Musings on self-similarity in communities

Last night I watched a repeat of the excellent ‘Secret Life of Chaos’ programme on  BBC 4. (still available on the iplayer for 6 days as I write this)

At this moment I am currently trying to write up a report detailing why a complexity/ecological approach to a Lessons Learned workshop is so important.

It was therefore fascinating to revisit Mandelbrot discovering self similarity in coastlines, rivers and simple mathematical models. What then struck me was that most teams in an organisation are formed from individuals with a similar background, are recruited in the image of the senior manager and attract people with similar values, beliefs, knowledge etc.

This ‘system’, team, super organism (call it whatever you want even Community of Practice if you are that way inclined) then evolves, picking up new thoughts, ideas, innovations and reinforcing them as ‘current practice’.

I remember reading somewhere that:

if you work closely with someone for ten years you become more like them than yourself of ten years ago.

Any individual in the team is therefore (somewhat) self-similar to the entire team. The stronger the team, duration together and amount of survival threats survived will determine just how self-similar they are.

I think this is probably the basis behind the teams described in Nick Miltons excellent latest blog post on bursting the knowledge bubbles.

What an anecdote circle (a cornerstone Cognitive Edge method) does is to allow individuals to reveal their personal perspectives on individual hexagons which when clustered afterwards reveals patterns that pertain to the whole team.

These patterns equate in Chaos theory to ‘parameters’ that describe, approximately, the entire ‘phase space’.

Where these patterns resonate most is where the Team is built of strong relationships and therefore revealing this self-similarity.

The latest version of my Lessons Learnt workshop (which is incidentally getting tremendous feedback scores) then allows the Team to self assess (a very gentle self-signification) themselves against each emergent parameter.

Now at the moment it’s only a theory but my hypothesis is that parameters that are most disturbed by uncertainty will emerge with the lowest signification. In other words the Team take personal responsibility for not getting to grips with everything that they assume could have been predicted. Therefore should have been planned for. Therefore planning is at fault. Therefore they will score planning low.

This means that any emergent parameter containing ‘planning’, especially project planning should always make an appearance and my experience over many of these workshops is that it always does, and it is often the ‘noisiest’ of all.

Of course SenseMaker™ would make this understanding much more readily visualised with its individual self signification of anecdotes but not everyone has seen the light. Alternatively I may be breaking the oath of all Cognitive Edgies in that my hypothesis is now biasing every workshop I run and I am inadvertently leading the witness by nodding and smiling every time anyone mentions that planning was an issue.

I wonder therefore, whether workshop time to explore the cynefin framework and especially the characteristics of the complex domain might not be the most important lesson of all to share, not specifically to resolve diagnoses and interventions but to help make sense of the entire approach to the business of their Team.



  1. Good post, thanks.

    One of the points Paul Pangaro makes in ‘rethinking design’ is the importance of continuing conversations between people who do not become too similar; he cites Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive as spending ages talking but maintaining their different views of the world.

    Ref your planning point, there is a big difference between planning and preparedness. As the fighter pilots say, it’s the one you don’t see that gets you.

  2. Pingback: Reality Reality « The ecology of knowledge

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