In recent times I’ve been engaged in a series of interesting exchanges with Dr Mike Jackson OBE, hereinafter referred to as Mike. I have a visiting chair at Hull University where he is Emeritus Professor and as well as a fair number of mutual friends including Yasmin Merali and Gerald Midgley. I have been provisionally scheduled to give the annual MC Jackson Lecture in 2023, Peter Senge gets the slot in 2022, so there will be some interesting contrasts to be made. This year will see Carlo Rovelli is leading a symposium on the work of Alexandr Bogdanov whose work in systems has been much neglected so I am looking forward to that.
I should also make clear at this point my gratitude to, and respect for, the work that Mike has put into understanding not only Cynefin but the wider fields of complexity and systems. It makes an exchange both interesting and rewarding and allows for a non-homogenising understanding of the wider field. We share concerns about the rejection of all Systems Thinking by Stacy, and the, at times arrogance of the agent-based modelers of what I call Computational Complexity.
Now the exchanges, while interesting, have led to a certain amount of bafflement on my part as a large part of my responses have been along the lines of but that isn’t what I am saying and that isn’t what Cynefin is about and variations on that theme. When this happens it is usually a result of the way one or other party is framing the problem and/or the way the idea is being communicated. Two recent events resulted in a breakthrough for me at least, the light dawned and while I don’t yet hold said light in the palm of my hand I think I am getting there.
The two events were Mike’s review of the EU Field Guide on Linkedin and a lecture he gave online for the Cranfield School of Management. I had tweeted a contrast between the field guide and an almost parallel publication of the GAPPS framework for leadership in complexity. The former talks about what you do collectively, the latter fits within the pattern of identifying leadership qualities. I’ve always found that type of approach to be interesting but lacking in pragmatism or (from a complexity perspective) too focused on supposed agents and insufficiently focused on the system and interactions with the system. Mike picked that up and I think our views are in harmony and well summarised by him as follows:
… from the CST perspective, and the point has also been made from a complexity theory viewpoint by Dave Snowden (on LinkedIn), the list gives the impression that competencies are static, and that homogeneity is desirable. In the midst of a crisis, brought on by complexity, the appropriate leadership qualities are likely to be emergent rather than fixed and those dealing with the crisis better served if they display a diversity of competencies
CST is shorthand for Critical Systems Thinking which is as much Mike’s as anthro-complexity and naturalising sense-making are mine and both of us are passionate advocates for our views. Another post from Mike seeks to take Mazzucato’s excellent work on Mission Economies and use it as evidence for the critically (sic) of CST and I may do something similar. In the context of that work. I also agree with the intent of Mike’s closing question as the grand challenges presented clearly require a post-capitalist economy. We have a lot in common, including studying at Lancaster, but also some significant differences.
To return to the main storyline. I promised to write a response to Mike’s review here on the blog and this post is it, but that is to some extent now a postscript to the main event. I was going to listen to the Cranfield lecture anyway, but I did so with particular attention and Mike placing Cynefin front and central in the Scientific approaches to Complexity was good to see, but then he suggested that strange attractors should be thought of as metaphors as they don’t manifest themselves readily in social systems. His lecture lists Cynefin (I have to teach him how to pronounce but, but I do like the new Yorkshire variant) and recognises my ‘people are not ants or termites’ criticism of much of Santa Fe. But he goes on to say (correctly) that I still adhere to a naturalising perspective. His problem with that is that he thinks that there are issues in suggesting that issues “intentionality and meaning, purposeful and power can be captured using natural science perspectives”. Those two statements, along with my puzzlement about some of the statements in the review created a lightbulb moment. What we have here is a long-standing misunderstanding between the Systems Thinking and Complexity Communities around the whole idea of enabling constraints and a misunderstanding of the matching of natural phenomena, understood scientifically, to the humanities (of more interest to me than social science per se).
So this post is going to be in two sections, the first on the way that science is used in Naturalising sense-making in general and anthro-complexity in particular; the second dealing point by point with other issues raised in the review. There is also a post-script as to why I am posting here not on LinkedIn.
Let’s start with a quote from Mike’s review, a point he repeats in the lecture
The Cynefin version of complexity theory is a ‘naturalising’ approach that seeks to be relevant to social- or anthro-complexity. It wants to bring ‘good science’ to bear to understand how humans interact with each other and engage with the world. Snowden is critical of existing science-based variants of complexity theory when they reduce the complexity exhibited by humans. Humans are not the same as ants, birds or crystals, he insists. Any complexity theory worth the name, and seeking to address anthro-complexity, must take account of human identities, values, intentions, and cultural practices. It is a difficult feat, I will argue, to remain ‘scientific’ while embracing those features of human systems that have been subject to multiple interpretations in the social sciences, leading to the paradigm wars with which other forms of complexity theory have had to become engaged.vv
Here Mike is picking up on Checkland’s suggestion of the limitations of science and I am more or less in agreement. I’ve had some bitter arguments with people from the Santa Fe Institute (not all of them and a lot agree with my criticism) who think it is only a matter of time before they can model everything of significance about human behaviour. I think that is a fundamental error. At the same time, social science has a significant issue with verifiability, and schools of thought can emerge, achieve dominance and survive without any requirement for experimental or other validation. I’ve always found the debate between critical realism and social constructivism stale for example, the former defining itself in opposition to the latter. But schools of thought can easily emerge based on interpretation of cases or of a field that then takes on a life of their own, precocious becoming pernicious forms of autopoiesis. But the humanities and many aspects of social science are powerful in their ability to make sense and to make meaning in understanding human systems. DeLanda’s reinterpretation of Deleuzian epistemology using the idea of assemblage has been a key aspect of the Cynefin work from our early days on the DARPA GENOA II project, but so has Deacon’s work in Symbolic Species which finally challenged (conclusively in my view) Chomsky’s theory of language. Many people have seen in SenseMaker®, our approach to distributed ethnography a manifestation of the research approach advocated by Bourdieu. I am proud, that on the promoting of Zhen and John, that I was able to establish Derrida’s use of Aporia into the language of the Field Guide and more generally. I’ve also taken the idea of exaptation from Gould, Odling-Smee, and others and created methods and tools based on a key concept in biology, namely the radical repurposing of a trait that evolved from one function to something completely different. Mary Douglas’s work in Anthropology, and on one memorable occasion Mary Douglas in person was a part of the design of several Cynefin methods. I also worked with Frank Land and some of the early pioneers of Cybernetics several decades ago, learned a lot, got some great ideas but also decided to move on.
So it is plain wrong to suggest that Cynefin, or more specifically the field of Naturalising sense-making (one of the five identified approaches to sense-making) limits itself to the natural sciences. Sense-making is defined as how do we make sense of the world so that we can act in it and the naturalising element is a reference to a school of Philosophy that seeks to base epistemology, and more recently ontology into a stronger relationship with the natural sciences. The great advantage of the natural sciences is that knowledge arises, not just from developing an explanation but from testing that explanation and critically your experiments being validated by other scientists. So Naturalising Sense-making starts in a field by asking what we know from a natural science perspective, accepts that as an enabling constraint, and then goes on to develop practice accordingly. The purpose of an enabling constraint is to disrupt, by creating a gradient, what would otherwise be an equiprobable state. Social science, without that constraint, can, and has, asserted more or less anything with varying degrees of coherence, So let’s take three examples of how this has worked:
The fact that Cybernetics had addressed issues of complexity is without question. But equally, humans found all sorts of ways to work with gravity before Newton came along, after that everything was different.
So a naturalising approach to sense-making gives us three benefits at least
There is another key quote in Mike’s review relating to mass engagement and human sensor networks so again let us start with a quote from Mike’s review
Geoffrey Vickers, for example, argued that the components of human systems, active individuals using ‘appreciative systems’ to attribute meaning to their situation, makes it impossible to study them using the natural scientific approach. Following Vickers’ insights, and drawing upon hermeneutics and phenomenology, Checkland rejected any attempt to understand problematic social situations in scientific terms, and developed ‘soft systems methodology’ as an approach that works with different perceptions of reality and facilitates a systemic process of learning that can lead to purposeful action in pursuit of improvement.
I think I have already answered this but I wanted to make what we do clear. We developed an approach, using concepts of abstraction (see above) by which human actors could attribute meaning to their experiences in a quantitive form. It is a part and parcel of my humans are not ants criticism of the computational complexity folks. We are currently extending that to include high abstraction searches using hermeneutics. Vickers and Checkland currently stated a problem at the time, they set a question and restriction and trying to work around that was a driver for my work in DARPA. Their statement of the problem was critical, but things have now moved on we have approaches that are not subject to the process limitations we see in Checkland, but probably would not have happened without his initial insights. Those theory-initiated methods and tools can also represent in statistical terms multiple perceptions of reality and by carrying the narrative with the statistics allows the more stories like these, fewer like those approach to Vector Theory of change. It doesn’t make it all scientific. but it radically increases the scientific element and the ability to operate at scale and in real-time: action and interpretation are entangled at fractal levels.
Overall this also links in to the concept of democratising sense-making to return to an earlier post. That extends the ideas inherent in the various bodies of work on epistemic injustice (Humanities again, we use and draw on it extensively) and also argues against a reliance workshop/discourse approaches common in Systems Thinking practice. The very linear approach of getting people together, discussing what should happen within a framework, and then assuming that agreement will translate into action has been a real issue and still is. In our indigenous work where the action is intertwined with thinking it wouldn’t be understood. The very culturally specific orientation of Systems Thinking is something we have been seeking to overcome in the wider sense-making work. It’s not that that workshops are not important, or that articulation of intentionality and meaning does not have its place, but it is a part of a wider approach. Now again I’m happy to be pointed to material from a CST or any ST background which doesn’t do this. But naturalising and democratising sense-making are also a way to shift away from the its all about perception error which is argued by many cyberneticians. As we say to post-modernists (when we are not talking about giving a flying duck) is that reality exists, live in it. Yes perceptions matter, but human knowledge can exist independently of perception and increasing the friction between perception, knowledge and reality is a key aspect of this approach to sense-making.
This is not as important as the above section so I will write it as a series of bullet points roughly by paragraph sequence
A final point here, and an open question to Mike. He says “the easiest way he can improve the field guide is to recommend systems approaches which have already translated the insights of the different epistemologies offered in social theory into practical methodologies”. Well as I have said the Field Guide does not mandate or prescribe and the assessment process will leave open a pathway to multiple methodologies. We focused the guide on practices that could be implemented and used quickly, not workshops and discussions to agree on what should be done. If Mike wants to list some of those from his own tradition I will happily go through and comment. But I’ve already explained why I didn’t take forward the soft systems approach which is one example he gave. But I am happy to engage there or around other methods. Also, the pattern language alternative we are developing would allow those methods to incorporated and I’m happy to work with him on that.
Mike recognises the ST and CAS backgrounds are different and is happy with robust debate and is prepared to engage in a meaningful way. What I have found on LinkedIn of late is that there is a small coterie of cybernetics fanboys (and they are all boys) who obviously feel threatened by Cynefin. Their comments range from patronising to occasionally interesting. For some their tendency to ad hominem attacks shows though, and back door one to one libelous communications with other participants really breaks any normal ethical standards. There is no debate in an open unmoderated forum where people choose to mob against the unfamiliar and you give them too much credibility by responding time and time again with the same dialogue. The intent is pretty clear to try and drive people away from a post or use it for self-promotion. All are welcome to comment or ask questions, but if I get the same sort of behaviour as I have seen on LinkedIn I will simply block the contributors. Few of them would survive Wikipedia where behavioural norms act as an enabling constraint.
Also, the above material is important (at least to me), and placing it here gives it more permanence.
The opening picture of a light bulb in a human hand is an original photo by Rohan Makhecha Banner picture of a Settlers of Catan game in play is by Galen Crout both on Unsplash