Around three-and-a-half years ago, Dave Snowden and I had an in-depth exchange on the dynamics of organization. This was triggered by his comment on a post of mine entitled, “Self-organization and emergence as natural dynamics of organization.”
In a recent blog post of his own, "On the value of order," he once again takes issue with the suggestion made by some people (“from serious academics to superficial consultants with various gradations of sense and sensibility in between”) that all situations involving people are complex, regardless of context. I’m one of those people – as I was back in January 2012. Since I don’t see myself as an academic – serious or otherwise - I guess I might qualify as a superficial consultant. Or perhaps I’m one of Dave’s in-betweenies.
Anyway, it seems to me that his analysis confuses a description of the unavoidably complex dynamics of everyday human interaction, which exist regardless of context,with the range of responses that one might deliberately seek to make according to context.
If we take the examples that he gives of what he calls “legitimate order”, i.e. operating theatre checklists and rules of the road, these are examples of interventions that set out to impose order by design – seeking to enable and constrain people’s actions through the formal imposition of structures, procedures, rules, and so on. He refers to these as “governing constraints” on people’s actions.
To begin with, though, artefacts of organization such as these are themselves products of the complex social process of human interaction. They originate, are formally adopted as policy, and subsequently become institutionalized (or not), through people interacting together, both formally and informally, in structured settings and spontaneously. It made sense to those involved in the original exchanges to design these measures and put them in place - at least it did so to a sufficiently powerful coalition of those involved in making the decision. Such decisions are unavoidably partial, power-laden, and political, even when accounted for in terms of rational design.
Furthermore, whether or not these idealizations affect today’s practice – and the ways in which they do so – depends wholly upon the extent to which these are taken up by the relevant people in their current (inter)actions. Using Dave’s own examples, this means those people who are currently working in the operating theatres and driving on the roads. In the context of this ongoing interactional process, the previously established structures, systems, and processes etc. continue to exist as ‘imprints’ of the past conversations through which they came into being. As such, these carry forward into today’s conversations the ’voices’ of those past participants.
In this way, organization is continuously (re)enacted in the actual and imaginary interactions between current and past participants in the ongoing, self-organizing process of everyday human interaction.
Dave’s continuing development and articulation of his Cynefin framework, in conversation with himself (i.e. thinking) and others, is itself an example of the former, ‘design’ dynamic. The ways in which people use it (or, as Dave would say, sometimes misuse it) reflects the hidden, messy, and informal dynamics of organization, in which shadow conversational themes tend to dominate what actually happens in practice.
Future continuously created in the currency of today's interactions
In his recent post, he goes on to say, “By classifying everything as complex we not only make a series of category errors, but we also miss opportunities to stabilise that which can be stabilised.” No we don’t – on either count.
As regards categorization, classifying a particular process as either simple/obvious or complicated, say, and approaching them in different ways, is not a statement of objective fact but rather a matter of interpretation, practical judgement, and emergent practice. It does nothing to negate the complex social dynamics of organization through which the future (including the desire to establish order and predictability) is continuously being created in the currency of today’s interactions. In relation to stabilization, much of this ongoing, sense-making-cum-action-taking activity is itself directed towards stabilizing the inherent complexity (seeking to “catch the wiggliness in a net”, as I’ve described it elsewhere). This is why and how operating theatre checklists, the rules of the road, and the Cynefin framework emerged in the first place.
A sense of order arising in the self-organizing patterning of people's everyday interactions
As a final point, the characteristic patterning of people’s everyday interactions itself provides a sense of order and predictability that allows people to go on participating together despite not knowing what will emerge. By creating expectancy, this both enables and constrains the ways in which they continue to make sense of the world and take action. It does so largely unconsciously and through habit rather than by conscious intent. It is this ongoing, self-organizing process of pattern forming and pattern using that we often refer to as organizational culture. Despite this tendency for people’s ongoing practice to repeat - and thereby reinforce - existing patterns of interaction in a particular context (i.e. to promote order) , the capacity always exists for pattern shifting to occur and novel outcomes to emerge.