Report on SenseMaking Accreditation at Cognitive Edge

Amsterdam was beautiful last week, a fitting backdrop to the accreditation course provided by Cognitive Edge that I attended.

Given my last post on the methodology, let me say that my take away was that consulting in the world of complex challenges and strategies is not dead, only different. Dave Snowden’s love of both hard science and philosophy was evident in the programme, as the Cognitive Edge colleagues took us through basic principles of complexity theory, narrative and sensemaking, demonstrating the content in facilitation formats which the group worked through at four tables over two days. 

For the analytically inclined, the focus of the methodology on stories and meaning takes some getting used to. Some of the most valuable formats were “anecdote circles” and “ritual dissent,” the first of which is used to collect stories, and the second serving to test and enhance proposals, stories or ideas. We had a strong group, so there we lots of stories to go around, even in the artificial training environment where the focus was not on the content, but on methodology.

On a first level of subjective experience, the process was fun. Stories are alive, and the story focus is creative and motivating. The second level I experienced faced me with the challenge of letting go of analytic (pseudo)certainties and allowing myself to rely on the meaning the stories expressed to provide a basis for action. 

Here, the philosophical DNA injected by Dave and his business partner Steve Bealing into the methodology of the programme becomes apparent. I’ll give it a shot at a summary: CE gives phenomenology (experience) priority over ontology (categories of being), through an epistemology (theory of knowledge) which relies not on analysis, but on hermeneutics (interpretation). Narratives (fragmented stories) are signified (given meaning) by the storytellers to create an attractor landscape (map of important issues) which decision makers can use to intervene (act).

This strategy is used as an alternative to analysis, which is subject to expert entrainment (first fit pattern recognition based on abstract or outdated solution models). But rather than make analysis superfluous, as I had initially thought, narrative strategy raises the bar on the abilities of decision makers to interpret the sense of the story landscape they are given.

To navigate narrative landscapes successfully—especially when they grow beyond local spaces to take on continental dimensions through the scalability provided by the SenseMaker software—decision makers will need to develop abilities in interpretation we haven’t seen represented in our leaders in generations (if ever on this scale). Neither the facilitation process we learned on the first two days of the course, nor the software we got to know on the third day, do the work for us. On the contrary, they provide us with large quantities of signified raw material on a finely granular level to work with, and leaders will have to learn how to make sense of what they are given access to.

Because of this, as consultants we are going to have more, not less to do. Leaders will want to turn to someone to teach them hermeneutical skills (something definitely not taught in business schools), and training will take a new direction. Facilitators skilled in managing the pure process of communication will be given phenomenological material to ground their work in (helping to avoid the nebulousness facilitation processes can fall prey to when they become theoretical or purely psychological). But they will also need the experience to know how to keep discussions about stories from mirroring the fragmentation of the stories themselves, and to boil them down to safe-fail experiments for solutions. Even more importantly, consultants will have to prepare their clients to understand complex strategies approaches in advance of any particular project, as otherwise there will be no basis in a common understanding of the options to get a project off the ground.

A colleague with many years of experience in strategy consulting, who accompanied me to the seminar, reflected over coffee in the evening that interpretation and coaching is what (his kind of) strategy consulting has always been about. Benchmarking, four-field matrices and the myriad of other analytic tools have been but trojan horses used to enter the gates in the walls of scientific management that have been erected around business over the past years, behind which the actual job of decision making and consulting gets done. Especially in the large consultancies, this entry tactic has been confused with the strategic work it is meant to lead to. Billing kpi’s destroy not only innovation, but also the good judgement that develops over many years of practice in interpreting complex realities and experimenting with solutions.

The Cognitive Edge approach puts the living, messy reality of human doing at the centre of the management and consulting stage again—and gives us some good approaches to hand to get back to the business of learning good judgment and experimental process in dealing with business, government and social challenges.

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