Managing the Situated Present
By Dave Snowden • July 30, 2014
Probably the most important phrase in The Children’s Party Story is the conclusion: We manage the emergence of beneficial coherence within attractors, within boundaries.
That simple phrase packs a lot of meaning and potential. Key to it is the idea of managing the situated present. To unpack that a bit I am using situated in the sense of situation assessment, sensing what is happening in its context which includes the past and in particular our perception of the past. In anything involving change in human systems we need to get people to do this. If the past is traumatic, as it has been in Colombia (where I am at the moment) then re-situating the past in the context of present needs is important. We have to create narratives that enable action then allow the potential for change to become visible, then we need to amplify success and dampen failure.
Now this needs to be understood in contrast with the more normal attempt to state an idealist future, defining a future state then trying to work backwards to make it happen. In a previous series of posts I talked about the need for side-casting namely casting around in the present to see what is possible. There are a range of techniques to support this, I use counterfactuals a lot and our future-backwards exercise uses them in part and can be a starting point for a wider use. Used properly counterfacturals are the language of change as they open up evolutionary possibilities rather than locking down specific goals. By asking the question what if in relation to the past you avoid converging to quickly on a solution in the present, but you also situate any potential actions in commonly understood narratives. Coupled with SenseMaker® this allows us to ask the fractal question How would I get more stories like this, fewer stories like those which can engage more people that a more abstract goal driven question such as How to I create a climate of legality? The former can be understood by anyone at any level and can stimulate action, particularly as it is enabled by peer-to-peer anecdotal knowledge flows that can be exapted to create novel and sustainable solutions.
Like sharing negative stories as opposed to promulgating positive stories, I also think this approach is more ethical and more respectful of the people we are working with. The historical role of fairy stories (before Hollywood got hold of them) is to provide warnings based on tribal learning of what could go wrong. It does tell you what to do, it passes on learning about what to avoid. As such you have more freedom. Far too many methods and even more facilitators are too wrapped up in prescribing desirable behaviours to give people this very basic right of self-determination. This model of making statements about ideal behaviour pervades organisational change and leadership to the great detriment of both of those disciplines. It also gives an excuse for inaction. We have a lot of that back in the 70s in the contrast between those of us involved in Liberation Theology and those who were simply evangelical. The latter took the view that until everyone came to Jesus the world could not be changed so they focused on internal conversation and change. The Liberation Theologians concentrated on action now on the assumption that we didn’t have time to wait for everyone to change personally before seeking change at a system level.
This too ready excuse for inaction is now a perverse aspect of much that goes under the name of science in management. We covert the ideal as it puts action off. Don’t worry everything will be OK when the new system goes live next year, we need to align out culture with leadership goals, our leaders need to have these core competences etc, etc. In practice there is no one model of leadership, actions in the present are always preferable to jam tomorrow. Modern tools (such as SenseMaker®) allows us to engage people in defining their own futures, while learning from the failure of others. We also know the principles by which success scales. The glory is that we can now do this in a sustainable way, hopefully to combat the inglorious idolisation of the externally imposed ideal.
– Dave Snowden