Notes: Dave Snowden - Managing for Serendipity


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'Managing for Serendipity or why we should lay off "best practice" in KM'
[Dave Snowden]

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Best practice

In an ordered system a “best way” is theoretically possible as we are dealing with repeating relationships between cause and effect […] If, and it is a very big if, there is a stable and repeating relationship between cause and effect in a common context then best practice can and should be mandated.

Human social systems are uniquely able to create such stable contexts by agreeing and establishing conventions for matters such as payment systems and traffic regulations.

If we are dealing with a complex system then there is no such repetition. Even in an ordered system the degree to which we understand the relationship between cause and effect determines the degree to which we can define best practice. This is true even of scientific knowledge where serendipity is as frequently the cause of major breakthroughs as is disciplined method and where old knowledge frequently used best practice to exclude new thinking.

For complex systems best practice is dangerous, for ordered systems it is valid, but not universally and only in very stable situations, in all other cases it is entrained past practice.

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‘Best practice’ - codified knowledge, devoid of context. Script, code. You can only run the code if the situation is known, predictable because the code has been written for specific circumstances. When the situation is complex, running code - doing what has worked formerly - will not work.


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Habituation

It is also true that habituation is necessary for the consistent application of best practice. Fire fighters do not just enter each situation with a manual, they practice daily to ensure that best practice is engrained in their thinking, and that practical experience provides both knowledge of when not to follow best practice, and also creates high levels of trust based on interdependency (Weick & Sutcliffe 2001).

This has implications for much of the so called attempts to create efficiencies in human actions. A large part of the attempts to introduce process improvements in professional services for example fails to recognise this need for habituation.

For a computer there would not be an issue as each task would look up the processes on the basis of articulated decision rules, but humans do not work that way, they need to build and habituate patterns to be effective.

We actively seek out multiple encounters to increase the probability of an emergent solution, that does not just repeat the past, but which opens up new possibilities.

The loss of content, but particularly context involved in codification means that written knowledge is only ever a partial representation of what we know.

[…]  innovation is dependent on disruption of entrained patterns of thinking.

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Pattern matching, patterns of expectation

[…] humans do not make rational logical decisions based on information input, instead they pattern match with either their own experience, or collective experience expressed as stories. It isn’t even a best fit pattern match but a first fit pattern match (Klein 1998).

The human brain is also subject to habituation, things that we do frequently create habitual patterns which both enable rapid decision making, but also entrain behaviour in such a manner that we literally do not see things that fail to match the patterns of our expectations.

We do not see what we do not expect to see - and you can't train yourself to see the unexpected 

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Cyclists on roads. Most drivers are habituated to see cars, not cyclists. When they scan, they scan for car-shaped objects. A cyclist does not, generally speaking, match the ‘pattern of expectation.’ The cyclist has a greater chance of breaking into this scan if they can catch attention - i.e. move erratically or wear something jarring.


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Efficiency

Unfortunately while efficiency does achieve effectiveness in mechanical or highly structured human systems it does not in respect of the majority of human interaction which, as previously stated is complex in nature.

An interesting feature of complex systems, particularly in social insects, is that for a system to be effective there needs to be a degree of inefficiency in the operation of its agents. Humans are the same; the efficiency focus of best practice harms effectiveness because it assumes repeatable past patterns of cause and effect. Driving out inefficiencies increases vulnerability to new threat as the adaptive mechanism of the complex system has been withdrawn.

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Efficiency= 'minimum wasted effort'. Something that is efficient has been stripped of any redundancy, boiled down to its essentials. It makes a minimum of moves to reach an intended goal.

Inefficiency is more desirable in complex systems as it implies a wider base, and a potentially wider range of movement. Inefficiencies are doorways to alternate patterns.


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Top down / bottom up

A true narrative database uses only original material and searches it based on abstract questions that discourage directed enquiries to create serendipitous encounter.

Attempts to engineer a network through design and allocation of staff to groups generally fail as they create artificial relationships that are not sustainable.

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Define boundaries in which things can emerge. Define the playing field and let the game take care of itself. Bottom-up (emergent) within top-down (planned).


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