I recently completed a presentation for the eclectic Cynefin Meetup Group and discussed the need for experimentation when the way forward is not clear. All too often when organisations struggle with issues that are proving too hard, the default approaches are to either repeat that which has been done in the past, or throw a consultant at it. (At least when they fail you can blame them!) When organisations approach complex matters in these familiar ways the result is usually sub-optimal (I use sub-optimal as a more palatable euphemism for failing!)
How then can you start to gain traction on the intractable and in doing so, start to address those complex issues that continue to bedevil us?
When exploring such issues, I like to use the metaphor of walking into a heavy fog to seek out the insights required. To take a step into a fog however, with almost zero visibility and little foreknowledge of where the next step will land, can be a daunting prospect. This is particularly so if we are used to strategically plotting and stepping out predetermined pathways. When perspectives around control, certainty of approach and outcomes are challenged, the fog seems very threatening and decisive action becomes problematic.
More managers now intuitively understand the need to let go and step into the fog, but find it difficult to alter their entrained perspectives around certainty, control, risk and failure which inhibit their capacity to act. Some might describe this as the Knowing/Doing Gap, though from experience with management I prefer to describe it as the Knowing/Doing Chasm. How then, can we start to design beneficial ways forward if we are frozen into inaction (or at best, inappropriate action) when the path forward is unclear?
We start by taking a first step. With that step starts an emergent journey more akin to navigation than a structured and bounded approach aimed at very specific and predetermined outcomes. By starting to experiment we start to understand the landscape allowing new pathway(s) to be designed. Experiments that prove successful provide a form of “proof of concept” and in doing so, the location and direction for the path ahead.
Experiments that fail are also beneficial. Just as a success can point us in the right direction, a failure can tell us where we should not be going. In a complex space both success and failure are design features. When we design our experiments, we do so in small scale for specific purpose, so a failure is not only informative but minimises any of the associated risk inherent in large scale plans. More of this type of experimentation from Cognitive Edge here.
Surely then, an approach that makes failure a benefit, minimises risk through short term, low cost intervention and helps to gain new insights must be an attractive one to managers and be embraced across the board?
Unfortunately not. Those who continue to view the world as being more understandable, explicable and predictable than it actually is will struggle to see the value of approaches where outcomes cannot be predetermined. Even when an experiment yields valuable insight or answers it is viewed by many as being 100% logical in hindsight, which of course it always will be. It’s the experimentation and getting to the insight in the first place, that is not.
We experiment to see what will happen when we try something different or something old in a new context – the results cannot be foreseen. This is perhaps one of the reasons managers like to rely on logic and judgement as their sole forms of reasoning, and why experimenting and stepping into the fog is so damn hard.