We’re all learners now

January 28th, 2009  |  Published in Change

How come, after decades of help from change consultants, people have hardly moved forward in understanding how their organisation sustains and/or develops itself in the midst of a dynamic environment? Could it be that we (as change consultants) are failing to accurately grasp the nature of the contexts in which we attempt to peddle our wares? Could there be, as a consequence of this failure, a chance that our perspectives, our products and services and our interventions are doomed to be mostly wide of the mark? Maybe the observation that we in the change trade are demonstrating our ability to offer nothing by way of either explanation or options for action in response to the way the economy is going offers a bit of a steer?

This is a rethink of a post I did when guest blogging last year on Cognitive Edge. First time round I somewhat flippantly shoehorned the Cynefin framework, shown below, into a consultancy style four box model. This time, to minimise the risk of another pegging, I reproduce it more conventionally.


The framework outlines four contexts – simple (known), complicated (knowable), complex and chaos – and suggests that different strategies are needed for operating within each context. So, in the known context, the relationship between cause and effect is predictable, making best practice a viable concept. In contexts where the link from cause to effect is unknowable in advance (i.e. the complex) ideas like best practice become complete non-starters and the ability and willingness to undertake experiments to uncover potential links becomes decisive. For a good overview of Cynefin check out A leader’s framework for decision making in the November 2007 edition of the Harvard Business Review; for something more in depth Multi-ontology sense making; a new simplicity in decision making is worth a look.

To cut to the chase – what follows are my speculations about the forms of change consultancy that seem to fit with each of the Cynefin domains and a few thoughts about the usefulness or otherwise of these forms of consultancy. The known territory is the land of best practice – what we know we should be doing. The consultancy style that best reflects this domain is “control freak” – after all no one is arguing about what should be done it’s more a matter of cajoling them into doing it. Examples include health and safety, quality systems in all their guises – especially where processes are documented in endless folders. I may have a slightly prejudiced view but, in the UK at least, this seems to attract ex-members of the armed forces or people spawned out of organisations with a reputation for success in a particular area e.g. Dupont on safety. Maybe an area for implementing change but not much to offer from a change creating point of view.

Moving on to knowable – the land of “celebrity chefs” and recipe driven change. I think the connection with food here runs deep – fortunes are being made daily by transforming the basic discipline of weight management into an elaborate process that requires expert guidance. The art of the celebrity chef is to make the recipe simple enough to explain but sufficiently difficult in practice for you to conclude you need a bit of assistance – whether or not the meal is right for you is another matter again. In organisational change terms I’m thinking of things like balanced scorecard, business process reengineering, any form of government led intervention in the UK (increasing literacy, reducing teenage pregnancy rates), leadership development programmes, multicultural awareness, culture change, blah, blah, blah. A very current example, the NHS National Programme for IT, is outlined in today’s Computer Weekly. The underlying belief here is that organisational change can be understood – and if you understand change maybe you control change. The lack of satisfaction attributed to large scale change initiatives seems to challenge this understanding however. Does acting like a celebrity chef bring anything worthwhile to the change party? The relatively static nature of offerings in the change market for the past few decades suggests not.

In the chaotic zone the consultancy model is “moving in mysterious ways” – the messiah who pushes the right button at the right moment. Perfect for those moments of crisis but not much good if you are trying to build a sustainable and resilient organisation.

Which brings us to the land of the complex – and given that by definition there is no predictability – the land of consultants as “learners and participants”. When the context is complex we need to act like learners and experimenters in order to discover more about the situation we wish to change; and we are participants in the sense that without prior knowledge we don’t have any advantage, and therefore any power, over anyone else. So you could say in order to be more effective as a consultant in a complex environment we need to let go of the need to be in a role and start acting more like human beings.

Our assumption at Castleton is that organisations, like economies, are inherently complex and consultancy offerings that assume otherwise – but still aim to create meaningful change – are almost certainly doomed to failure. The anecdotal evidence backs this up – statistics on levels of satisfaction with change programmes usually say that people are not fully satisfied with outcomes around 80% of the time. A scan of change offerings on the internet reveals the narrowness of perspectives on change – it’s typically seen from the perspective of either the implementers or the recipients but not from both simultaneously.

To conclude: there are at least two levels of risk in not matching the change offering to the context – on the surface it puts us, as consultants, in the position of selling the wrong thing and valuing a wrong, or at best outdated, skillset, and as an unwelcome by product we seduce clients into the expectation of off the shelf solutions and quick wins for almost any type of challenge. Not a recipe for resilient organisations or consultancies.

Self serving disclosure – we are currently collaborating with Cognitive Edge on a couple of projects.

Leave a Response

September 2021
« Oct