When Ignorance is Bliss

I’ve written before about epiphany; that sudden sense of enlightenment that you get when you realise that you’ve discovered a new pattern in the world. It’s ironic that my favourite moment of epiphany was when I finally understood its opposite – apophany; that moment of enlightenment when you see a pattern that doesn’t actually exist.

We’re really, really good at spotting patterns that don’t exist.

And with that came the crashing understanding: this is why we have to probe before we sense or respond.

Over and over again, I see people in complex domains, trying to make big plans for how their transformation will progress. The plans are certainly valuable. They provide coherence; an example of how the attempted changes might succeed, or in Cynefin-speak, a realistic reason for thinking that the probes might have a positive impact.

Over and over again, human systems thwart the plans, and unexpected context emerges.

This is the trouble with the complex domain. You learn by doing; by attempting the changes and seeing what happens. Cause and effect can only be understood in retrospect.

We all have the human desire to understand the context of a situation. We like predictability, and shy away from uncertainty (that dreaded chaos!), so it’s natural that we seek to understand the thing we’re about to try to change.

The trouble is, you can’t. All those patterns you think you see? Not there, or not the important ones; certainly not the ones that are actually going to stop the changes from working.

Some of the changes will land. Some of the ideas you introduce will be accepted. Many of them will not… and if you push harder, you’ll sometimes encounter the backfire effect, and strengthen the very problem you’re trying to solve.

So if you’re encountering lots of resistance, try something else. Changing a bit of context can make it safe to change another bit, which can provide further safety, and so on and so forth until gradually the whole organization has transformed.

(It will probably take a while, and that’s OK. If it isn’t, use the incipient chaos to generate a sense of urgency, which buys more tolerance for change, so that it can happen faster.)

I define safety as the ability to act without losing the things that you, or others, value. By anchoring the things that we mutually value, we can increase the safety and make it easier for other changes to happen. Putting feedback loops in place, and deferring commitment and minimising investment, and telling people that it’s a bit of an experiment and it might not work but that will be OK, please let us know… they all increase safety. Most importantly, anchor and amplify the changes that are already working, because people on the ground generally have more context and are more likely to make changes that are disposed to work, and more likely to try to change things if they see that their changes are valued.

These days, this is how I work when I don’t understand the context. Because you don’t need to understand the situation to change the situation… and you can’t, anyway, until it isn’t the same situation any more, because you just changed it, and now you understand.

In complexity, there are unknown unknowns; discoveries ahead that cannot be predicted. This is second-order ignorance. You will always have it.

Work out how to make that OK, and enjoy it.

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3 Responses to When Ignorance is Bliss

  1. Javier Bonnemaison says:

    Excellent insights well communicated. Thank you!

  2. Manuel says:

    Well, this post fits in perfectly with my job as a developer these days… Wait, am I seeing a pattern here?

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