Faris mohammed z0UfETjRl0g unsplashIn my earlier post I reprised my earlier work on the role of informal networks with a view to updating and extending that today, keeping with the metaphor of mycorrhiza.  In the meantime Valdis has made a first post in his work and ideas.  The two of us agreed to do this in parallel for the coming Exploratory, which is selling out fast by the way and postal services to Europe may be disrupted after 1st Jan.   As befits a reprise there were a lot of links to other articles in that post and while reading all them is not essential I am going to assume familiarity with From Atomism to Networks in Social Systems in what follows.

I want to emphasise is that informal networks have zero energy to the system to establish, they will happen regardless, but neglecting them can cost you a lot.  The famous adage that it’s not what you know but who you know represents reality in any system.  Accepting it without constraint results in corruption, but attempting to remove it completely generally makes things worse.   Human decision-makers will never have all the information they need to act rationally so trust in the person, or persons providing information and/or recommendations matters.  And while some trust resides in roles a lot of it arises from interactions over time, but it can be lost in seconds.  Moreover, if trust in roles starts to break down or there is a conflict between those roles then increasingly we fall back to those informal patterns of trust.  One thing that a lot of people don’t realise is how little time is available for decision making within an organisation at all levels and the dream of a data-driven fully ‘rational’ process is just a dream.  This is not to say that better data and information management (they are different more on that in a future post) are not important, but they are not sufficient unto the day.   remember that the full form of that aphorism from Matthew 6:34 is Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof which in an impoverished form of English (the New American Standard Bible which lacks all poetry)  is translated as Each day has enough trouble of its own.

My definition of sense-making as how do we make sense of the world so that we can act in it reflects the reality that we need to know when we know enough, we never have perfect information.  Trust in informal networks is one of the key human mechanisms for reducing the cost of decision making and like most outcomes of a complex evolutionary process it is neither bad nor good of itself.  This field is one that should be deeply pragmatic (in several senses of that world) in nature but it does not follow from that, to abuse Hume, that every is should be an ought.  It follows that one approach to managing uncertainty is to manage the way in which informal networks form and are nurtured.  There are other approaches that complement this in using distributed decisions support and also processes such as the Triopticon and I will update material on both of those in the future, but  for the moment I want to focus on managing the informal networks that are a part and parcel of any organisation and which often transcend organisational boundaries.

Remember that the basic metaphor of these posts is that of the mycorrhiza, deeply entangled symbiotic systems that provide key nutrients to plants.  So, to my mind obvious step, is to focus on managing the entanglement to optimise diversity and connect it to the formal system so it can be activated at need.  Now that has been obvious to me for the best part of three decades, but sometimes it takes time for an idea to catch on and I think we are finally getting there.  The first and simplest way is to trigger the informal networks when a formal system is needed.  As a general rule if there isn’t already an informal network of interest around a subject then starting a community of interest, practices or whatever is going to be difficult.  So finding an existing activity and giving it quasi-official status while encouraging it to expand its membership is a lot easier.  In a large organisation it helps if you make technology available to people without requiring formal approval for its use.  These days with tools like Slack and Facebook Groups it is easy for people to connect.  In effect, this is a trigger to shift informal points of coalescence from the complex to the complicated domain and Cynefin and that is best done by making small changes in the liminal zone before committing resources.  Funding events or publications for informal groups is one way to trigger this, especially if you fund collaborative working between informal networks to increase diversity.  In effect, you use the resources of the organisation, which includes access to senior decision-makers, as a form of safe-to-fail catalyst to see if you can form something with greater formal use.  Dynamically it will have a limited life span before you need to let it slip back into the informal.  What you are doing is planting saplings and artificially providing additional sucrose so the fungal strands will connect and nurture, but you don’t destroy the fungus in the process you just connect it.  There are all sorts of ways to achieve this but hold that final metaphor in mind and for those coming to the Exploratory on this, we will explore how to do this in more depth.

The second is to manage the formation of the network itself.  I have already referenced Social Network Stimulation as a method, various descriptions of that being laid out in the linked articles in my last post.  But I now want to move on and develop the thinking and practice behind a new synthesis of theory and practice, namely the use of Entangled Trios.
This approach has as its basic building block the idea of three individuals (although that could be identities, but I will leave that level of complexity for another day) from diverse backgrounds interacting around some type of task or activity that is meaningful to them.  One way that I have explained the importance of three here is to think about a dinner engagement with strangers.  if there are two of you then the whole burden of maintaining a conversation is greater than if there are three, but all of you are engaged, as numbers got up it becomes more difficult and I would argue that there is an upper limit of five (going with Miller’s number of the short term memory being seven plus or minus two).  Whatever the number needs to be an odd one or you are building conflict into the system.  I’ve developed and used this approach in a range of assignments over the years but this is the first time I have formalised it and thought it through as a generic and scalable approach.  So bear with me, all of this will go into the Wiki over the Christmas break which will open it up for additional ideas and practice.

The scaling process is also designed to link into the idea of scaffolding that we developed in a series of retreats over the last two years and which is ably described by Anne in the Cynefin Book.  The basic concept we developed was a typology of different types of scaffolding that you put in place before you attempt any final construction.  Some of those types are rigid and provide a clue as to the final structures, others provide coherence but allow for radical differences as the system evolves, thus increasing resilience and reducing the danger of getting things wrong.  In that development I came up with a key phrase, building on the closing message of the Children’s Party Story: to manage the emergence of beneficial coherence within attractors, within boundaries. This relates to organisational design as much as to IT architecture namely:

In the future we will design scaffolding, appropriate to the level of uncertainty and then define how people and things can interact with those scaffolding around points of coherence to allow a sustainable and resilient structure to emerge.  As patterns of use stabilise so we will increase the structure and connectivity to allow the system to scale.

Screenshot 2020 12 13 at 10 52So the flow chart gives an idea of the overall process and is best described in stages – to be clear I am laying out a skeleton here to give readers a sense of how this works.  A lot of the detail sits in the domain of experience and I strongly recommend mentoring before you attempt this.  As the body of knowledge develops (and it will all be in the open-source wiki early next year) it should be possible to implement without that and it probably is now, I just don’t recommend it.

The key point of entanglement is those roles and before running through the process I want to identify three types of roles that can exist.

  1. Formal job roles or functions within the organisation
  2. Roles that transcend the organisation and are recognised in society as a whole such as Doctor, Priest, etc.
  3. Abstractions such as archetype characters, trusted friend, and the like

I doubt if this is exhaustive so feel free to comment and it is a typology, not a taxonomy designed to get you to think of things from different perspectives not to focus on classification.  At an additional level of complexity, you might map roles onto attributes but again I am keeping it relatively simple for the moment.

The stages of the process are then as follows:

  1. Identify all the relevant roles that are present in the organisation and be broad in your definition of what the organisation is.  Cluster and group them.
  2. Identity what are core connections to define initial dyads and what are optional third members that go with the dyad.  This can be open, any combination is allowed or more structured.
  3. Define what contingent third members would be – for example in social change we use a trans-generational pair to generate ideas, but once the idea is half-formed they are linked with a government official to make the idea work.  Another example would be a naive programmer coupled with a systems architect who triggers a connection with a user trained to talk to IT people (or just a user but some training is desirable)
  4. Define the process of formation which can be compulsory, or as in the case of SNS voluntary, the incentives to combine and the period and type of activity
  5. Determine entanglements  For example in one COVID case we have been connecting a teacher with a parent and a child, but the teachers are connected with several such groups and can be put in a triad with a  social worker and a community health worker  The Health worker may be in a trio with hospital administration and a local church charity and so on.  At the simplest level, the approach works with three roles, as you expand the roles the entanglement increase.
  6. If using a core Dyad concept allow them to form and then make the third member (contingent or not ) available.  If you are staring with open trios then it is simpler.  to give an example, when students join a college they are asked to form a trio in which one member comes from engineering, another from the pure scenes, and a third from the humanities.  Those trios are then given tasks but the real goal is to connect between silos to allow trans-disciplinary communication of ideas and exaptive innovation.  The students network the connects the professors at a lower energy cost.
  7. Once formed you enter the discovery phase and trigger actions which are recorded

The better-connected people are the more resilience there is in the system.  We are currently looking at this as a way of handling mental health issues next year as the impact of COVID hits the capacity of formal systems to handle needs.  The points of coherence are the organisational and society roles as they have access to the formal system and can be triggered for micro-interventions based on localised knowledge.  The earlier you intervene the lower the cost of the intervention.  But this is also an approach to manage innovation between silos within an organisation and can even be run in one or two days intensively – at a conference or online.

We are also linking this to the journaling function of SenseMaker® so that each member of each trio records their experience, their interpretation, and their actions as micro-narratives and observations.  This allows peer to peer knowledge flow without committing the full resources of the formal system.  In effect a distributed self-managing system of safe-to-fail experiments to reveal what is possible, at minimal cost, to senior executives.

Preliminary thinking, ideas, and copywriters welcome!  However, for me, this approach to entanglement is one of the three key pillars of naturalising sense-making along with Cynefin and also the Flexuous Curves, or Apex Predator theory. A lot of my original work here was in peace and conflict resolution, bringing people together in a different context rather than forcing them into mediated workshops and I think there are extensive applications of this in coaching. So I will return to the subject.


Opening image of a flower origami is by Faris Mohammed on Unsplash

Banner picture of Monotropastrum humile in fruit, “this odd member of the heather family is a holomycotroph: a plant without green chlorophyll, totally dependent for its nutrition on the fungus associated with its roots (a mycorrhiza)”.   Taken in China: Yunnan, Yongping, Jinguang Si, 18 August 2007. Used under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)



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