No cookie cutters for complexity

Five years ago I noted that big consultancies were jumping on the Web 2.0 bandwagon but more nimble upstarts (like me) could now significantly engage in a conversation with our markets using our own tools, like blogs, with which we have developed a certain advanced level of expertise. Jon Husband had written a good observation on how large consultancies work:

Big firms either 1) develop standardized methodologies and practices (their business models depend upon it), or 2) if their business model does not depend upon the standardization, they will charge you a mint and a half (McKinsey?)

The organization(s) [clients] will in my opinion get better advice rooted in critical thinking and experience and focused on results, as opposed to maintaining an expensive dependency on canned rhetoric that may not be based in much experience. For example, what exactly is “Advanced” Web 2.0 technology ? Blogs with lots of colourful widgets?

Five years later, Dave Snowden makes a similar observation, sparked by a KPMG marketing brochure on “cutting through complexity”. Dave concludes:

If a consultancy firm really wants to help their clients they they should support them in living with complexity, riding its potential, avoiding reductionist approaches, engaging customer and staff in a sensing network.  The trouble is that would not allow large teams of recently graduated MBA’s to reuse recipes and documents from over codified knowledge management systems.

cookie-cutterSo while we upstarts may now have a greater voice online, there is still a large demand for cookie cutter solutions. As social learning, collaboration, and even complexity become mainstream concepts, the array of products and services around them are becoming commoditized. Making a value proposition around behaviour and culture change is therefore very difficult.

I have noted in the past year clients wanting more products and fewer customized services. Some of this is due to their own difficulties in facing complexity and not having the time or energy to dig into these concepts. It’s just easier to buy a product, and nobody makes shinier products, such as case studies, than the big consultancies.

Case studies abound in business and many sell for a significant amount. But other than for general education, they’re rather useless. Each organization’s situation is not only different, it’s changing. Case studies and best practices in business are like the arbitrary subjects in our schools. They’re easy to package but don’t transfer well into real life.

Few managers ask the tough questions, like what are the underlying assumptions of how we do business and do they make sense? Are any of our practices self-defeating?

Complex problems require require different thinking. In the book, Getting to Maybe, the authors say that in complex environments:

  • Rigid protocols are counter-productive
  • There is an uncertainty of outcomes in much of our work
  • We cannot separate parts from the whole
  • Success is not a fixed address [what I call perpetual Beta]

Rigid protocols are prescriptive and tell you what to do. To understand complex systems one must marinate in them, as John Seely Brown advocates. The problem with best practices is they presume simplicity, like being able to ‘cut through complexity’. The next time you pick up a report on best practices, ask yourself:

  • Has anything changed since this report was written?
  • How is my organization different from these?
  • Who stands to gain from the report?

Many best practices are self-evident. They’ve worked for years and address relatively simple systems. But the business issues that consume us are most likely complex. Instead of looking for best practices, take that time and money to invest in an experiment (a probe).

Beware the cookie-cutter salespeople. They abound, and are aided by marketing departments that do not have a clue about complexity. There are some real advantages in avoiding the large consultancies and going with smaller companies and free-agents. These include:

  • Personal relationship based on knowledge and trust
  • Work is usually done by senior consultants
  • Responsiveness and flexibility
  • Ability to innovate faster
  • Fewer costs to pass on (shareholders, marketing, advertising, bonuses)

One should never bring a knife to a gun fight, nor a cookie cutter to a complex adaptive system.

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