Obliquity, serendipity and purpose
When everything is changing all around us, what is the role of purpose? And what is purpose, anyway?
The starting-point for this one is a Tweet by someone I deeply respect, quoting someone I deeply don’t:
RT @DavidGurteen: Obliquity and serendipity are more important than purpose
The person being quoted is a real master of the seemingly-meaningful soundbite: no question about that. And it’s good to see that he’s at last starting to address the Chaotic-domain in its own terms: makes a pleasant change from his previous tactic of trying to bludgeon all of it into the Complex-domain. A pity, then, that the new tactic is barely any better than before… Anyway, let’s gently pull this soundbite apart, to see what’s really going on in that context.
As usual, the soundbite is a neat encapsulation of a surface-level idea.
Yet in reality that assertion about obliquity, serendipity and purpose is not merely misleading – it’s almost perfectly wrong.
And to see why, we need to look a little deeper than the surface-level soundbite.
The key is in the meaning of ‘purpose’, but first let’s quickly summarise the other two terms:
— Obliquity summarises the way in which the best route to somewhere we want to go may not be the most direct route. For example, if we’re driving in a city that’s full of one-way streets, we’ll often have to go obliquely or even head away from our intended end-point in order to move toward it – whilst attempting always to go directly towards that point will instead bring up many impassable obstacles. (“Go with the flow, man”, might be the very old-fashioned summary of what works best in obliquity. 🙂 ) The principles and practice are well described in John Kay’s book Obliquity.
— Serendipity is the ‘happy accident’ that changes something, and may well cause us to change direction entirely, towards a different nominal end-point.
(One of the key distinctions there is that with obliquity we’re still aiming towards the same end-point, but now from a different direction along a different route; whereas with serendipity we may well aim now towards a different end-point, or perhaps just into a different direction with no definite end-point in mind – where the journey implied by the serendipitous event is, for the moment, more important than the nominal destination.)
The soundbite says that both of these are “more important than purpose”. But “more important” in what sense? And what do we mean by ‘purpose’? That’s where this gets interesting…
For a quick summary, though:
— if ‘purpose’ is a single predefined goal (an operational-level ‘purpose’), and the context is changing all the time, then openness to obliquity and serendipity may be the only way to achieve that goal: in that specific sense, obliquity and serendipity may be more important than holding to the predefined direction to the goal
— for any form of purpose ‘above‘ (or ‘deeper’ than) a strictly operational level, that purpose provides an anchor or guide around which obliquity and serendipity can ‘make sense’: in that sense, purpose is more important than obliquity or serendipity.
In other words, it’s actually a question to which the only valid answer is the architect’s dreaded reply of ‘It depends…‘. 🙂
At the first level, the crucial distinction is that obliquity and serendipity are tactics; whereas purpose is a descriptor for strategy. When an operational-level goal is mistaken for deep-purpose, that error will lead us into the kind of confusion where an upside-down assertion such as “obliquity and serendipity are more important than purpose” will seem like the only way out of the mess – yet will in turn lead us into even more mess further down the track. To make proper sense of what’s going on there, we need a better understanding of purpose; and to do that, we need to know the context in better depth.
One way to see what’s going on is to use the cross-link between SCAN and Causal Layered Analysis:
Causal Layered Analysis [CLA] describes sensemaking and decision-making in terms of four distinct yet interweaving layers:
- the litany – the surface-level of ‘world as it should be’, the world of the ‘work-instruction’ and predefined process (“the official unquestioned view of reality”)
- systemic – the layer of supposedly-objective social cause (“the data of the litany is explained and questioned at this level”)
- worldview – stories and narratives through which we decide what is ‘relevant fact’ and what is not (“the ways in which different stakeholders construct the litany and system are also explored”)
- deep-myth and metaphor – the respective (sub)-culture’s ‘creation-myths’ and suchlike (“the unconscious emotive dimensions of the issue”)
Each of these layers has its own distinct meaning of ‘purpose’ that we could summarise in business-terms, and crosslink to the respective decision-base:
- litany: immediate goal [rule-based decisions]
- systemic: ‘business-objective’ – the not-to-be-questioned outcome of analysis [algorithm-based decisions]
- worldview: ‘strategy’ – broader direction that may change over the longer term [pattern/guideline-based decisions]
- deep-myth: overall unchanging ‘vision or ‘promise’ [principle-based decisions]
Most business-contexts will either assume or desire a definite end-point or goal for any business-activity: or, in SCAN terms, over to the left-side (‘predictable’ side) of that boundary:
— both obliquity and serendipity will throw the apparent context temporarily over to the right-side of the boundary, where we must face the not-definite, the not-certain, of the context;
— both require sufficient openness to be willing to let go of the immediate short-term purpose – otherwise we won’t even be able to acknowledge their existence.
What happens next, though, is somewhat different in either case, and very much depends on the effective meaning of ‘purpose’.
When obliquity occurs, it breaks out of the Simple expectations of ‘the litany’. For that moment, it throws the context over to the ‘unorder’ side of the Inverse-Einstein boundary, but usually only to the Ambiguous-level (paradigm or ‘worldview’). In most cases, the overall objective – the defined and specified broader ‘purpose’ at the systemic or Complicated layer – will remain the same: here, the guidelines from the paradigm are cross-linked with the algorithms and assertions of the systemic plan, which presents a revised short-term goal. In other words, a fairly straightforward path to return from Ambiguous to Complicated and back to Simple again.
In less-common cases, obliquity forces a re-think of the overall plan and the nominal overall objective: “is this even the right goal to go for?” In effect, the context is held in the Ambiguous for longer, with the CLA ‘worldview’ layer assessing and perhaps revising the defined ‘systemic’-layer objective. Once the new objective is set, this necessarily leads to revised short-term goals and tasks at the Simple or ‘litany’ level – because that’s actually the point at which most real-world action takes place.
To summarise, obliquity is usually more important than short-term purpose, but uses other forms of purpose to guide the response to the context. Obliquity enables or demands access to the deeper levels of purpose at the ‘worldview’ and ‘systemic’ levels, which in that sense are more important than the ‘litany’-level purpose, and also more important than the means – the obliquity – via which they’re accessed.
When serendipity occurs, it likewise breaks out of the Simple expectations of ‘the litany’, but usually moves to a deeper level, triggering deep-ambiguity or even mythic-level reassessment. There is a much greater (yet always-uncertain) possibility that the ‘systemic’-level objective will be challenged; in some cases the ‘worldview’-level will also be challenged (such as in a ‘road to Damascus‘ moment). It should be obvious that there are layers within layers on this, but in each case there should be some form of overarching principle to guide choices here, to identify that the ‘accident’ is indeed ‘happy’ in the sense of meaningful and/or useful, and thence what to do in response to that ‘happy accident’.
To summarise, serendipity is usually more important than short-term purpose, or even any other form of predefined purpose, but uses other forms of purpose to guide the response to the context. Serendipity provides a means to access those deeper levels of purpose; and those deeper levels of purpose are more important than the serendipity itself.
The key to obliquity and serendipity is the ability to recognise, in the moment, that they are available and relevant within that moment. And to do that, deeper levels of purpose than just a short-term goal must be available at the point of action. If that deeper-purpose is not available, then there would be nothing to guide action when obliquity or serendipity force a transition across the Inverse-Einstein boundary: in fact, without that deeper guidance, the only possibilities are a rigid holding-on to the original short-goal – which might well be disastrous – or a collapse into the colloquial sense of ‘chaos’ – which would almost certainly be disastrous.
In short, only at the most simplistic level is it true that “obliquity and serendipity are more important than purpose”; for anything else, purpose is more important, or far more important, than specific tactics such as serendipity and obliquity.
Over to you for comment on this, perhaps?
[Before we do, though, one further note. That initial soundbite is a classic example of a ‘wisdom’ – a context-free adage. The limitations of that soundbite, as described above, also highlight a quite different problem: the oft-purported ‘hierarchy’ of data, information, knowledge and wisdom – the ‘DIKW pyramid’. To quote another reTweet from David Gurteen, “the DIKW pyramid must die!” – and that’s true, but there is another way to look at the ‘DIKW’ relationships that does make practical sense. More on that in the next post here.]