Leave the cookie-cutters at the bakery

It seems that everybody wants an easy solution. They want best practices and case studies they can copy. They don’t want to do the hard work of learning for themselves. They want a cookie-cutter solution.

Well there aren’t any.

Case studies abound in business and many sell for a significant amount. Other than for general education, they’re rather useless. Each organization’s situation is not only different, it’s changing. Case studies and best practices in business are like the arbitrary subjects in our schools. They’re easy to package but don’t transfer well into real life.

Few managers ask the tough questions, like what are the underlying assumptions of how we do business and do they make sense? Are any of our practices self-defeating?

Complex problems require require different thinking. Once again, I’d like to refer to the book,  Getting to Maybe. The authors say that in complex environments:

  • Rigid protocols are counter-productive
  • There is an uncertainty of outcomes in much of our work
  • We cannot separate parts from the whole
  • Success is not a fixed address [what I call perpetual Beta]

Rigid protocols are prescriptive and tell you what to do. For dealing with complex systems, we need to make sense of the data and THEN figure out what to do, as Dave Snowden explains in this video.

We conduct safe-fail experiments. We don’t do fail-safe design. If an experiment succeeds, we amplify it. If an experiment fails, we dampen it.

The problem with best practices is they presume simplicity and this can cause the organization to fall off the cliff into chaos. Beware the cookie-cutter salesman!

The next time you pick up a report on best practices, ask yourself:

  • Has anything changed since this report was written?
  • How is my organization different from these?
  • Who stands to gain from the report?

Many best practices are self-evident. They’ve worked for years and address relatively simple systems. But the business issues that consume us are most likely complex. Instead of looking for best practices, take that time and money and invest in an experiment (a probe).

Perpetual Beta is an attitude toward learning and working. It is accepting that we’ll never get to the final release and our learning will never stabilize. Perpetual Beta is affirming to principles and actually committing to do something, while remaining open to change. But most of all, it’s actually doing something.

2 Responses to “Leave the cookie-cutters at the bakery”

  1. Brent MacKinnon

    This is the first time I”ve seen Dave Snowden and I’m very pleased you posted the video Harold.

    His snapshot overview of the Cynefin framework was so useful for me. I’ve read Getting to Maybe and have complexity thinking in my own kit bag of ways to figure out and make sense of things. I will need to play this video more than once as it is so applicable to many situations I have with groups I work with.

    I’m starting work with a client that is wanting to move their organization into social media activities and they are getting my message that social learning is an integral part of this transition. They want me to find examples of best practices to ensure that where they go, others have traveled before and they won’t get lost in space or fall over a cliff. (Isn’t Gene Roddenberry cool) My gut was telling me that knowing what others have done, just doesn’t apply when you move into unknown territory.

    After this video, I have a better handle on talking about best and good practice as well as the risk of free falling into crisis if you maintain a simple lens for figuring out where you are.

    Well done Harold,

  2. Tom Haskins

    Thanks from me too, Harold!
    Until I viewed this explanation by Dave Snowden, I did not make the distinction between a 2×2 framework for categorizing complicated situations and a sense making framework for recognizing patterns in complex situations. I now realize that place is the middle of the Cynefin diagram is profoundly significant for disrupting our proclivity for categorizing, a.k.a making the unfamiliar familiar, conditioning our perceptions, seeing what we want to see. The tendency for the Simple to fall into Chaos provides another dimension of richness for me.

    I suspect that those who see the world as merely complicated and compatible with their categorizing serve their own interests in setting goals, making things happen and producing results. Their world seems to them like a factory comprised of orderly sequences. Those of us who work with the complex world serve our own interests in exploring, experimenting and theorizing. Our world seems to us like a garden where growing happens, processes take time and everything affects everything else.


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