The direction of travel in complexity work
Complexity, Conversation, Emergence, Evaluation, Featured, Flow, Improv, Invitation, Leadership, Organization, Uncategorized
My friend Marcus Jenal published his latest weekly newsletter in which he muses over a few questions related to complexity, strategy and taking a stance. He doesn’t have a comments section enabled on his blog (hint! hint!) so I’m going to respond a bit to what he wrote here and we can have a conversation in this space.
Too often, I fall into the trap of questioning every new insight I have and asking myself if that insight goes deep enough. Every insight is still biased through my cultural coding, my upbringing, my context, etc. Yet by the very nature of being human we will never reach a place of ‘pure’ unbiased understanding. So we need to strike a balance between self-critical reflection and believing that we found some ground that is solid enough to step on and move forward.
It’s like the metaphor of crossing a river on foot. We make a careful step to check if the next stone is stable enough to step on or not. If it is, we make the step and then check which direction we can go from there. If we get stuck, we move a few steps back. But if we never trust the stability of the next stone, we will not move at all. And yes, sometimes we might fall into the water but that’s ok. We can pick ourselves up and start again.
This is one of the biggest blocks I see with folks who are new to complexity work. There is a tension – a polarity even – between needing to move and needing to know. I think that tension is generated by standard problems solving practices that begin with the Cynefin framework’s Ordered Systems formula of “SENSE – ANALYSE – RESPOND.” You start by gathering information you can about the system, have an expert analyse the data and tell you what to do, chart out a path forward and then execute. That is what most problem solving in business and organizational life looks like and it permeates design thinking and action practice.
When I’m teaching people to work in complexity, it’s good to use tools and metaphors that draw on their own experiences in the rest of their life. I am firmly of the belief that human beings are innate complexity workers but our organizational life squishes those capacities out of us, or relegates them to the sidelines of our non-work lives, to hobbies, games, parenting, gardening, cooking, art, and other activities of daily life. In places where we are safe to fail, we can try all kinds of things at our own pace and comfort. We are not paralysed by the fear that someone will yell at us for getting it wrong, or worse, we will be fired, demoted, or thought less of. So many organizations and leaders I work with are paralysed by fear. Ofet they figure out how to download that fear on to their teams and always have someone else to blame if things go wrong. That’s a lot of the work we do when trying to open up leadership practice.
“Why are we stuck?” ask many leaders. “How do you reward failure?” I ask in return. And thus begins the conversation.
These days I just point people to this EXCELLENT Liz and Mollie cartoon to illustrate this:
So yes. We need to act without information. We take up some, have a sense of where we want to go, and then move and the cycle begins.
That leads to the second part of Marcus’s post:
I am re-watching the two conversations between Nora Bateson and Dave Snowden on ‘When meaning looses its meaning’ (Session 1, Session 2) together with a group of friends who are both interested in Nora’s and Dave’s work. We are having fabulous discussions after watching bits of the conversations. While Nora and Dave try hard to agree with each other, of course they have their differences. And these differences are somehow reflected in my own thinking about how to be and act in the world, which I’m expressing in my weekly emails – particularly the dilemma of if/when/how to act. In very strongly simplified terms, Nora advocates for broad, open, purposeless spaces to make connections and relationships that will then sprout into change in whatever way, while Dave sees the possibility of catalysing certain attractors and shifting certain constraints in a more intentional / purposeful way so that new, more desirable things emerge (he calls this ‘nudging’ the system). While it is more obvious with Dave, both have an idea of how a more desirable world would look like: more people would accept that ecological and complexity thinking are better ways to engage with the world than industrial linear thinking. Both, Nora and Dave, take a stance, which allows them to become thought leaders.
It has been lovely watching Nora and Dave dance together and as Marcus rightly identifies, the differences, held in a generative tension, are the interesting bits. I think the tension about direction of travel that Marcus has seized on here is an important polarity to navigate in complexity work.
Direction of travel matters. Call it a moral compass, call it a shared purpose, a shared vision, or a sense of what is right and good, but INTENTION, as Alicia Juarerro will tell you, matters. It serves as an attractor for action and so if you are planning to move, you better be aware of your intention, especially if you think you are just hanging out in a purposeless space. In complexity, there is no space that is free from context. If I am just hanging around with a soft gaze waiting to explore something, that is not an empty space of thinking. My eyes and ears and heart are conditioned and constrained by my history. And that is why Nora’s ideas of “warm data,” as I understand them, are helpful. It helps to populate the purposeless space with enough diversity and possibility that it can be intentionally purposeless.
I learned that a long time ago when I was thinking about Bohmian dialogue in the context of alos developing my practices of invitation. Bohmian dialogue is intentionally open, and, as Harrison Owen once said, “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.” That is true and it is alos true that there is always intention in the invitation, and whoever comes has arrived there by virtue of the history of connections that led them to discovering and responding the the invitation. Spaces can be open, but they are never unbounded. Awareness of the boundary conditions is helpful for understanding what is possible and why what happened was “the only thing that could have.” Complex systems have history and that history matters.
So I think this difference that Marcus has found presents us with a nice space to manage within when we are working in complex systems. A range of openness of direction of travel from broad to narrow. At a certain point if you treat the direction of travel like a target you have drifted into the complicated domain in Cynefin, which is fine, if that is truly what you are doing. But targets are not the same as vectors and they inspire very different patterns of behaviour.
Oh and on Marcus’ last question…
PS: I’m not 100% sure what the difference is between ‘taking a stance’ and ‘taking a stand’. Even English native speakers could not really explain it to me consistently.
…I answered him by email saying essentially that a “taking a stance” is a position that you take to prepare for action, and you optimize your ability to engage well to whatever is coming. It’s preparing to move. “Taking a stand” is getting ready not to be moved, to dig in and resist whatever is coming. One could even say it’s another way of thinking about the resilient vs. robust form of dealing with change.
Dear Chris, Fascinating to me how I am drawn to your blogs about complexity even though the language is new to me. Love the Liz and Mollie cartoon. It explains why artists like me find applying for grants at the beginning of a project so challenging — we have only a slim idea to begin with. Hints and nudges, really. And thanks for Nora Bateson and warm data.
I seem to spend my life trying to convince funders to act more like artists!
Hi Chris. I responded in my last weekly email to your post: https://buttondown.email/systemicinsight/archive/the-premises-we-re-enact/
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