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Authentic action

By Dave Snowden  ·  January 28, 2014  ·  Reflections

My little tirade yesterday about the primitive linear causality of Blair's article in yesterday's Observer prompted a few to ask be elaborate on my statement that we have to change the dynamics of people's interactions.   Now I have been here a few times over the years, but there is no harm in coming back to it as it is a key aspect of complexity based interventions.  It applies if you are trying to break people out of the radicalisation hopper or simply endeavouring to shift organisational culture.  The hopper is a simple thing to understand and its not just about radicalisation per se.  

The sequence is fairly simple:

  1. People start to gain a sense of grievance at some depravation, comparative wealth, sense of injustice or whatever.   Fairness seems to be something which is pretty embedded in our evolutionary history.  Suffering equally is one thing, suffering disproportionally with high visibility of those who have is another thing all together.
  2. Grumbling gradually turns to either indifference or a desire to do something about things (the funnel is narrowing which means fewer people are in it, but the sides are steeper).
  3. Indifference breeds its own culture or resignation and those are most frequent in the corporate world.  Those who want to do something are now vulnerable to any political activist who can recruit to his or her cause.  Outside the context of counter terrorism this is where the self-help gurus and the false promise of pseudoscience come into play.
  4. Finally the activist is recruited and commits an act or terror, or joins a cult, or becomes a negative cynic (there are positive ones as well) around the water cooler.
  5. Finally those who could have done something at stage one wake up to the need to do something and blame those who have taken advantage of the situation they created, when they should be looking at the ecology they stimulated which made the whole negative thing possible in the first place.

So what to do about it?  Well first you map culture on a continuous scanning basis.  Something we do with SenseMaker® and teach on various courses the next opportunity being Sydney, coming up in a couple of weeks time.  If you do that you can see or sense the emergent patterns that will lead to a problem downstream. 

The intervention methods are the same at all stages but need to be more drastic as you drop further into the hopper.  The longer you leave them, the more costly the intervention and the higher risk.  Basically there are three types of intervention that work:

  1. You need to get those in authority to act in such a way as to make the negative stories difficult to sustain.  Doing something that directly counters the myth can be powerful, but it needs multiple such interventions and they need to be sustained.  Those cost of sustaining them goes up the deeper you are.  At one US conference asked how you would do this to counter Al-Qaeda I suggested arresting Sharon as a war criminal (this was some years ago).   I stand my that one on the grounds that he was (I remember Lebanon and I was there) but the main reason is that it would damage the Al-Qaeda myth about the US.  It would not destroy it but it would disrupt it.
  2. Change the dynamics of who interacts with who.  Back in the 70s one programme I was involved with in Ireland took people from both warring communities and sent them into a development project in Latin America for a year.  We didn't talk about their issues, we sent them into an activity and location where they could gain perspective.  Breaking up business units, changing the physical layout of offices.  Changing who interacts with who is key.  In counter terrorism moving vulnerable members of the community out of at risk situations is an obvious one.
  3. Focus on a different problem, the principle of obliquity (number 2 above has a bit of this in it as well).  By engaging people in working on something external to the internal problem you make the latter less problematic..

There is an underlying theme to all three of these - they are about acting not talking.  NAFB approaches are self-indulgent ego boosting (ego of the facilitator that is) nonsense.  Get people's hand's dirty fast.  If you want another example (not a case), in one SNS project many years ago the prize for the winning team was to have the executive board of the company work on an urban redevelopment project of the team's choice sleeping on church hall floors without access to mobile phones or email.  Lots of people took part in that competition, lots of people turned up to be part of the project.   We completely reversed a negative image of the board by changing their interactions, making them act in a way that made the negative stories difficult to maintain and also engaged lots of people in an externally focused project.  

Whatever you do, heed the warning of the Gaping Void cartoon that opens this post