complexity & chaos — the new normal

A major challenge I have had in my organizational change work is getting people to understand that complicated environments are different from complex ones, and the latter are almost always the situation when people are involved. Generally it means that in complex situations there is less reliance on pre-planning and analysis and a greater emphasis on continuous experimentation coupled with good observation and tracking. Reinforce successful projects and learn constantly in complexity.

According to the Cynefin framework we should Probe > Sense > Respond when dealing with complexity, as opposed to Analyze > Sense > Respond when the situation is complicated. Mechanical systems are complicated, but most human systems are complex. It means that we cannot overplan, though planning itself prepares us to deal with what emerges as we probe complex situations and environments. In complicated conditions we can rely on established good practices, but in complex ones we need to continuously develop our own emergent practices.

This is my 200th post on the topic of complexity. But I have not paid much attention to chaos. In Chaos: A User’s Guide, Bruno Marion concludes that the world today is chaotic.

“Never in the history of humanity has a single human being had so much power. Never in the history of humanity have YOU had so much power!

Optimistic or pessimistic, it is like being a spectator of a film of which we seem to know the ending, whether happy or unhappy. Today one must cease to be a passive spectator but an actor in this fast-changing world.”


autonomy, competence, relevance

If we seek diverse or divergent views, will the opinions of others change our minds? A recent study seems to indicate that paying attention to views opposed to our own may actually harden our existing perspectives.

“In a study that was published last month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, my colleagues and I [Christopher A. Bail, Duke University] did just that. We surveyed more than 1,200 Twitter-using Republicans and Democrats about their political views. Then we paid half of them to follow for one month a bot we created that retweeted messages from elected officials and other opinion leaders from the other political party.

Instead of reducing political polarization, being exposed to opposing ideas increased it. Republicans who followed a Democratic bot for one month expressed social policy views that were substantially more conservative at the conclusion of the study. Democrats who followed a Republican bot exhibited very slight increases in liberal attitudes about social issues, but those effects were not statistically significant.” —New York Times 2018-09-08


the agile sensemaking model

“Research shows that teams will organize themselves in different ways in response to how different types of complexity strains their sensemaking capacities. In order to increase their sensemaking potential, teams will reorganize their relationships in recognizable ways. We can think of these as emergent patterns of collective sensemaking.” —Bonnitta Roy

The increasing complexity of work is a result of automation, such as AI & robots, who are taking away any repetitive tasks, leaving barely repeatable tasks for humans. In addition to this automation of any work that can be described in a flowchart, we also have a larger number of human connections to deal with and humans by nature are complex. Robin Dunbar showed that we are only able to have a maximum of about 150 real human relationships before our cognitive capabilities are maxed out. Note that 150 is the size of an infantry company, a standard size that has stood the test of battle and time. But I, and many others, have thousands of connections on social media platforms like LinkedIn. How can we make sense of these? (more…)

questioning technology

Automation plus the current version of corporate capitalism is creating the perfect storm for those of us commonly known as labour. Most companies and labour laws are structured around an industrial model of capital and labour. The innovation that will save human work will be new business and operating models. Common wisdom is that we need to divide the owners of financial capital from the creators of knowledge capital. Such artificial hierarchies are not needed, though many say that hierarchies exist in nature and therefore are a part of the human condition as well. At least one piece of recent research shows that this is wrong. Early herders produced significant communal works without hierarchies.

“Work by a team of US-based experts on a remote site near Lake Turkana in Kenya contradicts longstanding beliefs about the origins of the first civilisations. It suggests that early communities did not inevitably develop powerful elites or compete violently for scarce resources, but may have worked together to overcome challenges instead.”

“Researchers studying the early history of agricultural societies believe large groups of people built permanent monuments to reinforce identities based on a sense of shared history, ideals and culture.”

“When agrarian societies started to develop, hierarchies started to develop too. Some people became more powerful and disparities in wealth and health and social circumstances emerged. So the big question is: Did the same thing happen in pastoral societies?” said Hildebrand.

“Lothagam North pillar site is the earliest known monumental site in eastern Africa … built by the region’s first herders … and gives us solid evidence that these pastoralists did indeed follow a different trajectory of social change. People came together in large numbers, probably expending blood, sweat and tears to build these large structures, but we have no evidence for hierarchy or social difference.” —The Guardian 2018-08-20


anecdotes and stories

Every fortnight I curate some of the observations and insights that were shared on social media. I call these Friday’s Finds.

“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” —Søren Kierkegaard, via @EskoKilpi

Howard Rheingold: What Technophiles Need To Know: Part One

“Although our present crisis is so threatening precisely because it plays out on the physical plane, where our bodies and other creatures live, it is a crisis of knowledge. We lack a crucial mental skill. I contend that our position today regarding the way we make decisions about technologies is similar to the dilemma that pre-Enlightenment scientists faced in the sixteenth century. We simply don’t have a good method for thinking and making decisions about how to apply (and not apply) the powerful tools of rationality, the scientific method, reductionism, the combination of logic and efficiency embodied by technology.”

Roger Schank: To know AI is to understand it

All the talk about AI these days relates in no way to self refection, to knowing what you need to know, or to anticipating the future. We talk about “AI” but we are not talking about the “I”. We have intelligent entities already. (They are called humans.) When they are confused they ask for explanations. When today’s so-called “AI’s” start doing that, please let me know. In the meantime, it would be nice if there weren’t an article a day in major publications about AI when what they mean is number crunching and pattern matching, not wondering and trying to find out.


the frontiers of our knowledge

I was asked to contribute to an article in CIO magazine — The CIO’s Dilemma: Innovate AND Cut Costs. The question was how can CIO’s preserve their organization’s ability to innovate in the face of budget cuts? My response was relatively simple.

“To work in any complex field, we have to be connected to loose social networks that provide us with a view of the frontiers of our knowledge, says Harold Jarche (@hjarche), a partner at Internet Time Alliance. “We then need to actively engage in communities of practice to develop shared understanding among our peers. Then we can truly contribute as members of teams working on complex problems. None of this costs additional money, only time and attention.”


seeing the figure through the ground

Models can give us a place to start to have a conversation in order to develop shared understanding. Mental models are one of the five disciplines of a learning organization, according to Peter Senge. I have frequently used the model of the Laws of Media developed by Marshall and Eric McLuhan which state that every medium (technology) used by people has four effects. Every medium extends a human property, obsolesces the previous medium (& makes it a luxury good), retrieves a much older medium, and reverses its properties when pushed to its limits. These four aspects are known as the media tetrad.

As our society becomes immersed in the technology of social media, whether they be Facebook, Twitter or something else, we read much criticism as well as hype. But with the tetrad, we can have a conversation around the four effects without the hype or fear. For example, there is little doubt that social media extend our voice, as mine has been extended with this blog. They enable what Seb Paquet calls “ridiculously easy group-forming”, so that we can find similar voices in the wilderness. I remember what it was like waiting for new books to come to the school library in the 1970’s. They were my connection to the outside world. Now we have this connectivity, to information and people, in our hands. (more…)

actionable insights

I concluded a few years back that rates based on time at work only help to put you into a pigeon hole so that HR and Purchasing can easily classify you. Knowledge professionals are not pigeons.

I have noticed a tendency over the past decade to push wages and fees down. Some may say it’s just the supply and demand conditions of the market. I think it’s the idea that human labour is a cost and it’s best to keep costs down, especially when CEO’s are still focused on increasing shareholder value. Short term objectives rule in this type of market. I recently spoke with someone who had left a large corporation after 30 years. He said that the constant pressure to keep increasing sales, year over year, was too much. The executives were only focused on the spreadsheets.

Large consultancies ensure that when they do work it is wrapped in large documents with fancy presentations so it looks big. But the value is not in big. The value for consulting is actionable insights. Can and will the client do something after the consulting engagement? If not, it was a waste of time. Sometimes the advice appears to be very simple, and therefore appears to be of no value. But master practitioners often make their work look simple. (more…)

sense-making beyond the outrage

A number of people I know have recently left Facebook and/or Twitter. I can understand why, as I left Facebook about eight years ago. I was an early adopter and thought it was going to help make a better civil society — I was naive it seems. I still find Twitter useful but I have to be more careful on it now, especially so I don’t get mired in some toxic thread. Being able to read the threads (comments) of people you do not follow is a feature that only produces more outrage, but that is what engages people and sells advertising. So of course Twitter will reinforce this outrage.

I think it is essential for every citizen to be involved in sense-making in the emerging network society. Currently most of the platforms are controlled by value-extracting corporations focused on procuring behavioural data, identifying social connections, and selling this information to the highest bidder. This makes it difficult to promote a platform like Twitter in order to learn about social networks. But it is still a good example. Just not an example of a good corporate citizen. The two consumer platforms I use most are Twitter, because I like its asymmetry, and LinkedIn because many of my clients are on it. I find LinkedIn useless for sense-making, as it’s difficult to curate or reference what I find. I still think we need to be out in ‘Wild West’ of consumer social media while understanding their dark sides. We need to have a way to connect to new, interesting, and even distasteful opinions and ideas. This requires practices that are directly opposed to the algorithms that drive the social media platforms. (more…)

structures and data

Every fortnight I curate some of the observations and insights that were shared on social media. I call these Friday’s Finds.

“The journey to knowledge is as important as the moment of realization, learning design has collapsed the journey into the moment, lessening the experience by depriving us of the collateral learning along the way.”@RalphMercer

A Thousand Rivers

“Collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World. … when you push a child to do something she simply developmentally can not do, you create a profound belief that (a) I hate this; (b) I can’t do this; (c) I will never be able to do this, and (d) There’s something wrong with me … Talk to gifted scientists, writers, artists, entrepreneurs. You will find they learned like a Yanomami child learns, through keen observation, experimentation, immersion, freedom, participation, through real play and real work, through the kind of free activity where the distinction between work and play disappears. Talk to a really good auto mechanic, carpenter, farmer, fiddle player, web designer, film editor, songwriter, photographer, chef, and you will find they learned the same way.”