Unknown territory


For many years I drove all over the place, on my own, and I got very comfortable about knowing roughly where I was and roughly where I was going – basically I worked out which big towns I needed to go between and only worried about the detail of my actual destination when I got near to it. I’ve been doing a lot of driving recently with the ‘aid’ of a sat nav – and I’m really struck by the contrast. The  whole route is defined for you from the outset – and if you veer off it (which I am wont to do if I think somewhere looks interesting) the instructions are pretty vehement to get back onto the main road, the direct A-B. And of course sometimes that’s the right thing to do. But I think sat nav is also an analogy for how big business works these days. We have to know, not just where we are going but the whole route to get there. Hence project management, business planning etc. And yet . . . .

The world is becoming increasingly complex – and complexity means that properties (and hence events) are emergent. Not linear, not extrapolatable, not plannable – they emerge from the interplay of forces and drivers. Which means that you might know where you want to get to, but you can’t know the best way to do it. You have to prototype, to experiment – see what works and when it does, do more of it. Where it doesn’t, be quick to close it down and move on. I’m hearing a lot about innovation but innovation seems in many cases to be really project management by another guise – take the chosen ideas, develop them according to the plan, stage gate then, lose (sometimes) the ones that don’t work and follow the plan on the others. It all feels rather sterile and fails to take into account emergent properties – they don’t fit the plan.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that there are many reasons I like the Cynefin framework but one of the most obvious is that it makes this tension really explicit – the VUCA world we live in means that events, actions etc are becoming more (albeit not exclusively) complex rather than complicated or simple – ie the operating environment is moving anti-clockwise from simple through complicated to complex and even chaotic. At the same time my basic understanding of how our brain works suggests that our instincts are all about moving clockwise – taking the complex (unknown and unpredictable) and seeking to map it to things we are already familiar with and hence making it known and predictable. So that gives us an ever increasing tension between the two. And as Dave Snowden points out in the video the real world is a mixture of both – but we do need to be explicit about where we are for any given context and we have to be comfortable with the complex . . .  It’s that lack of comfort with the unpredictable, with the lack of a given route map that I feel instinctively is perhaps one of our greatest risks.