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Dave Snowden

The ethics of intervention

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A brief two day visit to San Francisco saw me teaching day three of the Cynefin and Sense-making course with a focus on Cynefin dynamics and the four domain models. One of the things I like about these programmes is that every audience is different, with a wide variety of questions, perspectives and contexts. Several of the participants were from the development and NGO sectors so the nature of intervention came up.

Now for me one of the key principles of complexity work is that you focus on changing the constraint structure so that good things are more likely to happen. You don’t tell people what they should do, or worse what type of person they should be; you change or use the context to encourage things in the right direction. I’ll leave on one side how you determine what is good that is for day four. The point I made, forcibly, is that imposing your view of what qualities people should possess is a form of post-colonialism all to common in people of good intention. That does not mean that you leave things alone, but you seek to engage people in shifting the direction of practice by engaging people in asking the question What would you do tomorrow to create more stories like this fewer stories like that? That creates an interaction between multiple agents, both those who are the subject of change and those who fund change. It means you do not over commit to some ideal (therein lies fanaticism and violence) but to a series of co-evolutionary micro-actions.

You don’t decide what people should be, or where they should end up. But you do seek to influence the direction and speed of travel. Justification is not in good intention but in both intention and works.. A reference there to James 2:24 for those not seeped in this most fundamental of religious divides.

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