Generating understanding. Narrative, complexity and communications - changing organisations by understanding them. Understanding cultures and spaces. Revealing emergent patterns in large volumes of qualitative data. Spotting the outliers and weak signals of impending changes.
One of the key concepts in dealing with complexity is the need to be indirect in pursuit of our goals. I often refer to John Kay's book Obliquity - but here is the original article from the Financial Times from 2004 on the topic.
It suggests an idea that is very difficult to anyone who holds to beliefs that things are ordered and repeatable - that process and best/good practice are valid - and who doesn't perceive the shift to other, more complex environments.
Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where
outcomes depend on interactions with other people. Obliquity is the idea
that goals are often best achieved when pursued indirectly.
Obliquity is characteristic of systems that are complex, imperfectly
understood, and change their nature as we engage with them.
Strange as it may seem, overcoming geographic obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting global business targets are the type of goals often best achieved when pursued indirectly. This is the idea of Obliquity. Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people.
Kay uses forest fires as an example of a complex situation - and illustrates new approaches and flexibility needed as overly fixed procedures cannot cope with the evolving situation.
But, lest hardline managers dismiss this approach as not business-oriented, he then goes on to use ICI and its rapid demise as a good example of how direct pursuit of a goal - in this case shareholder value - can be highly negative, not just in terms of unintended consequences, but also in terms of the goal itself.
Success through obliquity is a product of natural selection in an
uncertain, but competitive, environment. It is almost certainly true
that, on average, profit-oriented companies are more profitable than
less profit-oriented companies. It is very likely that on average people
who are interested in money are richer than people who are not. But at
the same time that the most profitable companies are not the most
profit-oriented, the richest people are not those most interested in
money. Outstanding success is the product of obliquity.
The article is all-round excellent, covering issues on causality vs correlation, the problems associated with Collins & Porras' Good to Great research approaches, and far more.
Obliquity is relevant whenever complex systems evolve in an uncertain
environment, and whenever the effect of our actions depends on the ways
in which others respond to them. There is a role for carrots and sticks,
but to rely on carrots and sticks alone is effective only when we
employ donkeys and when goals are simple. Directness is appropriate.
When the environment is stable, objectives are one dimensional and
transparent, and it is possible to determine when and whether goals have
been achieved. Obliquity is inevitable when the environment is complex
and changing, purposes are multiple and conflicting, and when we cannot
tell, even with hindsight, whether they have been fulfilled.
There's a rare opportunity coming up in a couple of weeks in Belfast. In fact, there are two:
Cognitive Edge Complexity Masterclass, October 24th, 8:30-10:30am - a brief introduction to the theory, principles and concepts of working with complex systems/environments and their associated problems.
This Introductory masterclass session introduces Cognitive Edge, the theory, principles and concepts. It introduces the workshop methods and their relationship with SenseMaker®.
The nature of complexity and why it’s critical in situations of high uncertainty or ambiguity
The contribution of sensemaking and the role of narrative approaches to collecting qualitative data
What are the main application areas for SenseMaker®? Example cases will be used to provide context
This is a 2 hour overview session - and a proper bargain at only £24!
Cognitive Edge SenseMaker® Foundations, October 24th, 11:00-October 25th, 17:00 - a two-day course giving a really strong foundation in how to use SenseMaker® most effectively - covering why you might use it, how you would run a project and in-depth details of sense-making/analysing the final data - and then turning that into real actions and projects.
For anyone who's been looking at SenseMaker® and toying with the idea of using it, this is a fantastic opportunity and the first time a workshop like this has been run. Both Anne and I have run multiple SenseMaker® projects in recent years, so we'll be sharing the opportunities and excitement of what it offers, along with sharing a few war stories so that others don't fall into the pitfalls we have!
There will be a number of people there from the recent Belfast health-oriented projects, so this will be a great opportunity for anyone in the NHS to see some of the real opportunities available with this radical tool. (That said, you don't have to be in health to come along - just in good health!)
This 2 day course will develop a strong foundation in using SenseMaker®, either as a project or for continuous capture, to support decision making and strategy development in complex scenarios. SenseMaker® and the Cognitive Edge principles and methods have been developed over a decade of action research and dozens of projects. SenseMaker® is a unique tool which combines quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis methods. It can be applied to areas such as:
Early detection of weak signals, which can be applied to an organization, culture(s), segments, competitive threat or marketplaces
Leadership development, talent assessment
Mapping organizational culture and initiating change through self-descriptive awareness
Industry / Market / Culture assessment/Service users audit
Operational and/or organisational resilience
This course will develop an understanding of the Cognitive Edge Methods, the SenseMaker® software with an emphasis on case studies via prior use from projects which have been carried out in N.Ireland and elsewhere.
Complexity science provides a new way of understanding strategic issues for organisations and policy makers. Switching from a fail-safe design mindset to one based on safe-fail experimentation creates a more resilient approach to managing uncertainty. Participants will gain understanding of the application of how to apply sensemaking methods to the mapping and analysis of strategic, organisational and market issues.
Registration details for both courses are at the links above.
The venue for both sessions is Knockbreda Wellbeing and Treatment Centre, 110 Saintfield Rd, Castlereagh, BT8
I hadn't realised that the Early Bird discounts have already expired on the upcoming Cognitive Edge November courses. That said, they're still great courses* and very valuable for anyone who's dealing with complex problems - innovation, knowledge management, cultural understanding and shifts, etc.
There are two courses coming up - the Practitioner Foundations on 20th-21st November and Practitioner Advanced on 22nd-23rd November. Details can be found at the Cognitive Edge website.
*Declaring an interest - I'm teaching parts of the courses. But I've been recommending them for years before I ever started teaching them!
If there's one massive change in the 12 years since I founded Narrate, it's the use of the word "narrative". Back then, any mention of the word was met with at best a puzzled query as to its relevance and at worst a comment to the effect that I must have been smoking something strong...
Today, it's everywhere. Politicians have narratives, organisations and brands have them, any foreign intervention needs to have one.
The truth is, however, that there are - and should be - multiple narratives to all of these things. Boiling it down to a single narrative, as is usually the case, incurs huge risks. So this post is intended to set out my thoughts on the different levels of narrative. Naturally, it's going to entail the multiple repetition of the word - and risks further muddying the waters. Bear with me...
The grand narrative
The grand or strategic narrative is usually the overarching structure that shows where we're headed for - the vision of the future. It matches some of the work I did early on in Narrate's time with my ideas of the "vision arc" - a slightly more sophisticated version of the standard vision/mission statement approach, but still deeply flawed.
Often the grand narrative tries to describe two things - an ideal end-state and the path we envisage to getting to it. Unfortunately, both of these elements are flawed when we're working in complex environments. Firstly, describing an ideal end-state is an old-fashioned mechanistic way of looking at the world - and only creates a rod for our own backs. By the time we reach the end-state, the world looks radically different, so we've either failed to imagine correctly or failed to implement the plan to get to the end-state - either way, we've failed. Secondly, the path or plan to get to the future is usually too detailed. Planning is a good exercise, but communicating a plan as though that's what's going to happen is risky - after all, "no plan survives contact with reality", to paraphrase Clausewitz.
Healthier by far is to have the grand narrative set intention and constraints - "this is the direction we're going in and these are the things that we will not be doing to get there." There might be room for some examples of the kinds of issues anticipated, but not too specific - and take care to not restrict it to just the issues mentioned.
Like any good book, within the overall narrative - the strategic or grand narrative in this case - there should be room for multiple narratives for different actors and groups that are specific and relevant to them. The important factor is they must all be coherent with each other, but not the same - each will have its own particular spin on the overall narrative, depending on the issues and context they operate in. Giving them space for their perspective is an important reason for only setting intention at the higher level. Setting constraints also allows others to see where they should not go, but allows them to find the appropriate path for them.
Local narratives are best evolved in line with the strategic narrative's intention and within its constraints and is made up of relevant micro-narratives.
Micro-narratives come from people - they're the bits and pieces of story we tell each other each day. The stories of how things get done around here, the short-hand comments that carry lots of meaning, without ever explicitly saying what that meaning is - if you're part of the gang, you'll understand. Most of the recent narrative projects I've been running - in Mexico, Egypt, Pakistan, UK, Jordan, Lebanon, etc - are focused on collecting micro-narratives as the best way of understanding a culture.
Those same micro-narratives then lead us easily into making better sense of the world we're in and designing projects/programs/interventions that take us forward from our current state in the direction set out by the strategic narrative.
Micro-narratives are what are required to understand a situation - a strategic narrative is not appropriate for analysis and research. If you're presented with a single narrative as the result of research - go back and challenge it.
A grand narrative is usually top-down and as such has value in moving forwards - but only if it's not too prescriptive.
In an ideal world, micro-narrative research precedes the development of a strategic narrative, but real world constraints often mean it happens the other way around. Just don't allow the strategic narrative to describe the end-state and then prescribe the route to it.