by Sonja Blignaut, Aiden Choles, Jean Cooper
We live in a world where things, people and ideas are better connected than ever before. A world where work can flow across the globe as fast and as cheap as it doesin your home office. We live in an increasingly complex world and as consultants, we need to accept this complexity and not try to downplay or negate it. The mistake we often make is to walk around with a few models and tricks and pre-packaged products in our briefcases which we then try to sell to whoever is interested. I have a solution; lets find a problem in your company we can fit it to.There is also the saying that he who is good with a hammer tends to think that everything is a nail. We need to constantly and vehemently guard against this. It is what we call the consultants trap: That you become so comfortable with your money-spinner concept or product, that your need to develop and learn gives way to the need to establish yourself around your unique solution. Suddenly it really isnt about the client anymore. It is about you.
In our continuous and sometimes hard-headed pre-occupation with a customer-centered approach to our work, we are constantly challenging ourselves to re-think our approaches and techniques to prevent us from falling into the consultants trap. As part of this process, we have recently started to build an alliance with the Cynefin Centre, an international research and consulting network. They, like us, also have a passion forembracing the complexity of organisations and ardently believe that their role is not to sell solutions, but to help organisations to craft their own solutions. Here is some background on the Cynefin Centre, the philosophy that guides them and how this links in with our own facilitative and narrative approaches.
The Cynefin Centre
In recent years, popular business management practices and traditional business consulting methodologies have suffered from the over-assumption that organisations and their associated issues are essentially ordered. In other words, given enough time and resources, direct cause and effect relationships can be discovered, and once known, best practice solutions can be defined and applied to other similar issues in future. Cause and effect relationships therefore are assumed to be predictable and repeatable.
Organisations are becoming more and more complex due to many factors such as globalisation, increasing cultural diversity and changing economies. Complex systems are seldom (if ever) predictable, as there are so many different entities interacting with each other, that the possible patterns that can form are almost endless. Think of 9-11, in retrospect we can connect the dots, and pass blame on the ones who missed the signs. Before the event though, the critical dots were part of a collection of millions of dots, each with the potential to form millions of different connections with each other. In a complex system it is impossible to connect the dots and accurately predict behaviour. Therefore best practices and other ordered solutions are seldom appropriate to the complex issues facing the 21st-century organisation.
Over the last 7 years, Dave Snowden and the Cynefin Centre (which spun off from IBM in 2004) has developed a methodology based on applied research grounded in the areas of complexity science, cognitive psychology, anthropology, narrative, and social networks. The use of narrative or story to reveal patterns, and to pattern in its turn, is central to this methodology, which was developed specifically to deal with complex or intractable issues.
Cynefin (kun-evin) is a Welsh word, which seeks to remind us that all human interactions are strongly influenced and frequently determined by the patterns of our previous experiences, both through the direct influence of personal experience and through collective experience expressed as stories. The methodology is often referred to as pre-hypothesis research which differs from normal research methodologies (where the aim ofthe research is to prove a hypothesis), by admitting up-front that the exact nature of the issue or problem under investigation is unknown. This is especially critical when dealing with a complex system that by definition is seldom, if ever, predictable.Pre-supposing that you know what the problem is within a specific environment is like a doctor diagnosing your illness before hes even looked at the symptoms. The true nature of an issue whether, it is cultural or strategic will emerge from the environment itself if you listen to the stories that are being told about it. This approach ensures much more accurate diagnosis and intervention design.
Cynefin methods have been used with great success in projects all over the globe. In South Africa many successful projects have been run, including several in one of the big 4 banks. These projects focused on diverse topics such as investigating corporate culture, knowledge management, understanding customer experience and breaking into new markets. The insights that were gained both by participating in the project activities and by the outputs are viewed by the bank as being key differentiators for them in the banking industry. The CSIR also recently concluded a very successful project which was aimed at understanding the Innovation culture in one of their divisions.
Narrative and Cynefin
In the 1970s and 1980s a revolutionary approach to individual psychotherapy emerged known as Narrative Therapy. Narrative recognized the power and influence that words have in our histories and realities. Using textual practices, Narrative therapy aids people in re-authoring their personal stories in relation to presenting problems.
In a time when a dissatisfaction with the way in which scientific process and fact decided the way we should deal with problems, Narrative represented a way that embraced and explored the diversity and complexity with which we live our lives. However, this skillful approach was not to be kept in the realm of therapy for long. Coinciding with the realization that management practices of previous eras were no longer helpful in emerging economies, Narrative emerged as a fresh approach to understanding our companies and the manner in which we operate was provided the Story of our company.
Story has been used throughout our history as a means of capturing our experience, histories and meanings. In comparison to scientific methods, Story allows us to represent the complexity and ambiguous nature of human living through metaphor. For example, the use ofstories when parenting often conveys deeper understanding than that of direct instructions. Not to be confused with the fairytale stories of our childhood, Story is a process through which we capture and represent the culture of our organizations the mapping of our companys narrative.
Stemming from Narrative philosophy and practice, Cynefin represents a rich way of doing Story that previous approaches have failed in doing. In the past, Narrative practitioners of the therapy mould have attempted to do just the same, but in ways that were either too academic or irrelevant to the culture and style of the client. Instead, Cynefin speaks directly into the heart and complexity of our organizational cultures. Cynefin uses Narrative as a tool in formulating internal communication programmes, merger and acquisition work, innovation creation and culture measurement. The premise being that the answers to our problems lie within our Stories, not in the information provided by consultants. The founder of Cynefin, Dave Snowden (2005) is quoted as saying, “The stories told in an organisation, formally in presentations, around the water cooler, in project reviews, indeed in all aspects of organisational life, reveal the ideation patterns of the organisation. Narrative techniques both reveal the patterns of the organisation and are in turn the means by which it can be patterned.�
Cynefin practitioners offer a form of consulting that enables companies to discover their own solutions already present within their Narratives. Like a Narrative therapist, a Cynefin practitioner aims to uncover the clients Story, represent it in meaningful ways and then assist the client in molding their Narrative into a form that promotes and contributes to the organizations strategic goals and principles.
From theory to practice is currently in the process of adding our thinking, processes and frameworks to some of the techniques that Cynefin uses in order to build and develop the expertise in both networks. In addition to linking up with the Cynefin Centre, we have also set up a Facilitation Community, which is a community of practitioners from different industries and organisations that endeavors to share thoughts, ideas and techniques in the pursuit of developing our collective skills, tools and methods as we facilitate development in organisations.
We invite you to join us as we explore ways in which to truly help organisations, groups and individuals to excel in scripting their own stories of greatness. If this interests you, please contact
Jean Cooper at [email protected].
Sonja Blignaut
Sonja is a Certified Cynefin Practitioner with application experience inareas such as SocialCorporate Culture Transformation, Knowledge ManagementCustomer Experience.studies on work she has done for IBM have been published in amongst others the EU Knowledge Board E-book on Knowledge Management.She is an experienced facilitator and is skilled at guiding groups through complex sense-making processes.has a degree in Meteorology and earlier experience includes consulting around Enterprise Content Management Solutions and Portals.
Aiden Choles
Aiden pursued academic and service avenues in clinical psychology, religious studies, drug rehabilitation, anger management in prisons, English literature, education, training, counseling andtherapeutic practice. While completing his Masters degree in Narrative practice at the age of 24, Aiden discovered his commercial aptitude and excelled in Human Resource Management within the SMME sector. Here he continued displaying his flair by branchingout into strategic management where he has proven himself as a highly competent management team facilitator, Black Economic Empowerment strategist, trainer, mentor and advisor to executives and management teams.
Jean Cooper
Jean is a registered Industrial Psychologist with four degrees, including two cum laude Masters degrees (Industrial Psychology and Applied Theology) both from the University of Pretoria. He specializes in utilizing various types of experiences to develop individuals, teams and organisations. His work on developing people for the future workplace has earned him international acclaim and was presented at the European Association of Work and Organisational Psychology (Istanbul) in May 2005.

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