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Interview Dave Snowden: navigating complexity le 25/11/2015


 You probably have many traditional approaches to meeting challenges, but what do you do to cope with a sudden shift in your organisation or marketplace? What do you do when traditional approaches break down and don’t work, or worse, you end up with an even bigger problem?

Dave Snowden works with participants on the Kedge Global MBA in a unique 3-day module to help make sense of complexity in order to act.  Here, we ask him a few questions about the nature of this nature and his objectives with the EMBA’s.

Q:  What, combining creativity and innovation, are you trying to achieve within the MBA?
D.S. :  I attempt to give students insight into a naturalistic approach to sense-making in respect of creativity and innovation.   I use both complex adaptive systems theory together with relevant aspects of cognitive science and anthropology as a basis to provide new insights and methods for innovating in organisations as well as develop in MBA’s an understanding of how creativity works in people and systems.

Q:  How are traditional approaches to innovation flawed?
D.S.:  First of all, I believe there is an “inductive trap”.  Management science has traditionally adopted a case-based approach to defining practice.  While this has utility, the underlying assumptions about causality and evidence mean that the approach cannot be universal nor is it appropriate for most forms of innovation.   Innovation requires abductive thinking, the ability to create plausible links between apparently unconnected things.

Equally, an argument based purely on “The Creative”, lacks a basis in evidence allowing an evidence-based approach to be reliable, which is not to say that it has not been successful in some cases!  A case-based approach to process management coupled with gut feel or inspired leadership is the most common approach in industry and, to a lesser extent, government as well.
My work with MBA’s involves first a discussion of these issues and “traps”, together with a mapping of methods and approaches based on the balance between inductive and abductive thinking, linked to levels of inherent uncertainty.

Q:  How do you help executives make sense of creativity in innovation?
D.S.:  Sense-making here is defined as How do we make sense of the world so we can act in it ?  The prefix of naturalising references that tradition in philosophy which seeks to found philosophical thinking in the natural science.   In order to avoid the issues within the Inductive Trap we explore what natural science has to say about the nature of systems, human cognition and human interaction.  Then, a key aspect of my work with MBA’s, is giving them a familiarity with this base, together with examples of their application.   It will also challenge some case-based approaches as wrong (in terms of scale) a priori.  This learning falls into three categories namely, Complex Adaptive systems theory, Cognitive Science and a group of disciplines of which Anthropology is key.

Q:  You propose that design thinking should be rethought?
D.S.:  Design thinking has become a dominant method for innovation in organisations but is linear in nature and generally focused on product.  By way of linking the theory aspect of the course to the methods piece Design Thinking as a discipline can be examined from a sense-making perspective.  This transitionary part of the programme will also contrast side-casting with the more traditional forecasting and backcasting in strategy.

In order to do this, with the MBA’s we explore narrative. Key to human sense-making and essential in innovation and understanding the role of narrative represents a major section of the course.  We also look at archetypes.  Methods exist to derive archetypes from day to day stories in organisations and use these for disruptive interventions, to create different perspectives and allow for radically different conversations and disclosure.  Students will be taught the method for archetype creation and taken through a series of cases. Metaphor, fundamental to human conversations and discovery will be explored also, as understanding and changing metaphors can open up new possibilities and capabilities in organisations.  Metaphor based language can convey intent and direction without excessive constraint and create new governance frameworks from which novelty will emerge.  Micro-narrative will also be looked at.  We are fundamentally influenced by micro-narratives, or micro-observations that form a part of the day to day sense-making in human society.  We look at new methods to capture those narratives using high abstraction metadata which has created the first approach to scalable ethnography over broad diverse populations.   The loose coupling of high abstraction metadata allows for the generation of exaptive insights over trans-disciplinary fields.  Combining unarticulated customer needs with unknown, or rather undiscovered capabilities represents and enterprise level of scalability for radical innovation.  EMBA’s are introduced to the underlying theory, methods and tools associated with this new approach.

Q:  Once theory has been put in place, how do you tackle navigating complexity?
D.S.:  Building on the earlier theory section, we will now return to the Cynefin framework as a means to pull together the various learnings and introduce formal methods.

Firstly, shifting from fail-safe design to safe-to-fail experiments.  Key to managing uncertainty is the use of parallel safe-to fail experiments.  A formal method for this approach is introducing the use of naive interventions and obliquity as well as the differences between this approach and more traditional experimental and prototyping approaches.
We then look at the movement from exaptation to adaption.  We examine the shift from exploratory diversity to exploitative focus using the framework of Cynefin domain models and discuss when to move to full exploitation or hold to a more dynamic cycle.  Understanding how to use an innovation is as important as having the novel idea in the first place.   There is no recipe here, but there are approaches that can be used.  Moore’s concept of the chasm in marketing life cycles from a complexity perspective sheds light in this area.
Distributed networks is the next place we’ll explore.  The use of networks for innovation has been one of the hot topics of recent years.   However understanding of how to manage coupling and creating coherence in those networks is weak.   Using the core theory, we will look at the management, creation and destruction of networks for innovation.

Q: How do you conclude your time with the Executive MBA participants?
D.S.: In the last part of our session together we will create a series of sense-making models to understand different approaches and their consequences.   The key argument here is for bounded diversity.  Different and event contradictory methods can be used if we properly understand context.

For more by Dave Snowden

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