No cookie cutters for complexity

Five years ago I noted that big consultancies were jumping on the Web 2.0 bandwagon but more nimble upstarts (like me) could now significantly engage in a conversation with our markets using our own tools, like blogs, with which we have developed a certain advanced level of expertise. Jon Husband had written a good observation on how large consultancies work:

Big firms either 1) develop standardized methodologies and practices (their business models depend upon it), or 2) if their business model does not depend upon the standardization, they will charge you a mint and a half (McKinsey?)

The organization(s) [clients] will in my opinion get better advice rooted in critical thinking and experience and focused on results, as opposed to maintaining an expensive dependency on canned rhetoric that may not be based in much experience. For example, what exactly is “Advanced” Web 2.0 technology ? Blogs with lots of colourful widgets?

Five years later, Dave Snowden makes a similar observation, sparked by a KPMG marketing brochure on “cutting through complexity”. Dave concludes:

If a consultancy firm really wants to help their clients then they should support them in living with complexity, riding its potential, avoiding reductionist approaches, engaging customer and staff in a sensing network.  The trouble is that would not allow large teams of recently graduated MBA’s to reuse recipes and documents from over codified knowledge management systems.

cookie-cutterSo while we upstarts may now have a greater voice online, there is still a large demand for cookie cutter solutions. As social learning, collaboration, and even complexity become mainstream concepts, the array of products and services around them are becoming commoditized. Making a value proposition around behaviour and culture change is therefore very difficult.

I have noted in the past year clients wanting more products and fewer customized services. Some of this is due to their own difficulties in facing complexity and not having the time or energy to dig into these concepts. It’s just easier to buy a product, and nobody makes shinier products, such as case studies, than the big consultancies.

Case studies abound in business and many sell for a significant amount. But 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 different thinking. In 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. To understand complex systems one must marinate in them, as John Seely Brown advocates. The problem with best practices is they presume simplicity, like being able to ‘cut through complexity’. 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 to invest in an experiment (a probe).

Beware the cookie-cutter salespeople. They abound, and are aided by marketing departments that do not have a clue about complexity. There are some real advantages in avoiding the large consultancies and going with smaller companies and free-agents. These include:

  • Personal relationship based on knowledge and trust
  • Work is usually done by senior consultants
  • Responsiveness and flexibility
  • Ability to innovate faster
  • Fewer costs to pass on (shareholders, marketing, advertising, bonuses)

One should never bring a knife to a gun fight, nor a cookie cutter to a complex adaptive system.

13 Responses to “No cookie cutters for complexity”

  1. Fred Sheahan

    Great post, Harold. I like the message here. If someone is trying to sell prescribed, reductionist strategy as a panacea in today’s workplace, they’re either snake-oil salesmen, or you’re running a box factory. Reductionism works great when it’s aligned with simple, production-oriented tasks. It’s fuel-on-the-fire of irrelevancy when applied indiscriminately across complex knowledge work.

  2. Brent MacKinnon

    Your post made me smile.I loved your line about don’t bring a cookie cutter to a complex adaptive system. It seems that there is such a deep investment (habit) in packaging (and selling) cookie cutter solutions to complex issues. I agree with you that an investment in time, attention and sense making is required to understand complex adaptive systems. Harder work involves figuring out what and how complexity plays out in your work sphere and then trying out something to further learn what will improve your workspace or business. Outsourcing to expert cookie cutters is less expensive and very little investment in learning is required.

    Thanks for this Harold,


  3. James

    Good observations. I wonder if the cookie cutter solution meets the need of senior management who wish to be seen to be doing something, keeping up with trends, or some other more devious motive, while not actually bringing about any change to their entrenched power position at all.

  4. David Griffiths

    I have only just been pointed to this blog and I have to say, this is probably the best blog I have read in the last year! Thank you for an excellent read!

  5. Bruce Waltuck

    A great post, which I saw today through a post on FB. This reflects the single biggest problem with management I have seen over the past 30 years- treating the comp,ex as if it were technical/complicated. We know what happens. The cookie-cutters can’t… “Cut it.” Those of us who know about the dynamics of complexity know better, and we know what responses are likely to work better in complexity. But we also need to recognize that in the swirl of stuff, recipes and best practices do still have a place. The challenge- and it is a tough one after centuries of Newtonian entrainment reinforced by the fear of failure and uncertainty- is to help managers and leaders understand and accept the natural, inescapable presence of complexity. It’s always both the recipe and the experimenter.


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