The case for contextual intelligence: horses for courses

Sonja Blignaut
Jan 13 · 3 min read

My first formal introduction to Complexity was in 2002. I vividly remember being in the audience of an IBM-sponsored event where I first heard Dave Snowden speak about Complexity theory and the Cynefin sense-making framework. Maybe it was my background in meteorology, or perhaps a natural disposition towards messiness, but I experienced an immediate resonance with thes ideas. Ever since that day, Complexity has become the primary lens through which I view the world.

One of the foundational principles of Dave’s Cynefin framework is “bounded applicability”. This is not an unfamliar concept. We have many idioms we use in every day language that illustrate an understanding of this … horses for courses (which alludes to racehorses performing best on particular racecourses), and different strokes for different folks (we all have different tastes). As with many other common wisdoms, we forget about this in business contexts and too often apply methods and tools as if they are universally applicable. In reality, methods and tools have utility only within appropriate contexts. Methods and tools that work in ordered and predictable domains don’t work in complex and emergent ones. (You can find out more about the difference between ordered and complex contexts in this post.)

My own interest is specifically in Complexity, its implications and how to practically apply learnings from that field in organisations. Current business and management paradigms are firmly rooted in a mechanistic worldview. Much of my writing has therefore been aimed at critiquing practices and ways of thinking that are not appropriate in complex contexts. I may not always make it clear enough that such critiques are not meant to be general. Taylorism, reductionism, linear processes, standard operating procedures, best practices are valid within boundaries. In appropriately ordered contexts they have value, in complex contexts, they either make no impact (best case) or make things worse.

We cannot evaluate the usefulness of a method or tool independent from the context in which it will be applied.

Everything centers around an understanding of context. We cannot evaluate the usefulness of a method or tool independent from the context in which it will be applied. Claims of the universal applicability of methods and tools are at the heart of many expensive failed initiatives I encounter in client organisations. For example, Agile transformations fail because particular frameworks are universally forced onto teams regardless of the nature of their work. Similarly, Lean has many benefits, but when misapplied, it can create near irreparable damage. One example is the famously quoted 3M case that credits Six Sigma with destroying their innovation capability.

As the world becomes more aware of Complexity and more and more “complexity consultants” make their appearance, it will serve us well to remember that not everything is Complex. We are, however emerging from a few decades where order and control were dominant paradigms. There is a need to challenge old ways of thinking and ensure that leaders and practitioners are enabled to be effective in complex contexts. We must just be careful that we don’t allow the pendulum to swing too far the other way where we denigrate things that remain useful in ordered contexts. It won’t serve any of us if Complexity is seen as just the next “fad”.

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