I'm teaching on behalf of Cognitive Edge this week in Boston - the Practitioners Foundation course that I was recommending to all and sundry years before CE asked me to start teaching it myself. It's still a great course:
"exceeded my expectations, re-kindled a lot of ideas and opened me up to possibilities ... stimulating on so many levels"
One of the difficulties is defining who will benefit from the course - truth is everyone will, as its underpinning is around techniques to address complex situations, "wicked" problems and uncertainty in organisations. It's a mixture of theory, with practical approaches that embed the theory and give participants tools to use as soon as they return to the office.
Last time in London, we had communicators from the financial sector, consultants to large corporates, evaluators from development and health sectors, developers from telecoms and more. Diverse people, diverse issues...
Early bird registrations are available until 31st December, so don't loiter. (It's possible to take over €1200 off the combined price of the two courses, if you get the right combination of people together in time...)
Given some of the conversations I'm having at the moment, it's encouraging that some people are plumping for an action focus than a how-many-pages-of-research-can-write focus. But Dilbert nails it, all the same...
I had a blast last week in the Docklands, teaching first the Cognitive Edge Foundations course then teaching with Dave Snowden the Cognitive Edge Advanced course. There's one final chance to catch both courses in 2012. (And before any possible revamps of course materials.)
11th-12th December in Boston, MA - I'll be teaching the Foundations course
13th-14th December - Dave'll be teaching the Advanced course
There are a few spots available on both courses, but better be quick - last week in London, the room was at capacity...
In recent months, I've been lucky enough to work with a variety of people dealing with problems and situations that are highly complex. In these environments, it's not possible to boil issues down to a root cause and plan an ideal solution. (Something that jumped to mind this morning as I got annoyed listening to the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 - an interviewer responding to an interviewee talking about the difficulties of a situation: "that's hardly the ideal solution". The very concept of "ideal solutions" is hopelessly misguided in complex situations - overly simplistic and damaging in its drive to make people come up with ideal solutions to real-world problems.)
The real solution is to come up with multiple actions and activities within the complex environment that allow us to learn about what is going on - and to see elements that we can take advantages of. Essentially, it's an "exploration" of what happens when we interact with the situation.
I always recommend that people use whatever language allows them greatest leeway in their organisation - for some it's "pilot", for others "probe" or "experiment". The emphasis is away from "fail-safe plans" to "safe-to-fail probes" - to use Dave Snowden's language.
I have noticed, however, that there's often a strong reaction to that language: "safe-to-fail." The responses are usually "we can't fail" or "failure is never safe".
I get that - I understand people's reaction to that language, but it goes get in the way of the concept. If you can't be seen to fail, then you cannot, by definition, do anything new and untested, let alone be truly innovative.
The truth is you can be safe-to-fail, in fact you have to be. The key is usually to design actions/probes/pilots that are small enough and tangential (cf my post on Obliquity) so that if/when they fail, they do no harm.
It's actually remarkably easy, if you've got diverse perspectives working together on the problem and you're working at a granular enough level.
For example, I sat watching a group looking at intervening in a natural disaster situation - extremely effective, intelligent people coming up with interventions that would be "safe": funding local villages to find their own water (on the basis that they may know about natural resources, but didn't have the wherewithal to transport it). All their action plans were at a fairly high level.
I resisted getting involved as long as I could, letting them work through the problem on their own, but it became apparent that a lack of diversity was trapping them in their standard models. Instead, I suggested, how about putting in three simple wooden noticeboards in the centre of each village, along with a camera and printer - one noticeboard for pictures of the missing, one for pictures and contact details of people who were still alive and one for those confirmed dead.
Immediately, they shifted perspective - this was safe-to-fail but at a far more local level than they'd envisaged. But they recognised a) it was safe - what harm could it do? b) if it succeeded it had a number of benefits - a "honeypot" to draw local villagers to a place they could be engaged and c) the resources required were tiny. And it would also give them a useful monitoring tool for the situation - no great numbers, but a sense of what was happening.
The upshot is that, for all the fear of the "f-word", safe-to-fail probes are relatively simple to produce:
A useful lesson already this week - don't combine re-entry from a significant foreign trip with an office move and the setting up of networks and other systems that that entails!
Last week was spent in Bangladesh, working with the excellent teams from BRAC and IRC on the framework for some interesting work around sanitation and perceptions in the field from field-workers and from villagers. Testing of the framework and the careful translation elements are happening this week, then I plan to return in early December to start the narrative capture with the BRAC team. It's a fascinating project - and a smart bunch of people to be working with.
Getting back to the UK late on Saturday meant that the first real day of working should have been yesterday, but the final commissioning of phone and broadband to the new office meant that it was instead setting up the new network and moving the IT in, once I'd checked that everything was up and running. (An interesting benefit - having moved all of 1/3 of a mile from the home office, the download speed has tripled from the same provider...)
So, in short, I'm still working out where and when I am - hence the blog title. And for all those who I owe emails and documents, they'll be forthcoming this week as I work out which planet I'm on...
[Written in haste - I'm supposed to be clearing the decks and preparing material for a trip to Bangladesh that starts tomorrow morning. I'm also preparing for the return of the family early this evening, having had the house to myself for a couple of days.]
The first fruits of conversations I've been having with various people in the non-profit sector are starting to appear. And others are becoming evangelists for the value of narrative work in this field.
Tuesday's Guardian included this great article from Kieron Kirkland at Nominet Trust, who's got a pilot project in the pipeline. (For transparency, I'm slightly involved in it, but Kieron's the man who's the driver behind it all.)
It's a great, plain English description of the method (something I rarely manage to produce, slipping into jargon too often).
For me, one of the real benefits comes in here:
Using this approach requires a slightly different mindset. Instead of looking for ways to "prove" x or y has happened, it offers a means to create a continual feedback loop where information is flowing in to help adjust delivery of programmes as time goes on.
More to follow, as things get going...
As promised on Tuesday night at the Royal Society, here are my slides from the Marketing Measurement talk...
As always with my slides - highly visual. You had to be there!
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.
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!)
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 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.
I'm packing to leave for Hong Kong in about half an hour - looking forward to some of the discussions that will ensue around Strategy, Leadership and Innovation next week, then off to Sydney for the Cognitive Edge Foundations course. For the UK-based, however, I've just had details of a talk I'm giving with a colleague on my return. Details below:
Measuring marketing activities and expenditure is one of the hot topics in marketing. That is why the Cranfield Marketing Club together with the Cranfield School of Management Alumni organises an event where we will discuss this issue. You don’t need to be member of the club to come to the event.
Please find more info and the registration for our Cranfield Marketing Club event about “Measuring Marketing” here:
Date: Tuesday 9th October
Time: 18.30 – 20.30 (+ after-work drinks in a nearby pub)
Venue: Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG
Agenda (Find talk abstracts and speaker bios at bottom of email):
18:30 – Arrival & networking activities
19:00 – Welcome & Introduction (Manfred Bortenschlager/Paul Baines)
19:10 – Meaning in numbers: a narrative approach to marketing measurement (Claire Spencer and Tony Quinlan)
19:50 – Measuring Marketing Effectiveness for Success (Paul Lee)
20:20 – Q&A
20:30 – Close and informal drinks in nearby pub for those who want to continue the conversation
Abstract: “Meaning in numbers: a narrative approach to marketing measurement”
Collecting stories around customers’ experiences of a brand offers a real alternative to traditional market research. Seeing how customers’ lives are affected by a brand offering can illuminate opportunities to enhance the brand or resolve underlying issues before they become problematic. For many of us in research, we have an innate - and appropriate - skepticism around “anecdotal evidence” but this latest approach supercedes that to provide real, actionable data based on fast analysis of thousands of narratives. This then helps marketers to better assess the ‘keep doing’, ‘stop doing’ and ‘start doing’ for their marketing communication.
Abstract: “Measuring Marketing Effectiveness for Success"
The evolution of buyer behaviour now requires marketers to think and act differently to effectively influence the different stages of the sales funnel (for engagement and revenue creation).
Claire Spencer, FCIPR Visiting Fellow, Marketing, Cranfield University
Claire is Chief Executive and founder of i to i research, a research consultancy specialising in insights and measurement around how people interact with brand communications. Previous to this, Claire worked in advertising and ran her own Public Relations consultancy. Over her 25 year career, Claire has been involved in some of the most high profile communication campaigns including the privatisation of British Telecom and London’s bid to hold the 2012 Olympics.
Tony is Chief Storyteller and founder of Narrate, a unique organisation that has been developing tools for working with narrative since its formation in 2000. Tony himself has 25 years experience in communications, having started in the Press Office of the Internatiaonal Stock Exchange just weeks before the 1987 crash. Since then, he’s driven public relations for Hewlett-Packard, IBM, UNICEF and many others, both as in-house client and external consultant. He has been a regular speaker on aspects of communications, chairing conferences and giving keynotes for many years. Until recently, he was also a leading member of The Medinge Group, an international branding thinktank.
Paul Lee is Regional Sales Director for Eloqua, the leader in marketing automation and revenue performance management technology. Paul’s 20-year sales career has been spent within the high tech, media & publishing industries. Today he supports customers with improving demand generation, sales & marketing alignment, enhancing marketing effectiveness and efficiencies alongside Eloqua best practice methodologies.
Last week, I was an interested observer in a debate that rumbled on over three days - about the definition of a term being used by three different organisations working together. On this occasion, the term was "Strategic Communications" or "StratCom". (As an aside, it recalled the days, 20 years ago at PA Consulting, when I was part of the CommsStrat consulting team - there was a fabulous little booklet and models talking about what it meant, but I never understood it then...)
The challenges of working together around abstract issues like "StratCom" is difficult enough, but it becomes exacerbated when you have different nationalities involved. Coming from different cultures brings different interpretations of the core concepts and values, let alone the problems that ensue when the phrase is used in English which is a second language for most of those involved.
The temptation is always to try and define what is meant by the phrase, but the compounding difficulty is that it usually descends into a self-referential spiral of related abstract concepts. Akin to those meetings with managers that I recall from my PR consultancy days where I'm given feedback on a piece of work that made sense while I was in the room, but once I'd left the room any meaning evaporated and I was left grasping for "what do I actually do now?" (There were some notable exceptions who gave real, helpful feedback, but they were the exception not the rule.)
I'd suggest overcoming this barrier through two parallel approaches:
If you can't agree what something does mean, start by agreeing what it doesn't mean and then encourage everyone to share examples that you can then define as "in meaning" or not - organically setting the limits and contexts that apply.
I'm going to be in Hong Kong on 24th-26th September, running a Cognitive Edge introductory course to using SenseMaker® - highly recommended. If you're interested (and you should be) you can get details and book on the Cognitive Edge website.
I'm then flying down to Sydney to run the Practitioners' Foundation course the following week - it's already very full, but there may be one or two places left for 2nd-4th October. Details again at the Cognitive Edge website. The Practitioners' Foundation course is outstanding - the content and exercises are what I've recommended to anyone interested in narrative and complex facilitation for the past five years. (Long before I started giving the course myself)
I'm not going to have any spare time in Singapore, but have some free time on Friday 28th and Friday 5th October in Sydney, if anyone fancies a coffee and conversation...
An excellent series of lectures and workshop-type studies last week prompted a bunch of thoughts - some of which I'll pick up in the coming weeks. One in particular that was raised again today was while looking at a particular case of an area where there were a wide variety of conflicting groups of people. Some in particular were causing greater problems to people outside of the area and so programmes were put in place to deal with them.
At which point, groups that had hitherto been in conflict with the target group suddenly came to their defence. There was a degree of surprise about this - after all, hadn't these other groups been arguing and in some cases actually fighting only a short time earlier?
I can understand the surprise, but it's easy to forget that the arrival of a common enemy can overcome all sorts of differences. Witness, for instance, in the UK the sudden support of the Olympic games by skeptics like myself - all in response to criticism from Mitt Romney, US presidential candidate. He may have said nothing that hadn't already been said by others in the UK - but we can say that about each other because we're family. An outsider saying that produces a very different dynamic.
Now clearly, some outsiders can criticise without uniting opposing factions, but I'd suggest they need to have high degrees of credibility or trust first. And for most organisations wading into a tricky area, the more likely outcome is going to be focusing the conflict on themselves.
I'm quite used to holidays beginning with a bug or virus of some sort that floors me for the first few days - it's not uncommon, given the weeks before the holiday are usually spent running full-tilt, in part to get work done and in part to keep ahead of any bugs or viruses. (The irony is not lost on me, I can assure you.)
But this time it's been the other way around - after flying from Bogota via Houston, Heathrow, Muscat and Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi and catching up with the family for a holiday, there was no real downtime, apart from a 15-hour sleep. No bug, no penalty for working at that pace - a pleasant change for all the change. (Well, that's assuming they wanted me functional...)
Coming back, however, has been a different story.
Back from the holiday and immediately into an in-house Cognitive Edge accreditation course for two days for some colleagues - and then the bug kicks in and floors me. So, a week later than planned, I'm picking up the pieces and catching up on the emails ahead of the first conference of the Autumn next week...
The one course that I always recommend is Cognitive Edge's Practitioner accreditation - whether you're a communicator, facilitator, knowledge manager, leader, innovator... The new batch of courses have just been announced (details below) and they've changed the pricing structure quite a bit - if you've attended the practitioner two days, then the third day on SenseMaker is free.
The next London course is coming up at the end of the month (31 January - 1 February). I'm honoured to have been asked to co-teach the course with Michael Cheveldave, so I'm looking forward to it. Hope to see you there...
1) Cognitive Edge Practitioner Accreditation
The two-day Practitioner Accreditation course provides practical ways to manage under conditions of uncertainty, understand the power of business narrative and discover new ways to use human networks. Attendance at the course provides accreditation and membership to the Cognitive Edge Practitioners' Network. The SenseMaker® workshop will be free for all participants who attend the 2-day Accreditation Course. Please indicate in the 'Extra Information' box if you are attending the SenseMaker® workshop.
Accreditation course information is here:
Register for Accreditation here (dates stated below are not inclusive of the SenseMaker® workshop):
2) Cognitive Edge SenseMaker® Workshop
The one-day SenseMaker® workshop is focused on teaching how to configure, sell and interpret narrative projects that use the Cognitive Edge SenseMaker® software. In each location, it directly follows the Accreditation class (above). We recommend that participants from the two-day Accreditation Course also attend the SenseMaker® day if they would like to run narrative projects using the software. To attend the SenseMaker® Workshop (and not the preceding 2-day Accreditation Course which makes it free), there will be a small charge to cover room hire and catering. The charge will be 150 dollars, pounds or euros depending on the unit of your local currency. We have a capacity of 24 in these classes, priority given to those who are booking into the prior 2-day Accreditation Course.
SenseMaker® Workshop course information is here:
Register for the workshop here:
Two contrasting weeks working on very different narrative projects - both fascinating in their own right. And both doing SenseMaker™ analysis under time pressure, but with datasets that couldn't have been more different.
I've just seen another article about how social media caused change in Egypt. (I'm not going to link to it - or any of the others - as I don't want to encourage the causal thinking behind it.) The other element I've seen mentioned as important in the Egypt changes earlier this year is that "everyone stayed on message."
Now, the former element had a role to play - but it's too tempting to assign it too much importance in the piece. The second - staying on message - is just wishful thinking on the part of someone who wants to convince their salary-payer to stick to the script - which is a dangerous and seriously wrong interpretation that doesn't stand up to any scrutiny of the facts.
There are two important elements here that intertwine:
While this doesn't apply everywhere - bounded applicability after all - I do think that if you're facing a dynamic, fast-moving complex environment, planning can only show you roughly what not to do and broadly what might be worth saying. More specific than that, I don't believe that analysis and planning can take you.
Instead, I think a better, faster and more effective route is to take an evolutionary approach - diverse (but coherent) vehicles and messages, fast feedback loops to show what effect is being had and then rapid adaptation. Not with the goal of finding a single message or a best practice, but to develop a constantly evolving, more resilient approach.
*Which I would disagree with at the most basic level - the appearance of a clear message is more down to misinterpretation from a non-Egyptian cultural perspective, missing nuances and differences in varying communications.