David Snowden has written on his blog about purpose and virtue (more specifically here, here, here and here). I find it a fascinating line of thought, but still cannot wrap my head around it completely. The basic idea is that in contrast to systems thinking, where an idealized future is identified and interventions aim to close the gap to this future, complexity thinking (or at least the one advocated by Snowden) focuses on managing in the present and with that enabling possible futures to emerge or evolve that could not have been anticipated. Now the latter, the management without a specific goal, of course, asks for a purpose or motivation. Why should we bother, if we don’t have a goal?
Acting in the present to my mind without a defined purpose in the sense of explicit goals and targets opens you up to evolving to future possibilities that could not be fully anticipated but which are more sustainable and resilient.
As an additional reason to be weary about explicit goals Snowden also cites Strathern’s variation of Goodhart’s Law that says When a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure, as well as scientific evidence that shows that explicit rewards undermine intrinsic motivation. Regarding this last point, he talks in a recent podcast that I recorded with Snowden about the incentive to reach set goals in order to harvest the reward, instead of working towards true development of the systems (as whatever we define that).
Admitting that at least a the need for a sense of direction, Snowden continues
In a world where there are some constraints we can have an idea of the direction in which we want to travel without having to be precise about the route we take. We have time to essay safe-to-fail experiments and determine their impact to allow amplification or dampening.
With a world where there are some constraints, Snowden of course means a world in the domain of the complex, according to his Cynefin model.
Snowden suggests that virtue can be our guide as to which direction we should take with our actions:
To be honest I have always held the position (…) that the solution to this is in Artistotle’s idea of living a virtuous life, something that requires not simply knowledge, but also practice; (…)
In subsequent posts, Snowden maps out what this means in more practical terms.
Now I can see that this approach does have a lot of appeal for ongoing operations. I have, however, a hard time imagining it applied in a development program, i.e. something with a beginning and an end and in need to prove that something was achieved. Although I do understand that there is a risk that predefined targets create wrong incentives for project managers, I also see the need for a defined success factor for a project to be evaluated against.
Complicating things is that in complex systems, setting narrow targets does not make sense. To quote Snowden again
A complex system is not causal but dispositional, so we can’t define an end state per se.
It is worth remembering that the need here is to deal with the present; with the decisions that we make which close off options for the future.
Acknowledging this already gives us a sense that we will not be able to define exact targets for a project or design in advance an optimal solution how to achieve these targets without shutting out all other possible solutions that could have evolved from the present.
So rather than defining exactly what a project should achieve in terms of detailed indicators at the level of our target population, a goal should give the project a sense of direction where it wants to go and allow it to evolve ways to do that in the given context. But how to measure the success of the project then?
According to Snowden, one key can be to analyze narratives and how they change in a statistically meaningful way. In this way, we could even set targets for how narratives should change. This sounds indeed like an interesting option and I am going to spend more time to find out all about it!
Listen to the podcast, where Dave explains this in more detail. Here again the link to the podcast: http://seepnetwork.org/snowden