In the first edition of Planet Medicine, by Richard Grossinger, he describes a tribal method to begin the hunt for caribou which has a fascinating connection to our modern approaches to building and maintaining consensus in the creation and implementation of complex planning (and also complex change).
The short overview of the ritual is that the shoulder blade of a previously hunted caribou is heated over a fire until cracks appear in it. The bone is oriented to map the hunting territory of the tribe, and the cracks are interpreted as the paths of caribou herds. A tribal decision about where to start the hunt is made on the basis of the information on the bone.
The ritual practice, in one form or another, has been used by many different communities. The question that Grossinger raised was why the practice survived when there is no correlation between the map and the actual location of herds of caribou in the hunting territory.
He offered two kinds of possibilities:
- The ritual solved the problem of how to get started quickly on the hunt when the actual location of the herds couldn’t be determined. In this environment of significant uncertainty, it was better for the tribe to start hunting right away and gradually discover where the herds were, rather than wasting time arguing among themselves about where to start. Certainly anyone who has been in a modern meeting trying to make a decision about a problem without enough information to do so will sympathize with this very effective way of producing consensus about doing something. Perhaps the most significant deficit of our modern approach to dealing with large uncertainties is the way social, political, and financial conflicts and their negotiated resolution eliminate any useful consideration of inherent uncertainty.
- The second possibility was more subtle. Because the effect of the ritual was to have the tribe start their hunt in a more or less random place in their hunting territory, it was not possible for the caribou herds to evolve a defense against the hunting plans used by the tribe. The relationship between the tribe and its food source was kept stable by the ritual, adding a measure of constraint to a truly uncertain task.
Change advocacy as a social action framework is more like hunting caribou than it is like designing and building a nuclear power plant. There is significant uncertainty in creating and implementing change in Snowden’s “complex systems”, and when humans try to manifest that change, they will, by the very nature of what they are trying to do, engage in the social construction of some fiction to begin their change work. They will use shared values and their common commitment to outcomes consistent with those values to begin engaging with the target of their effort, learning as they go, evolving a plan of change through action, and, hopefully, achieving the change they desire by adapting their action to fit the constraints and ongoing evolution of the target.
We need to accept the uncertainty of what we do and the complex context within which that uncertainty lives if we expect to enhance our change effectiveness. In an environment of uncertainty, detailed pre-action planning wishes uncertainty away through the apparent detail and concreteness of the plan, creating the arrogance of the planners of Fukushima, who thought they could afford financial and political compromise in the creation of their fictional starting consensus. Better to learn while on the path of change, than to assume that everything important is already known.
These last two posts have looked at the role of uncertainty in justifying an open, one step at a time, evolutionary approach to change. I have tried to emphasize this difference because of the astounding dominance of detailed operational planning as a method to secure a predictable change in our global culture. As useful as such planning is in creating complicated artifacts (like nuclear power plants), the failure of typical operational planning to include the lessons of an evolving environment brings immense danger with it. There is no greater danger than the assumption that because our social focus should be on the complicated artifact we are trying to create, the only relevant considerations should be the negotiation necessary to secure the beginning of the project. Social, political, and financial conflicts become the only “problems to be solved”. Everything else is in the detail of the plan.
Because of the dominance of operational planning as a substitute for a real strategy, I am going to take one more crack at framing the differences between this global convention and evolutionary change action, by discussing one of the oldest distinctions in systems theory: The difference between Open and Closed systems.
Next Post: Lessons from the Casino of Life