One of my favourite concepts from the complexity world is the fallacy of thinking that comes from the truth of retrospective coherence. The mistake is that, because we can look back in time to understand causes of our current condition, we can therefore see forward in time and affect the causes of a future condition. Complex systems are emergent, so we can never be sure what the future holds, regardless of how well we can trace how we got here.
Despite the fact that it is illegal to sell an investment instrument without the warning that “past performance does not guarantee future results” falling for the trap that retrospective coherence gives you a reliable path forward is basically a feature of doing any strategic work at all. It leads to planning that puts out a future preferred state and then backcasts a set of steps that, if we follow them, will take us there or nearly there.
So there are all kinds of issues with this, and the Cynefin framework’s greatest gift is that it helps us create strategy to avoid to pitfall of retrospective coherence.
Today though, a surprise in my morning reading. A lovely article on Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” We all think we know what that poem is about: about the adventure that will ensue if we just take the less beaten path. But you might be surprised to learn that the poem is actually about retrospective coherence and not adventures strategic planning (emphasis mine):
Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.