What if we light a spark of change and spread it through an organisation, making new with fire something old and dying?
The trap of simple stories
In a recent series of exploratory sessions hosted by management consultancy Cognitive Edge, a conversation about simplicity and simplification was brewing. Essentially, when faced with the unknown, we tend to simplify. It is easy to gain control in this way — or at least the illusion there of. But at what cost? Sonja Blignaut, complexity and narrative consultant and thinking partner, raised a point about the mindtraps identified by Jennifer Garvey Berger, leadership coach and author. The mindtrap in question was that of simple stories, “when our instinct for a coherent story kills our ability to see a real one”.
Simple stories simply don’t work in complexity. Humans are complex beings, we operate in complex systems, and we live in complex times. So why do leaders often claim clear connections between cause and consequence? For example, if employees are looking to get raises, promotions, bonuses or other forms of rewards and recognition, they are often provided with an unobtainable, seemingly simple path to progress. However, the metrics used to measure their performance don’t take into consideration all that they do beyond their job descriptions; they ignore the complex inner workings of an organisation that can’t always be captured in words or on paper; and they reduce an intricate human being to a mere cog in the machine. Progress is near impossible.
Danger of the single story
It’s been 12 years since TED released Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story. Her wisdom continues to ring true. The stories we tell hold power. “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person,” said Adichie in this talk.
We need to be careful not to flatten several stories into an overarching, generic one. This is how misunderstanding and miscommunication happen. In a business setting, it’s equivalent to limiting people to an identified role or strict set of responsibilities against which they are judged and their progress determined. Stories should also not be one-sided; they need to be collective, collaborative and ever-changing. In the corporate world, this means having open and honest conversations across departments and domains.
Living in a DELA world
There’s a term in isiZulu that captures the idea that, if something happens too easily, it’s suspicious. It’s too good to be true. Quick fixes and simple solutions are not sustainable in complexity. Umlilo wamaphepha: paper fire. When you light a newspaper, it goes up in a brilliant burst of flames but it’s short‑lived.
We can apply the DELA framework to help us make sense of the story that’s unfolding, and to shape our own narrative, going forward.
How do we ignite a spark of change and spread it through an organisation? According to Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge, it’s not about creating better versions of old things but rather implementing symbiotic strategies. Take a small aspect of something that already exists and make it new — this makes change more attractive and less threatening.
Originally posted on Marklives