Scaling and Theory U

I really enjoyed Dave Snowden’s reflections on Theory U. I’ve been meaning to write a comprehensive post but those never get written so here are a few reflections for now. Definitely worth reading the whole thing.

He reflects more generally on approaches to management that draw on spiritual traditions such as meditation and reflection. This section really caught my eye:

Scaling and sustainability have always been the issue with methods that depend on changing the people rather than the process. You might achieve the change in an individual or a group of people for a period, but until you imbed the new way of thinking into the heart and soul of an organisation such change is only temporary.

I think a lot of management initiatives, and a lot of training budgets, can get squandered on misconceived efforts to change people, reflected in dubious language about “instilling values” or grandiose claims to change the “corporate DNA”. In therapy work, I’ve often experienced the wisdom of letting go of the idea of changing the other, in favour of changing something about myself and my response to the other. So Dave’s enquiry about changing the process is at the very least one worth holding when considering how to manage organisations.

The scalability challenge is a tricky one. Conversations about scale sometimes provide cover for idea-killing. The higher up the organisation you go, the more you are expected to have answers to scalability, and there is always the temptation to over-reach: responsibility + helplessness -> abuse. Balancing the desire for real, sustained change with the proper sense of humility is not likely to be easy.

I also share Dave’s concern about how Theory U gets used. I think he’s dead right to suggest it is about repeated iteration.

My overall point however is that the whole of the U curve needs to be less linear, more connected more real time. The danger is assuming you have gone all the way down one side when it fact you need to constantly itterate across the U.

I do get exasperated when people act as if everyone in a meeting needs to somehow traverse the U from beginning to end, and on a timescale. I have to bite my lip when someone opines about where in the U we all are right now. I think that’s a classic reduction of the complex to the merely complicated or simple – whilst maintaining an illusion of somehow really being au fait with complexity. And that’s the pitfall any conversation about scale seems to risk.

One thought on “Scaling and Theory U

  1. Chris Corrigan

    All good comments. I’m done with scaling actually. “If we can just scale this, we can effect some real change.” Nope. You cannot effect real change that quickly. Not unless you have $400 billion to throw behind an emerging market for your idea.

    Change is about mutations, and therefore iterations and failure. Dave’s great gift to the world has been “safe to fail.” I use his work and Theory U (sometimes together even!) in a deeply practical and real way: to dosciver new ways of doing things.

    In fact I think Cynefin brings something to Theory U that most Theory U practitioners haven’t quite got down, and that is prototyping. It is the weakness of the ChangeLab process, and one that hasn’t really settled. Some of the Cognitive Edge methods around prototyping, creating probes, and so on are much more promising and applicable.


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