Weak signals and coincidents

“Niets nieuws onder de zon”, is the title of a book I am re-reading.  Roughly translated the full title reads: “Nothing New under the Sun and Other Coincidences, aka Strategy from Chaos”. The book was published in 1987/2003 in Dutch only. It connects concepts on chaos and strategy at a practical level and I have drawn on these ideas of when supporting organizations in their strategic planning because I find them to be inspiring.

The authors are Jaap Peters and Rob Wetzels.  Peters is a Dutch management consultant.   Other books published by Peters have similar catchy titles like – again in translation – “Intensive People Farming” on human resource management, and “At Which Reorganization Do You Work?” on change management.  He also edits a journal on organizational development entitled “Slow Management”.  Peters draws on his experience with organizations in the Netherlands, but I feel his ideas can be very well applied elsewhere.

There is no future you can predict, and standard planning models usually only help us to copy, possibly improve on the past.  Here and now, there is a dominant current and there are weak, undercurrents.  For the future, these weak signals are significant but within our organizations they remain usually unheard. These weak signals usually do not fit in our Results Oriented Strategic Plans and LogFrames and tend to be ignored.  Too bad, according to Peters, because the future is emerging from that undercurrent.  These weak signals represent what is coming.

Peters feels that most standard strategic planning and management models underestimate the creativity and power of self-organization.  We have to treat organizations as chaotic systems.  The McDonalds or “factory farm” approach to management implies splitting-up everything, standardizing processes, making everything and everyone perfectly manageable and measurable.  McDonaldized systems dampen external signals, they are closed, only change under pressure and are based on one single “truth”.  Organizations that function as chaotic systems on the other hand absorb and process signals, are open, change organically through commitment and allow for contrasting ideas and multiple interpretations.

Peters observes that managers and planners in what he calls the McDonaldized organization ask quite different questions from those that treat organizations like chaotic systems or chaordic organisms.  If you want to discern strategy from chaos, you need to hear and see the weak signals, as a group you have allow for different perspectives, both dominant and weak.  Hearing and observing the weak signals requires a special effort.  You can only do it if you are able – and willing – to lose some of your mental formatting, you also have to allow for “seemingly stupid” questions and answers. Allowing for different perspectives is essential. To illustrate surprising perspectives Peters quotes in his book a story about a Texan and an Israeli farmers discussing how big their farms are. Boasting about the size of his ranch, the Texan explains he can drive his car a whole day without getting to the limits of his property.  “I had such a car once” the Israeli commiserated.

Like the oyster making pearls out of irritating grains of sand, in an organization problems and dilemma’s can be used as inspiration to change our perspective.  This is where I feel that Peter’s “Strategy from Chaos” complements Appreciative Inquiry.   Appreciative Inquiry rejects the McDonaldized approach to planning that tells you to identify the problem, conduct a rootcause analysis, brainstorm for solutions and develop action plan.  Appreciative Inquiry works differently.  It departs from the idea that organizations are a solution to be embraced. For planning you appreciate what is (discover), imagine what might be (dream), co-construct  what should be (design) and co-create what will be (destiny). AI teaches us we are to embrace what works in our organizations.  But I feel Peters has a point when he urges us to face our problems and dilemma’s and draw on their creative force.

Peters approach to strategic planning can help the imagining what might be.  Acknowledging weak signals and exploring the dilemma’s Peters advices to draw a cross to map the chaos within and surrounding our organization.  Its axes represent old and new thinking and old- and new behaviors. The four quadrants of the cross capture reflections on the present that have significance for the future. Drawing on the present we develop four different stories about our future.  I like his approach. More particularly I think it reinforces creative and inspired “dreaming” in Appreciative Inquiry.    I also like the idea to capture the future through stories. The cross looks like this. The most left “wave” is the dominant current; the other wave is the future, the undercurrent, present here and now through its weak signals.

On chaos and complexity in relation to international coöperation and development you will find interesting stuff at the portal from Wageningen University on their Complexity – Innovation Dialogues or the blog from Ben Ramalingam,  all in English. For more on Appreciative Inquiry check-out the Appreciative Inquiry Commons.

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One thought on “Weak signals and coincidents

  1. Ha Rosien,

    this is mighty interesting stuff!
    It reminds me very much of the discussion we have within our Wageningen University/Free University Adam group where we worked with an appreciative approach AND a more critical approach.
    One of our assumptions is that indeed with appreciative approaches alone, stakeholders may be not be sufficiently provoked for developing new innovative perspectives.
    Currently our group is writing an article on this topic. I will keep you posted!

    Certainly I will read Peter’s book!

    Regards, Marlen

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