On Ontological and Descriptive Complexity

There’s a duality between descriptive and ontological complexity (Emmeche, 1997) and in socio-complex systems we are dealing with both. Defining ontological boundaries in complex adaptive systems is difficult because they are open systems, in constant interaction with their environment. How do we determine which parts belong to one system and which ones to another? The boundaries aren’t clear and we can define the system arbitrarily.

Cilliers (2001) wrote “Boundaries are simultaneously a function of the activity of the system itself, and a product of the strategy of description involved. In other words, we frame the system by describing it in a certain way (for a certain reason), but we are constrained in where the frame can be drawn. The boundary of the system is therefore neither purely a function of our description, nor is it a purely natural thing.”

The boundary, therefore, is phenomenological as well as ontic-epistemic. It cannot be clearly defined, it’s fuzzy and has descriptive and ontological properties.

Cognitive Edge’s SenseMaker® can give us a good idea of a system and its boundaries by identifying patterns, attractors in the system, stability and fitness landscapes, and in a continued research showing their dynamics over time. In a broad sense the boundaries are constrained by the signification framework, but the narrative fragments themselves aren’t rigidly constrained and can contain anything and extend beyond what are regarded as boundaries. It does, however, provide a way for comparative ontology by combining quantitative and qualitative research, and I think it’s about the best we can do.

Emmeche (1997) said “we cannot a priori decide whether descriptive complexity entails ontological complexity.” It may, but it may not. Boundaries, likewise, can be descriptive or ontological, or both.

I suggest we could look at boundaries as a form of descriptive-ontological dualism; the descriptive aspect being crossing a domain boundary, while the ontological aspect being an ontological change, a transition in the state space, a phase shift in the system dynamics. Even highly constrained systems don’t exist in isolation and have varying degrees of freedom and connectivity – only constrained – and may be perturbed to induce a transition in the state space, so we don’t even need to limit ourselves to considering only ontologically complex systems.

(Originally posted as comments to Dave Snowden’s blog entry about Boundary conditions.)

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Briefly On the Domain of Disorder in Cynefin

I consider the domain of Disorder key in Cynefin and sense-making, and understanding its significance was a Heideggerian moment of poiesis for me; the bringing-forth, unconceling something that was concealed, to quote from my polemical essay on Authenticity.

I went through my Twitter history on Disorder, and aggregated some thoughts on Disorder, as they would appear relevant. I’ve expanded some of them from the brevity of Twitter.

The most neglected domain in #Cynefin – disorder, inauthentic – is also probably the most important for understanding the nature of Cynefin.

Inauthentic(ity) (disorder) is a type of an ontological error and a cause for cognitive bias. It’s where we are most of times.

We engage in sense-making to move towards authenticity of agency but it’s a dynamical process, not a one-off categorisation.

Sense-making in Cynefin begins from the domain of ‘Inauthentic’ Disorder, from phenomenological apperception.

Inauthenticity is always present as a gradient in every Cynefin domain as fuzzy boundary conditions.

Inauthentic disorder is why we engage in sense-making and why Cynefin is dynamical sense-making framework.

Inauthentic refers to inauthentic ontological awareness. We engage in sense-making to shift agency towards authenticity.

Authentic agency is ontologically advised and epistemically validated motivation.
When our actions are informed and autonomous, not compliant or conformist, when they are consistent, aware and situated, they’re authentic.

Sense-making can advise agency towards authenticity, while true authenticity remains unattainable.

Hunting a Woozle – A Case for Authenticity

There’s a delightful old story about Winnie the Pooh and Piglet where they are hunting a Woozle.

As we all well know, having read our A.A. Milne and Winnie-the-Pooh stories as children and now as adults finding deeper philosophical meaning in same, Woozles are rather cunning creatures. They have an affinity to honey and are hard to identify by their tracks. Some of them inhabit the East Pole. And sometimes tracks on the ground may lead to a Woozle, but sometimes they don’t. It’s all rather complicated and serious, this business with the Woozles (and Heffalumps), and you really should read more about it in the books.

“Tracks,” said Piglet. “Paw-marks.” He gave a little squeak of excitement. “Oh, Pooh! Do you think it’s a–a–a Woozle?”

“It may be,” said Pooh. “Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. You never can tell with paw- marks.” A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

The story “In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle” appears in A.A. Milne’s original “Winnie-the-Pooh” novel, in its third chapter. In that story Pooh finds tracks around a spinney of larch trees and begins to follow them. Piglet runs after Pooh and joins the hunt. The tracks seem to go around the spinney and soon Pooh and Piglet notice that there’s a new set of tracks alongside the first; another Woozle, perhaps! As they brave onwards, they find that a third set of tracks has appeared next to the other two (might be a Wizzle), then a fourth (another Wizzle).Two Woozles and two Wizzles. It’s quite an adventure for Pooh and Piglet.

Now we know how this story ends, of course. Christopher Robin arrives to explain that they’ve been following their own tracks. This rather depresses Pooh for a brief moment, but Christopher Robin cheers Pooh up, as friends do, and it’s nearly Luncheon Time anyway so all’s well.

There are many tracks to follow in professional coaching, organisational development and management consulting communities as well. Some of them may lead to the Woozle, but often people quite happily follow their own tracks and those of their friends and peers, going in circles around a metaphorical spinney of Agile, Scrum, Lean, Kanban, Complexity or whatever is touted as the next paradigm. Citations are taken as evidence and parroted around in professional circles until they begin to be taken as facts. A Woozle effect forms.

“The Woozle effect, also known as evidence by citation, or a woozle, occurs when frequent citation of previous publications that lack evidence misleads individuals, groups and the public into thinking or believing there is evidence, and nonfacts become urban myths and factoids.” (Wikipedia)

The Woozle effect, or a woozle, then is a form of a bias; a combination of a number of logical fallacies such as arguments from authority and argumentum ad populum, but more fundamentally a pattern of social behaviour demonstrating an alarming lack of individual critical thinking, falling into groupthink and succumbing to fads. One only has to browse the management book sections at airport bookstores to find numerous examples of Management by Fads; glossy, embossed book covers with catchy titles, content awash with impressive sounding terminology that would win every possible variation of the Bullshit Bingo before reaching the end of Chapter One.

Words are not to be afraid of, of course, but their meanings must be understood and the weight that they carry appreciated. Unfortunately, scientific sounding terms are often thrown around with abandon in order to impress and to claim faux credibility, and those using specific language in correct context may get ridiculed for using “big words”. Properly used, established terminology and references allow us to follow proposed ideas and what’s being said, claimed and written to their source. The purpose of using specific language and references, therefore, isn’t to make things less understandable, but to make them more understandable. Explaining new ideas in old terms to ‘make things familiar’ carries the real risk that the target audience inauthentically rationalises what’s new and transformative as same-old, only with new words. But I digress.

In this article, when I talk about management or organisational development I’m referring to a broad range of professional roles, like developers, organisational coaches, consultants and other ‘knowledge workers’, not necessarily only those in actual management positions. 

The danger of Airport Management Book style of professionalism lies in that nuggets of facts and useful, validated information is mixed with hokum and nonsense, the modus operandi of pseudoscience. Structurally and intellectually incoherent after briefest of scrutiny, yet communicated with deceptive clarity.

But clarity of communication doesn’t guarantee quality of substance, and a high degree of coherence isn’t requisite for high levels of consensus. Pseudoscience and other hokum continually proves this. The lower the coherence of a concept, the greater the degree of subjective interpretation there will be and personal entrainment bias. When proper constraints are in place and the process is managed, this can be beneficial. For example, Cognitive Edge’s method ‘Ritual Dissent’ works with the dynamics of coherence-consensus, but low coherence can also be exploited in order to manipulate like in pseudoscience, let alone in pure hokum like astrology, horoscopes and so on.

The Woozle effect is endemic in organisational development circles where much of the management rhetoric is self-referential metadiscourse, abstracted from a naturalised base. Validity of existing models, methods, approaches and concepts is sought and asserted by referencing other models referencing the one seeking validation, while both lack sufficient evidence and scientific research to be authentically valid. New models, methods, approaches and concepts are constructed based on same self-referential communally reinforced fallacy. There are nuggets of gold among the silt if you’re expert in panning with a trained eye, but most can’t tell fool’s gold from real gold and invest the fool’s gold at their organisation’s peril.

How’s one to tell which tracks belong to the real Woozle then, and which ones don’t?

By taking management and organisational development practises back to basics. By naturalising management and organisational development and striving for authenticity of agency. It’s necessary but not sufficient, and remains contingent, but it holds the promise for greatest impact.

This means taking management practises in all forms back to natural science and liberal arts base, validating/invalidating established approaches by peer reviewed science and research and building new ones on researched and established knowledge. Philosophy, anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology should be at the very heart of the broad field of management and organisational development practises including Agile, Lean, Complexity and other fields, economic and engineering disciplines withstanding.

“It’s a very funny thing,” said Bear, “but there seem to be two animals now. This–whatever-it-was–has been joined by another–whatever-it-is– and the two of them are now proceeding in company.” A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

The concern is not only with management or organisational development in general. The crux in all forms of work is to leverage what we already know about the human condition and of our environment and to use that instead of trying to create pseudoscientific constructs, dependency models and inauthentic methods to replace authentic, valid research. Managing an organisation requires not only business understanding but also understanding of how social systems work; how we humans behave and why. Professional circles invest huge amounts of time and effort into trying (and failing) to discover what is already known and established in the academia.

Apart from economics and engineering the aforementioned disciplines – philosophy, anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology – aren’t broadly represented among management professionals. It’s a frustrating situation; those in management positions, struggling to understand the socially complex human networks so that they could effectively carry out their work often lack the training to do just that.

Because they’ve not studied anthropology they don’t really understand the meaning of value in human systems, yet the word value is probably on every slide deck that’s presented to their senior managers, customers and to their own organisation. But are we talking about economic value, sociological value or linguistic value, what’s the difference, and why does it matter? They talk about culture without understanding what it means in cultural and social anthropology or how culture, customs and conceptual schemes are related but not the same thing. Or why any of this matters. They see ritualistic behaviour in their organisations daily, but fail to recognise them as rituals or to see how they could benefit the organisation. Training schemes are developed, doomed to fail because they fail to account how human beings learn and how the brain works. Critical thinking, reasoning, logic and clarity of thought are wanting because philosophy wasn’t part of the MBA curriculum and probably wasn’t taught at school. Words like ontology and epistemology are alien, yet understanding them might provide a foundation for understanding one’s own environment.

Without knowledge of these subjects, in so many ways key to their work, people plod along in a state of not knowing what they don’t know and act within those constraints. The unfortunate result of this is that in order to make sense of their environments and organisations, they start creating obtuse models based on a narrow, limited and biased understanding of said environments, and assume novelty and universality. They go on writing books and creating presentations on things like organisational effectiveness, change management, developing a corporate culture and going Agile, filling those airport bookstore shelves with equally vapid, thick books adorned by glossy, embossed book covers with catchy titles, none of them based on actual, verified academic research. Instead, they refer to probably a dozen other thick books with glossy, embossed book covers with catchy titles on the same shelf. Authored by mates.

It does not follow that managers and professionals should all get academic degrees in philosophy, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, biology and cognitive neuroscience, although any of those would probably be a great boon to anyone. But instead of taking that next corporate training course on effective team management, a basic course in cultural anthropology or philosophy might provide longer lasting benefits. For personal study, there is ample opportunity for on-line courses held by respected universities all over the world. Conference presentations could start including references to literature and research to foster enquiry and engagement, and to establish validity.

Advocating theoretical enquiry is rarely met with enthusiasm in organisations. It’s usually dismissed as a waste of time, and practise reigns. Practise is regarded as honest, value adding activity, which under the right circumstances it is. But knowing the ‘how’ only takes one so far. To go further, one must also know why something works, and this is the domain of theory and scientific enquiry. Unfortunately dichotomising things is common where anti-intellectuality raises its atrophied head. Theory is posited against practise, and never the twain shall meet. Good or bad? Black or white? Yes or no? It’s the tyranny of absolutes.

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” -Kurt Lewin, 1951

There are notable exceptions in the field, however. Dave Snowden, the founder of Cognitive Edge is a pioneer in naturalising sense-making. Perhaps best known for Cynefin, a multi-ontological sense-making model, the entirety of Cognitive Edge’s methods builds on a wide body of peer reviewed research and thinking, covering philosophy, natural sciences and liberal arts. Not only does this bring validity and authenticity to their methods, it provides a sound basis for those seeking to understand, employ and build upon Cognitive Edge’s unique methods and tools. One can always refer to research and literature that the methods build upon to gain a deeper, broader understanding on why they have developed to the form that they currently have, or for peer review and reasoned critique. Cognitive Edge’s approach at its core isn’t about tools and methods. Instead of providing cookie-cutter tools and recipes, it encourages independent thinking, and in that regard it’s a deeply philosophical approach. It is praxis at it’s purest; theory-informed practise. Disciplined enquiry into the wide academic body of knowledge and research of natural sciences and liberal arts, and using that as a lens to make sense of our world with practical applications. It’s looking into what we already know and using that knowledge and research creatively to “make sense of the world so that we can act in it” (Dave Snowden). Naturalising sense-making. Naturalising management.

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about ‘clarification’ and seeking ‘clarity’ in his earlier Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and later in Philosophical Investigations. He saw that philosophy should aim to seek clarity of thought, and that clarity could be achieved through activity. Instead of presenting a solution to a problem, Wittgenstein preferred active participation, investigation and dialogue, and wrote Investigations in this style, engaging the reader in a process of discovery instead of presenting a fait accompli (Kuusela). Epicurus (341-270 BCE), too, believed that philosophy should be practical (N. Warburton, A Little History of Philosophy). Heidegger talked about poiesis, the bringing-forth, unconcealing something that was concealed. This is what we as professionals should endeavour to attain; clarity of thought and authenticity of agency, unconcealing knowledge and practises that in the professional community have been regarded as esoteric, even, yet can open a door to enlightenment. The Greeks called bringing-forth aletheia, revealing. The Romans translated this as veritas, truth. Heidegger initially referred to aletheia as truth, but later corrected this association (Wikipedia, on Aletheia. Heidegger.)

“Instead, Heidegger focused on the elucidation of how an ontological “world” is disclosed, or opened up, in which things are made intelligible for human beings in the first place, as part of a holistically structured background of meaning.” -Wikipedia on Aletheia

This is a wonderful description for what I consider authentic agency or foundations thereof. I suggest that authentic agency is ontologically advised and epistemically validated motivation. In other words, we can find intrinsic motivation to consistently exercise our capacities over time, to act in the world, advised by our awareness of what is, and how and what we can know about it. When our actions are informed and autonomous, not compliant or conformist, when they are consistent, aware and situated, they’re authentic.

Daniel Brudney and John Lantos had this to say about authenticity and agency:

“To see the difference between agency and authenticity, note that agency can be fully exercised at each instant. Each choice can completely exercise the capacity. Authenticity, by contrast, must be exercised over time, sometimes over a lifetime. Over time, my authenticity projects me, my individual persona, onto the world. Authenticity is a sustained achievement, agency a momentary one.” -Budney, Lantos, “Agency and authenticity”

Naturalising management, naturalising sense-making, seeking clarity of thought and authenticity of agency, and bringing forth that which hides in plain sight: theoria, poiesis, praxis and logos.

“There was a small spinney of larch trees just here, and it seemed as if the two Woozles, if that is what they were, had been going round this spinney; so round this spinney went Pooh and Piglet after them.” A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

References.

A.A. Milne, “Winnie-the-Pooh”, 1926

The Development of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy, Oskari Kuusela

Budney, Lantos, “Agency and authenticity”, DOI 10.1007/s11017-011-9180-2

Rudyard Kipling, The Ballad of East and West

Nigel Warburton, A Little History of Philosophy

Heidegger, M. (1977) The Question Concerning Technology, pp 3-35

David E. Waddington, A Field Guide to Heidegger:Understanding ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, Stanford University

A personal thank you to Dave Snowden who, unbeknownst to himself, over 15 years ago showed me how to tell which tracks really belong to Woozles.