terrorism. This is an easy sell to people who have been made to feel afraid and convinced that all problems are solved with simple solutions. It is true that you can solve all problems with a simple solution – just kill everyone – but this is not an option in a humane and sustainable society. This is, however, the logical end point of a simplified, linear solution being brought to complex problems: it creates psychotic societies.
This is showing up everywhere. I am at the early stages of working with a client who is a service provider. The funders of her programs are starting to want to to see evidence that her work (and their money) is ‘shifting the needle’ on the large scale social problems she is addressing. Both the funder and the service providers are suffering at the moment from the idea that a well designed set of interventions will address the root causes of poverty and vulnerability in communities. This is impossible of course as these are effects that are the emergent properties of, among other things, an economic systems that is designed to create inequality. The service providers cannot change the system, and everyone is frustrated.
To really eliminate poverty, we need to change the economic system, because it is that of attractors and constraints that gives rise to the transactions and social relationships that create the emergence of poor communities and people. What the service providers are doing well is effectively addressing the effects of an economic system founded on inequality, and while vulnerability may be increasing, in many local places, service providers are making a real difference in economic security for individuals and families. It is only when we confuse this local act with systemic change that the problems appear. We do good work, but in the big picture nothing changes.
For strategy, and especially for non-profits and service organizations trying to bring about a better world, this is an achilles heel. If you and your funders both evaluate your work on the basis of macro indicators that are the result of a myriad of interacting causes at a myriad of scales, you will be shown to be ineffective. And yet the myth persists that we can simply choose actions with limited resources, prioritize a set of steps and achieve “a poverty free community.” The failure to reach this goal is dispiriting to all involved, and it doesn’t have to be.
Non-profits and funders need to address the pattern entrainment that creeps into policy making and program design. We need to understand the proper role of a linear causality analysis and begin to take a more sophisticated, multi-pronged and complexity based approach to social problems. Seeking single answers to complex problems reveals much about the pattern entrainment and confirmation biases of people. It does very little to actually change these dynamics, and as a result, we can find ourselves stuck in a whirlpool, trying more and more things and getting further and further away from the world we’re wanting to create.
I think you’re explaining a really important idea, and it’s definitely a real thing that needs to be considered when looking at systems and why they don’t change. I talk about the problem in a slightly different way in terms of “attachment” and “interest” at https://realkm.com/2015/11/10/how-to-change-peoples-minds/.
But I don’t think we should be so pessimistic about the ability to individuals and small organisations to make systemic change in complex systems. We need to build in a recognition of the futility of linearity, yes; but it’s too defeatist to say that change in complex systems is impossible.
Cory Doctorow is a sci-fi author who (not so subtly) takes today’s systemic problems and magnifies their effects so that they become highly oppressive. His stories are mostly about leveraging systemic change through the (nonlinear) actions of a few motivated individuals.
No system is completely stable. There are always points where less effort can produce greater results, places to “hack the system” as Doctorow would put it. Non-profits do need to be comfortable with the idea that any given sequence of events isn’t guarantee to succeed. Nonetheless, they could improve their effectiveness by recognising that in any given systems environment, some actions are more likely to succeed than others.
thanks for the comment. I’m not at all pessimistic about making change; I’m sorry that comes across. I think I say that people don’t have to be worried if they don’t have big hairy audacious goals. the reason for that is that working with complexity essentially means making bets on how the system will evolve and helping it go that way. So in that sense work done in coherence with, for example, large patterns such as the social determinants of health will likely be effective in some way. You cannot predict if that will shift the system overall, but it will make a difference at scale and that is in some ways more important.
As for changing people’s minds, this comes from another principle I have been learning in complexity: enacted cognition. If you want to change people’s minds, you need to change the physical environment in which they work. If you need to change your diet, it is not enough to be equipped with information no matter how high your commitment is. The best way to change your diet is to shop at a new store and create a new set of patterns for moving through that store so that you only “see” the food that you are looking for and not the food that caused you health problems in the first place. Information is important, but enacting your thinking in a new physical space is important too. This is why we choose not to innovate around the Board room table.
I have several comments.
First, you point out that funders have become ROI obsessed. They want to see that their money is being put to good use. Fair enough. But, shame on the NGO for not negotiating the terms of satisfaction (or how the ROI will be calculated), before they took the money. If the ROI was to be measured as “the end of poverty,” then stupid funder. If the ROI is more nuanced and as you point out less global, then both sides win. Money is put to work. Good work is done. Lives improve. We can measure this. Rinse and Repeat.
Second, funders with global ambitions should be working on a different scale. Bill & Melinda Gates go after big problems with big money. They attack problems in a non-linear fashion. As you point out, this is the only way these problems can be solved. Not by repeating old mistakes or old misunderstandings. Good work can be done. Amazing results can be achieved. But again, the results are watched carefully and money is doled out in phases. Funding of the next phase is dependent on the success and failure of your project’s results and the results of other funded projects. It is a highly competitive, and it needs to be. These are hard problems to solve. But these problems are attacked not by looking at the past or current behavior, but by looking for breakthroughs.
Lastly, this NY Times article is focused on a similar issue. “Lessons of the Past Hint at Hurdles in Fight to Stop ISIS. “(http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/09/world/middleeast/lessons-of-the-past-hint-at-hurdles-in-fight-to-stop-isis.html) I believe the author agrees with your key point – winning the war on drugs or cancer or defeating ISIS is going to require much more than “retrospective coherence.”
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