Giants’ shoulders

Published by Tony Quinlan on

As a result of teaching on the new Cynefin course this week, I’m re-thinking a couple of things that I’ve put at the centre of my practice recently.

One of the core points that I’ve emphasised over the years in projects understanding audiences has been the dangers of relying too heavily on experts – in particular on the risk of allowing experts to interpret people’s stories or to analyse results. The tendency when doing either is to confirm pre-existing biases and miss potential new patterns and outliers.

But, like most things, the use of experts falls into an issue of bounded applicability – experts are valuable and indeed essential in many cases. But being aware of the limits of their use is important. When analysing, for instance, projects need a balance of experts, participant-level input and other diverse viewpoints to protect against falling into the old patterns and traps.

I got asked recently how – given I’ve spent time in the last six months working on sanitation projects in Bangladesh, innovation and entrepreneurship in Bogota, attitudes to girls in Rwanda, collaboration in Germany and health issues in the UK – I can be an expert in all those different fields and all those different countries. The truth, of course, is that I can’t be. I am, however, lucky enough to work with experts – my expertise is in being naïve on all of those and asking the questions that experts don’t. That and the application of narrative and SenseMaker to understand the situation.

Experts also have opened the doors for me to start this work – I was lucky enough to work with Dave Snowden in Mexico and currently in Colombia. Without Irene Guijt, I wouldn’t have been in Rwanda or Bangladesh. (And the interest in using SenseMaker® in Aid and Development areas is down to much of the groundwork that she’s laid out in that field.) And interesting conversations in other fields are largely due to people with deep experience in their sector – some of whom must necessarily remain anonymous until projects become public.

I also realised last week on a conference call that, having got through the door, I’d stopped listening as much as I should. Particularly around big debates currently waging in these fields, I could do with tuning in better to the experts I’ve got available to me.

It’s become to easy to nod sagely as people talk about the hot topics in their own jargon, rather than ask questions to facilitate my own understanding. (I realised some of my questions were to steer things back to my comfort zone.) A useful reminder: I don’t know as much as I think I do – and my ignorance is not always something to defend! (Even if it can sometimes be useful…)