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]

Given those relationships, we can now make use of the cross-map to SCAN, and the ‘Inverse-Einstein boundary‘ (or ‘order/unorder’ boundary) represented by the vertical red line in the graphic above.

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.]

6 Comments on “Obliquity, serendipity and purpose

    • Gene – yeah, you’re exactly right: fallback to ‘random floundering’ is precisely the risk and the problem here. Terms like ‘rudderless’ and ‘idea-hamster’ come to mind, respectively for purposeless-obliquity and purposeless-serendipity.

  1. Dear Tom, feel vilify David Gurteen’s partial reporting of my keynote. No problem although I think its a little silly and becoming a little obsessive. I would suggest you don’t rely on third party tweets without seeking fuller context but that is your affair.

    Whatever, you are what you are but please stop lying about the Chaos issue. My recent posts on this have referenced work from years ago which talked about chaos as a domain which is entered deliberately and with purpose. I’ve been expanding on that recently in a series of blogs.

    Despite having been given the references many many times you persist in saying that the only Cynefin strategy for Chaotic is to get the hell out of there. Of course all you need to do is to realise that you use ‘chaos’ to describe what I term ‘complex’. I reserve the chaos word for true randomness at system or constrained level. I think that allows for more nuanced and sophisticated actions and thinking.

    One of these days we really should debate this. I don’t see your name appearing on my conference programmes, but I’m more than up for it. Or possibly in a published journal if you are prepared to give up the freedom from peer review that your self-publishing strategy allows you.

    Otherwise your opinions are of course your own and per your wishes I will not comment here other than when you make a false statement – and by false I mean not an opinion but something that is easily proved by reference to published material then I will comment, and republish if the comment is deleted.

    Of course you have not read that as (to quote you ) it makes you physically sick to do so. But maybe a friend could read it to you instead?

  2. Oh and a PS. In response to an earlier post by you. Yes I read your blog all the time, its my RSS feed. I find it interesting if occasionally eccentric other than when you get into a Cynefin cycle when its all a bit silly. However despite being called a crane toad and a asshole along with other epithets I have no intention of taking you out of the feed or of blocking you from following my twitter account.

    My proposal that a third party try and sort out these ongoing and to my mind misinformed exchanges remains open. As you say, over to you

    • Okay, Dave, I’ll leave these two comments up, if only as an illustration to others of what I have to put up with from you.

      I’ll also add this recent tweet of yours, about my ‘Showing my age, I guess’ post:

      — RT @snowded: Interesting. @tetradian taking offense at criticism again #comment-4789″>weblog.tetradian.com/2012/11/01/sho… but raises questions on IT centricity. Will post next week

      In a way, I’m quite impressed: you must have hunted quite hard to find a post of mine in which you could make out that I was incapable of taking criticism. As as anyone can see from other responses to that post, it’s clear that most commenters thought that my response to what was, very clearly, a comment that was both rude and incompetent was probably too mild and too supportive of the offender. By contrast – as in that relatively-mild example above – I’ve seen many, many Tweets of yours that actively incite your followers to join in with you in mocking me. Strangely enough, I don’t actually enjoy that form of third-party abuse, nor do I consider that it can in any way be described as anything other than unprofessional behaviour.

      The reality is that anyone who peruses this blog will find many, many other examples of where I do not “tak[e] offense at criticism”, but instead take criticism directly, and work with it. (The only things I do take offence at – as I hope any other person would – are incompetence, injustice and abuse.) Also to be found in this blog are many, many occasions where I have accepted and explicitly admitted where I have been wrong on various types of point. By contrast, I have never once seen you admit to being wrong about any point at all. I may well be wrong in absolute terms, of course, but personally I’ve never seen it happen. Not once. Not ever. Not anywhere, on any website, any publication, or any conference. Instead, on several occasions here, when it was obvious to all that you were wrong, your response was to fall back on obfuscation, evasion, bluster and outright abuse – including three clear cases of actionable libel. So I don’t think you have much to complain about in that regard, Dave; but a lot of people do have a lot to complain about in that regard from you.

      What you call ‘lying’ is what any competent professional would instead acknowledge as a professional opinion based on real-world experience in the field. That you somehow believe that your own writings are the only possible description of ‘truth’, and that therefore all others are automatically ‘wrong’, is, to use your own term, best described as somewhat ‘eccentric’, and maybe – again to use your term – even somewhat ‘silly’.

      Regarding the ‘cane toad’ comment, if you’d actually read the post in question, you should realise that it repeatedly and very explicitly states that ‘the toad in the road’ relates to the problematic presence of a dysfunctional idea, and explicitly not a person. Angry though I was, and still am, I took considerable care on that point. If you have read the post, and you still make out that it describes you personally as a ‘cane-toad’, you’re being either dishonest or disingenuous. However, if you choose to think of yourself as a poisonous cane-toad, I have little doubt that there are many indeed who would agree with that description.

      Concerning assertion about “being called a asshole”, this is, yet again, factually incorrect. In every case the reference was, explicitly, to the content and advice in Bob Sutton’s book ‘The No Asshole Rule’, and – exactly as specified in Sutton’s work – relates to behaviour that is summarised as ‘the asshole’: not the person. The book also describes, very accurately, the symptoms that that type of behaviour evokes in others, and which can be used as a diagnostic for the presence of ‘the asshole’: you can see those symptoms summarised on the Wikipedia page at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_No_Asshole_Rule . The key recommendation of the No Asshole Rule is to avoid all possible contact with the person presenting the ‘asshole’ behaviours. You will note that, despite endless provocation, I have taken very considerable care to not describe you personally as ‘an asshole’. However, if you choose to use that term to describe yourself, I have no doubt that there would be many who would agree with you.

      It might amuse you to note that the problems you cause and have caused for others are now so widespread that there is actually an active support-group for people recovering from abuse by you. (I discovered that fact when two of them contacted me to offer help after that last attack of yours: neither of them were people I knew well, in fact I didn’t even know that either of them knew you.) It really is that bad: and it really is long since time that you stopped behaving in this way.

      As regards the specific content of this post, it’s merely yet another example where your – again, what’s that phrase you used above? ah yes, “eccentric” and “silly” – misframings of key concepts cause problems in other domains, and therefore need explicit workarounds to resolve those problems.

      With regard to the core item of contention, around the so-called ‘Chaotic’, you say:

      — “Of course all you need to do is to realise that you use ‘chaos’ to describe what I term ‘complex’.”

      It’s actually the other way round: you’re still insisting on using the term ‘complex’ to describe something that is fundamentally different from your own definition of ‘the complex’. You persist in conflating contextual-behaviours that are as different, in fact, as quantum/probabilistic physics is from Newtonian. In a sense, you’re making the same kind of category-error as Roger Sessions does, in describing high-Complicated as ‘complex’, but in the other direction. And your only response to critiques on that point, for the past far too many years, has been to mock and vilify me in public for what is actually your own incompetence on this point. You have done so yet again in those two comments above. To say that such behaviour is unprofessional on your part is most definitely an understatement…

      Concerning the following:

      — “One of these days we really should debate this. I don’t see your name appearing on my conference programmes, but I’m more than up for it.”

      Fortunately, or, more accurately, unfortunately, I have had far too much first-hand experience of your notion of ‘debate’ and ‘up for it’ to believe that this has any chance whatsoever of success. To be blunt, forget it: like too many others now, I have had more than enough abuse from you to last a lifetime, and I’m not interested in indulging you any further in that way.

      I don’t follow you on Twitter, I don’t read your blog, and to be frank the less I have to deal with you, the better. I really wish that you would do the courtesy of doing the same for me: I definitely do not enjoy having you as a cyberstalker, which in effect is what you’ve now done for several years. (The evidence for that is on my blog’s web-stats, month after month, so please don’t attempt to deny it.) The core problem right now is that we work within related spaces, which makes conflict likely; and, unfortunately for me, you now appear determined to barge into the enterprise-architecture space, despite having demonstrated so often that you have little to no apparent understanding of the field or its true complexities. Which means that, yes, I am all but forced again and yet again to design, develop and disseminate yet more workarounds for the problems that your misplaced attentions and garbled notions of ‘complexity’ have and will cause in this professional discipline.

      You’ve had your say; you’ve had your laugh; you’ve had your much-desired/much-attempted opportunity to mock me yet again. The above is my reply.

      That’s all you’re going to get. I am not so foolish to indulge your vanity any further, and I will not enter into any further so-called ‘dialogue’ with you on this or any other matter. So I will now reinstate the No-Asshole Rule: any further attempts at communication from you will be deleted. This is not negotiable.

      Enough is enough: Thank you and goodbye.

      • [Note: Dave Snowden posted a follow-on comment here (yep, there’s a guy who really won’t accept that No means No…), and has been deleted, as per Bob Sutton’s ‘No Asshole Rule’ described above. If you really want to read it, no doubt Snowden will have it displayed somewhere. It’s just that I won’t put up with it here any more, that’s all.]

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