Dave Snowden

Special People

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One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that doing new things is hard. Something that is self evident to the innovator is conceptually difficult to the establishment, by which I mean everyone who is comfortable for good or bad reason with the current way of doing things. You then get a secondary phenomena in which a group of people arise who offer to “simplify” or interpret the method or approach to make it more acceptable, and in doing so compromise the functionality. The greatest of the wise fools in the story telling traditions of the world Nasrudin has a story which summarises this need to people to make something “familiar” even at the cost of destroying what they found.

Nasrudin found a weary falcon sitting one day on his window-sill. He had never seen a bird like this before.
‘You poor thing’, he said, ‘how ever were you to allowed to get into this state?’
He clipped the falcon’s talons and cut its beak straight, and trimmed its feathers.
‘Now you look more like a bird,’ said Nasrudin.”

Small Image A good friend of mine, Peter Hawkins has created Nasrudin’s Guide to Leadership for those who would like a modern day version, but nothing beats the original in the double book edition edited by Idris Shah. We could all do with a wise fool to make us see the obvious, but a wise fool not a foolish use of “wisdom”. I think a lot of these people confuse simplification with being simplistic, they are often sophisticated people who are to a degree patronising their subjects by assuming they cannot understand. Or maybe they don’t understand themselves and feel alienated until they have made a falcon into a pigeon?

Now why am I raising all of this under the heading of special people?

Well today I had a great experience. We have been doing a project over several months with various schools in Singapore. Today we had to present to a very senior group of civil servants and I took along the Headmaster and Discipline Master of one of the schools. They had been trained in story capture techniques and also to construct the Cynefin Framework and had completed the ministry sponsored project. After that they had gone on to use the method on a series of intractable problems. They had gathered stories from teachers and from pupils, they had got both sides to see that they shared problems and hopes. They had used the Cynefin Framework (or rather a group of students had used it with no training) to identify issues and possible solutions. When they showed it to me it was so well done that I assumed an experienced practitioner had done the work, but no, the Discipline Master picked a group of children from outside his room, explained the model and they just did it. Sense-making in action.

The theme of their presentation was The Power of Stories . As they talked about their learnings and their plans the stories they had captured, raw and unedited scrolled one by one across the screen. The audience was paying intense attention, even though they had only just finished lunch and had a long agenda to come in the afternoon.

Before the teachers had presented, a young, bright civil servant from the IDA had presented their project, using stories and archetypes to indicate deep cultural attitudes in the people of Singapore to the adoption of technology. These people were not consultants, they were people in the field who had found a method and tool that worked for them. They didn’t need it simplified by an expert, they were more than capable of taking the ideas and making them work in their context.

So to my friends in the Ministry of Education and the IDA in Singapore: I salute you …