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Necessary ambiguity

By Dave Snowden  ·  August 2, 2014  ·  Musings, Polemic

It took me the best part of an hour to check in at Medellin Airport this morning.  The ESTA had to be printed out as they have no electronic link and will want to see it again at the gate.  Then there is the need to queue up to get a piece of paper to confirm your ticket includes tax even though the airline records already show it.  Then you line up again for checkin and get sent to get a refund of the tax in local currently.  All of this put 2,300 steps on the fitbit  and it really is a problem.  Excessive bureaucracy and thinking inside various boxes, failing to understand the more complex aspect of customer relationships.

Ironically I landed in Miami to a series of tweets about complexity and leadership with the rather surprising assertion that if there is a leader the system can't be complex.  Now this is really strange and I finally worked out that the person concerned was using wikipedia to understand self-organising systems in ants.  Now these are examples of a CAS, but it doesn't follow that all complex systems have to be genetically encoded rules responding to pheromone traces.  The simple fact is that leadership is a type of constraint, and it can be an enabling or a governing constraint.  Both are OK in context, but without enabling constraints there is no complexity.  In organisations leadership is one of the ways that is achieved.

Now when I was teaching with Simon a week ago in Sydney he made the point (in the context of SAFe) that some people cannot break out of an aggregative and reductionist mindset.  They simply can't understand that the whole can be different from the sum of the parts and that the properties of interactions over time can create something which has independence of its creators and their perception.  The want everything to be really simplistic.  So I have had people say, but experts are in the complicated domain for if there are experts it must be complicated.   I could go on but you will either get the point, or you won't.

Another key illustration of this is the difference between thinking in terms of coalesces not categories.  When I am in the middle of a cloud I know I am there, and in blue sky the same.  However there is this indistinct area between the two where a lot goes on and where making things fit into boxes is plain bloody dangerous.  The fact is that a complex system is messy and its not neat and tidy.  A leader can be an agent but their actions and presence can be an enabling or a governing constraint.   That constraint is coevolutionary so it limits their freedom and the response also modifies the constraint.  It is messy but it is coherent; you have to be tolerant of ambiguity to get it.  I suppose its no coincidence that the person concerned is a SAFe advocate, there we have an aggregative approach to create clear categories.  

The problem is that some people just can't see that's wrong; up there with the flat earth society really and just as dangerous.