And more on Cynefin

Another trail following up on Dave Snowden‘s comment to my previous Cynefin post, and specifically to this one assertion of Dave’s:

Order exists in the real world.

Sounds obvious: but does it? Does ‘order’ really exist? Or do we simply hope it does?

I know, I know – this’ll sound at first like one of Tom’s dreaded semantic quibbles. But in fact it has huge ramifications, both theoretical and practical, for Cynefin and for how we tackle complexity in business and elsewhere. What it comes down to is this:

  • if order is real in the physical sense – a physical fact – then ultimately everything is reduceable to the Cynefin ‘known’ domain
  • if order is not a physical fact – is in any way an abstraction from physical fact – then ultimately the only thing that is ‘real’ is the Cynefin central ‘unknown’ domain; any ‘sense-making’ – interpretation of ‘order’ – would be an arbitrarily-selected filter on that reality, with all the conceptual, operational and other dangers that that would imply

The classic Taylorist machine-metaphor for business assumes that order is real – in effect, that the ‘known’ is the only Cynefin domain that is real, and that all the others are simply mistakes for which others should be punished. Yet that in turn is derived from arrogant Victorian assumptions about social hierarchy as ‘the natural social order’, and the circular-reasoning of Huxleyan/Darwinian notions of ‘survival of the fittest’, underpinned by a seriously-mangled misunderstanding of the limits of Newtonian science. As Cynefin shows us so well, it doesn’t work: it’s only an abstraction, not ‘reality’ itself – and punishing people for failing to conform to our assumptions is neither realistic nor effective…

By current standards, the Newtonian ‘known’ is also very poor science: the cutting edge of current science is closer to the Cynefin ‘complex’ domain, with a few hints towards the ‘chaotic’ domain. A present-day equivalent of Taylorism’s claims to ‘scientific management’ would be based much more on complexity and systems-theory, for example.

But it’s questionable that there could ever be such a thing as ‘scientific management’, because as Paul Feyerabend argued in Against Method, the only valid principle in science is “anything goes” – order is not ‘real’, it’s only an abstraction. Each of the Cynefin domains is a description of a different type of order – but each is still an abstraction. The only part of Cynefin that is ‘real’ is ‘the unknown’. And the further away from the ‘known’ domain we get, the closer we get towards what is real.

So Dave’s move from the ‘unordered’ domains – more accurately, the not-linear-cause-and-effect domains – to the ‘ordered’ domains (in other words from ‘chaotic’ and ‘complex’ to ‘knowable’ and ‘known’) is just a means to simplify sense-making, and to generalise principles that can perhaps be useful in working with the real world. But doing so increases the abstraction – it moves further away from reality. And the danger is that the ‘known’ domain creates a delusion of control – comfortable for many, of course, but often lethal, especially in contexts such as social work where people are forced to adapt to the system, which is then supposedly ‘true’ because people have adapted themselves to the system… To apply Cynefin in practice, we must move back again in the opposite direction, from the ‘ordered’ domains back to social complexity, then to the chaotic-domain ‘market-of-one’; and then ultimately accept the humility that all we can do is do what we can in the inherent unknowability of here, now, in this place, this context.

The crucial concern here about order comes down to two views:

  • order is real, therefore it is true, therefore the world must adapt itself to fit that order – or that the world is at fault if it does not match that order
  • order is an abstraction, therefore the concern is about whether that abstraction is useful in guiding adaptation of our responses to the natural ‘un-order’ of the world – that we need to adapt to the world, not the world to our ‘order’

These are, in essence, philosophical positions: archist versus anarchist. And whilst I’ve no doubt many people would prefer the former, I’d place myself firmly in the latter category: I’d describe myself as a ‘business anarchist’, because that’s what works in the real world of business-activities. In my experience, my understanding as a business consultant, the moment we say that “order exists in the real world”, we automatically set ourselves up for failure, because every assumption about order will eventually lead us dangerously astray. Order is an abstraction: it is merely useful, not ‘true’. Hence in business as much as in science, the only valid principle that does not impede progress is “anything goes”. And the limits on that ‘anything goes’ are not some external notion of ‘truth’, but vision and values – honesty, integrity, social responsibility and much else besides.

Cynefin provides us with a useful framework, indicating the appropriate ways to respond in terms of different types of ‘order’. But whatever type of ‘order’ we work with in Cynefin – known, knowable, complex, chaotic – it’s still only ‘order’. It’s still only an abstraction: it isn’t ‘real’ as such. We forget that fact at our peril.

2 Comments on “And more on Cynefin

  1. The fact that order exist in nature (a constrained system that prevents agent action independent of the system) does not entail the statement that therefore all things can be reduced to order.

    If you look at this from the perspective of constraints, relaxation and imposition then a lot of the problems you state above go away and there is no need to see order as an abstraction it is a phase state.

  2. Hi Dave – thanks again for joining in again – will answer this on another post, to keep it open and accessible.

    And whoever-it-was from Collegiate News – yup, interesting article on ‘The Global War Against Taylorism’, and agreed that “education is not an industrial process”. And neither is knowledge management – something we’re agreed on, Dave, I think? – or, for that matter, most so-called industrial processes… 🙂

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