Using Cynefin to publish a book

It’s been some time since I last blogged on my website. It’s not because I’ve grown tired of complexity and safety; it’s mainly due to my  involvement with friends to publish a book about an amazing man who dedicated over 50 years on the University of British Columbia campus. The target was achieved: The Age of Walter Gage: How One Canadian Shaped the Lives of Thousands.  This particular blog is not about the book  but  how Cynefin  dynamics  & cadence was put to good use.

When the book idea took hold in early 2016, it wasn’t a surprise that we started in the Cynefin Complicated domain. We certainly did not qualify as experts in producing a book but as “expert” engineers schooled in systems thinking, we all had a propensity to set a desired future state target and build a project plan by linearly working backwards. We at least were cognizant we needed the right set of talent and skills – writing, photo compilation , book editing, publication, distribution. The first milestone on the roadmap was a book publishing firm that would assume these activities in their entirety. Then we could manage the project in the Complicated domain using a “waterfall” approach.

I volunteered to build a companion website (open network platform) to collect stories (narrative research). My blogging efforts would focus on engaging storytellers and spreading the news about our Walter Gage book project. We literally had no clue who had stories and how many there were. All that we knew was that time was not on our side so there was an urgency to contact storytellers before life took its natural toll.

The prompt question for stories was simple: “a personal or professional experience that sheds light on how Walter Gage impacted you.” While written stories were requested, we did receive other narrative fragments – a voice recording, photos and letters.

Could I have signified the stories with triads and dyads to later search for patterns? Yes, but  it would have required team education and, of course, more work (probably unappreciated) by storytellers. Instead, we chose to rely on the hired author’s vast experience to read the stories and extract themes worth highlighting in the book.

While I was busy gathering stories and narrative fragments, other team members were approaching several publishers with our book idea.  While we were told our pitch was for a noble cause and commendable, nobody signed on.  We learned that our  “business case” did not provide sufficient ROI as a money-making opportunity.

Drat. Our path was broken. The roadmap led us to a dead end. Being resilient, we shifted into the above diagram’s “Yellow loop” to reset our thinking.  We decided to deploy a self-publishing strategy and search for resources who could help us make our book a reality. It also meant more work on our part.  It was intriguing to observe the team’s need to “self-organize.” We were divided into 2 sub teams- Book Creation and Marketing. Was there a concern for the silo effect? Yes, but like physical silos on a farm which are ventilated, we continued to meet often as an overall team to enable venting to take place.

Due to our lack of knowledge and practical experience, I knew our cadence would be between Cynefin Complicated and Complex domains (the “Blue loop”). Whenever a totally unexpected unintended consequence emerged, we would move into the Complex domain. With the Engineer’s disposition to immediately “fix” a problem, patience was necessary to make sense of outcomes and explore options. BTW, not all consequences were negative. One UBC grad came forth and surprised us with a major donation. Serendipity at its finest!

I introduced different software tools to the team. Some worked, some didn’t. I opened a Trello board to track our progress under the 2 sub teams. It was great for storing documents and having them available at a meeting with a couple of clicks. However,  I ran into objections regarding too many email notifications being received. I also learned that not all team members wanted the full picture, just happy to do their tasks. I eventually deleted half the team with the balance remaining on the app to stay abreast. Chalk it up as a safe-to-fail experiment.

Our primary online communication mode was Email, with all its pros and cons. “Reply to All” messages became problematic. One time we had a thread with over 72 responses. Talk about being on the Obvious/Chaotic boundary with a failure looking for a place to happen! Attachments were easily lost in the long threads. Fortunately with Trello I was able to access quickly and send them to members, as a separate new email of course.

“Email tag” had me thinking of introducing Slack to simplify communication but my Trello discovery led me to a “Don’t even think about it” conclusion. When navigating complexity, we can’t control human behaviour but can only influence the relationships and interactions amongst team members. In this case, I chose not to drop in Slack as a catalyst which would have certainly disrupted communication patterns but, who knows, maybe enable worse patterns to emerge.

We held two “by invitation only” project celebration events.  Planning was autonomic: Let’s issue invitations via email. After all, if you’re good with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Hmm, if there’s a “best practice” in the Obvious domain, email tops the list.

Thankfully I was able to influence the team to go with Evite.com. Its messaging features enabled us to leverage feedback loops, a key phenomenon of complex systems. One attendee even went a step further by posting photos of the event on evite.com for everyone to enjoy. (Note to self: Use evite.com to manage the next class reunion instead of personal email account.)

We have our official book launch tomorrow, Feb 15th.  The beginning of the end. Or perhaps the end of the beginning since book promotion and marketing now ramps up. Either way, I plan to invest more time pushing the boundaries on complexity and safety, from a natural sciences perspective.

 

 

 

 

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