Ritual Dissent

Willem has written up the CALMalpha event. This morning we did an exercise called “Ritual Dissent” whereby someone presented an idea and everyone at the table ripped into it as viscously as they could.( In real options, we call this “break the model” but do it in a nicer way. ) I intend to do just that to the CALMalpha event in the hope that future events will be better.

I did not learn anthing at the CALMalpha event. Which means for me it was a bust. A total failure. So bad in fact that I decided to leave early to pick up my kids.

The Cynefin model seems to have two major components… complexity and narrative. I named my company “Emergent Behaviour” six years ago which should tell you I had my head turned by complexity some time before that. The conversation became interesting whenever it moved in the direction of narrative. Everytime the conversation started to mention narrative, we were reminded that the material was patented and it stopped dead. Whenever someone asked about running an exercise, we were reminded this was not a training course. I was there to learn but no one was providing options to learn. I was asked to ask for sessions but the thing is, I needed an expert to guide me and present me with the learning options. There were no options. (I think this may have changed after I left)

Cynefin reminds me of DSDM before it realised it had to open source its best bits. I wondered whether the Cynefin business model was copied from the Scientologists… or whether they helped the Scientologists develop their ontologists.

I envy Willem in that he found someone who was using Cynefin. I met quite a few who had done lots of training but no one who had used it in anger.

I was looking forward to enjoying a new kind of conference organised by the expert party organisers. I deliberately maintained a relatively low key prescence. Like Willem I did not want to guide the event. The reality was I felt like a passenger in Simon’s car when he first went on the skidpan. Years ago my short story teacher told me “the reader can be confused, but the writer must never be confused. The writer should allways be in control.” I did not have a sense that the organisers were in control. We had discussions about Cynefin and Agile/Lean before some of the participants knew what they were about.I still don’t feel I know what it is about.

It was clear the organiser had an intent. They just did not want to share it. Next time, they should.

There was a mono-culture at the event that it was hard to challenge. The idea was that Agile and Lean could be improved by Cynefin. No one dared to suggest that Cynefin could be improved by Agile or Lean. Even Agile20xx has a tutorial day to bring everyone up to a base level of conversation before conference starts.

Cynefin should use fewer syllables and more common sense.

I enjoyed the event much more on twitter after I left than I did when I was attending.

Until the Cynefin team decide to share their best stuff, this CALM stuff is simply marketing to benefit cognitive-edge but marketing paid for by the attendees.

I would like to thank Simon and Karl and Joseph and Dave and Saffron and the guy in the orange jumper for attempting this. For trying something different.

A wise man once said “I’ll say that this Cynefin Lean Agile Mashup is never going to amount to a hill of beans. Please move along. Nothing to see here.” I’m gonna take his advise.

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

23 responses to “Ritual Dissent

  • Thom Leggett

    Whilst the event overall most definitely wasn’t a complete bust for me I do agree with your comment on patents. It was a great case study on the chilling effects that patents can have. Every time the discussion got interesting in that area there was a mumbled “…but of course we’ve got a patent on this” and the discussion changed course leaving us unclear exactly what was patented and what we could or couldn’t use.

    For all his talk of ritual dissent it’s sad that Dave seemed afraid of people improving on his system. Particularly when, as a group, we probably have experience with systems that gather data from hundreds of millions of users.

  • Willem van den Ende

    I ‘m thinking along the same lines as Thom. I saw the software and thought there were a couple of different takes on it that may be interesting to explore on their own (e.g. collect blog posts on agile and lean practices and score them with triangles, possibly by a crowd).
    Without the patents I might have hacked something together to do just that.
    I know from experience it is a lot easier to help others apply your ideas than it is yourself, but this is what might be most valuable.
    Strange that in the ritual dissent exercise Dave encouraged us to think of ways in which different groups of developers could explore different parts of the space, where with the sensemaker software he takes the exact opposite.
    Feels indeed like some of the mistakes of DSDM are repeated again here. As Keith Braithwaite put it: “Religions give you there stuff for free, even if you don’t want it. Sects only give you there stuff when you ask for them”.

  • Graham Oakes

    I think I learned a couple of things at CALMalpha. (I’m not sure yet — I need to reflect more, and to go off and put some of this into practice to see if I really learned anything…) But here’s what I think I learned for now:

    (1) I think I can now see a way to use the Cynefin framework to inform my thinking on governance (IT, organisational, agile, product, web or whatever other type of governance you care about). I’ve been struggling with this since I did the cognitive edge training a year ago (“Cynefin feels useful, but exactly how do I use it?”). The discussions at CALMalpha may have helped me crystallise something to take it to the next level.

    I now have a fairly solid idea for a half-day workshop that explores what governance is & ways it can be addressed in different contexts. I now need to go and run that workshop a few times — it may fall flat or it may generate some useful thinking, but either way I’ve move forwards a bit. (Have tentative links to run it in Helsinki & Melbourne. Looking for other possibilities…)

    (2) I have a strong sense that we (or some/many of us) were looking in the wrong place at CAMLalpha. A lot of people seemed to be trying to fit agile and lean into Cynefin — “this is complex” or “that’s complicated”. But I think these things are operating at two different levels of abstraction.

    I think Cynefin is an intellectual framework that has informed development of a number of useful techniques. (Ritual Dissent is one. There are others at http://www.cognitive-edge.com/method.php. NB these are all “open source” and subject to community evolution. Incidentally I didn’t get a lot from the ritual dissent exercise at CALMalpha, but that’s because I’ve already built it into my day-to-day practice since I did the training last year. It’s a great technique.)

    OTOH, I think a lot of agile and lean, at least as practiced in the software community, is largely a collection of empirical practices. It’s been developed in practice, without necessarily building a solid intellectual framework to explain why it works.

    I suspect some people at CALMalpha were trying to make Cynefin the intellectual framework which pulls together all the lean and agile practices. I’m not at all convinced that will work, at least as a simple mapping of agile and lean practices onto Cynefin domains.

    OTOH I think we might gain a lot by comparing the lean and agile practices with the Cynefin practices (ritual dissent & etc), working out which circumstances they fit best, trying to tease out why they work in these circumstances, etc. Agile & lean might gain some more practices. Cynefin might gain some new practices. And the thinking we do as we explore these different practices more deeply might help extend the Cynefin intellectual framework in ways that make some of the theory behind agile & lean clearer too.

    I don’t know, but one of my favourite quotes keeps coming to mind: “There’s nothing so practical as a good theory”. (Kurt Lewin)

    • Liz Keogh

      Graham, the methods are not subject to community evolution, because they’re under a “no derivative” license (though Ritual Dissent is so close to the “Fly on the Wall” pattern that Linda Rising taught us at the patterns workshop I doubt anything would hold up in court).

      Also, be careful to get permission from the CE guys if you’re intending to use the methods in the workshop and be paid for it. It’s also non-commercial. You’ll need to let your attendees know of the restrictions too.

      • Graham Oakes

        Hi LIz. I agree, things would be clearer if the methods were released under straight Creative Commons without the no-derivs and non-commercial. But my reading of the waivers elsewhere on the methods (which qualify the basic licence) suggests it’s OK to use them when working with teams / clients. Trying to build software based on them, or package them into a product in some other way, would be a different matter. (But, thank god, I’m not a lawyer…)

        This whole debate reminds me why I remain on the fringes of the agile, lean, open source and related communities. I have clients who want to do things like eliminate poverty & slavery, improve education, interact sustainably with the environment. Against those goals, the arguments about whether kanban or scrum is more “complex” or which licence is more “free” are just noise getting in the way doing useful work.

  • Paul Beckford

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for taking the time to write this up. I think I understand your disappointment. I don’t look at the Cynefin framework so as a tool that I can use in practice day-to-day. I see it more as a reminder to question my assumptions, and as a way of describing a richer reality then the one we have been conditioned to believe exists within our organisations.

    Dave’s Cynefin paper starts out by questioning three commonly held assumptions about organisations:

    * The assumption of intentional capability
    * The assumption of order
    * The assumption of rational choice

    Click to access kurtz.pdf

    All three assumptions are mostly false in my experience, and thinking through the implications of rejecting these assumptions has opened my mind to a whole different way of perceiving organisations.

    For me it has led me to believe that much of what we do is artful, and that we have a lot to learn from the creative professions, Musicians, Actors, etc.

    Complexity for me means dropping the platonic tool box of science, with its focus on deduction and logic, and instead embracing the honed intuition and synthesis characteristic of the arts.

    Now like all of us consultants Dave has to make a living 🙂 “Honed intuition” isn’t something you can package and sell very easily, and yet organisations are always looking to buy the latest “silver-bullet” :). It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the Cynefin Framework struggles with producing useful explicit methods and tools that can be readily packaged and sold. The Agile community has struggled also.

    The true knowing is internal to each of us I think, tacit. Intuition comes from experience and practice.

    Not easily packaged and sold. Fortunately for me, I was never looking to buy 🙂



  • Iwan Jenkins

    Can I ask for a clarification?

    In your blog you state, “I envy Willem in that he found someone who was using Cynefin. I met quite a few who had done lots of training but no one who had used it in anger.”

    Do you really mean Cynefin (the framework) or are you referring to SenseMaker, the software.


  • Dave Snowden

    You know I am finding it difficult to connect the author of this blog with the person at met at the event. The person who came up at the end and apologised for having to leave early to collect his kids and said thank you for an enjoyable event. Of course its always easier to write in a way that you would not use in face to face conversation, so fair enough but I am surprised. Its not how I saw you.

    In respect of your comments on mono-culture, as I remember it the vast majority of the event was free format with people forming discussion groups around areas of interest. So there was no reason to prevent you, or anyone else for that matter, from suggesting that Cynefin could be improved by Agile or Lean. I was really hoping someone with expertise in one of those areas would, and it was disappointing not to see it. It’s even more disappointing to see you winging about the absence after the event when you had ample opportunity to raise it.

    We advertised the event as a mashup – bringing people with expertise together with different backgrounds to see what could emerge. Given that you can’t complain about lack of control if you “deliberately maintained a low key presence”. No problem with you doing that, but don’t blame other people if they didn’t do what you could have done for yourself. Your comments are the sort of complaint I would expect if we had advertised this as a training event. Now I do think, reflecting on it, that we were over confidence about what was possible, next time I think we probably have to do more of the work in advance, that we hoped would be done more openly in the event. Lesson learnt, but there was no hidden intent as you imply. Please ….

    Now to the patent issue, where you are at best misleading. Cynefin is a framework based on complexity theory and that is all it is. We also have some methods based on the principles that underpin Cynefin which we shared and are open source. The event was about seeing if theory informed practice would allow something new to emerge from all four elements and that was the focus. All of the material disclosed in that respect is open source.

    Cognitive Edge also has software, SenseMaker® which is based on a recently granted patent. Although it is informed by complexity theory and we may launch a version of it for requirements capture, it was not a part of the event as planned. I did not raise it as I thought it would be wrong to raise proprietary material in an open event. One of the other faculty members raised one aspect of that as an example in one half hour session on day two. I had to point out that the aspect (triads) was subject to patent, it would have been irresponsible not to. However I also said very clearly at the time that Cynefin, methods etc. brought to the vent were not so constrained. From one comment at the start of that half hour session you have hatched a conspiracy theory worth of a tabloid journalist. Also you are plain wrong on what happened, conversation did not stop dead, there were a few interesting interactions and it moved to multiple other conversations outside the main event.

    Otherwise the marketing jibe is really not worthy of you (or I hope it isn’t). Its a pity you were not prepared to bring your considerable knowledge and experience to bear in the event itself. But if you want fewer syllables and more structure then I recommend training events rather than open sessions of this nature.

    • theitriskmanager

      Hi Dave

      Thank you for engaging.

      First off, I did and do thank you and the Faculty for putting on the event. I enjoyed it, but for me, I did not learn anything. I did engage with the faculty, and provide feedback before, during, and at the end, and have arranged to retrospect next week. I had the choice of picking up my kids and I decided to leave. I gave a misleading impression and said that was the reason I was leaving. After reading Willem’s blog I decided to write as vitriolic piece as possible in the style of “Ritual Dissent”. I should have performed the ritual first. It would appear that the first paragraph was not a strong enough innoculation. I’m learning by doing. If its any concellation, Agile20xx is no longer a learning event for me. The last one or two conferences were great fun but I did not learn much by being there. Hence the reaon I do not attend.

      I have training and experience in organising conferences. I am aware of my domineering approach. I did not want to turn it into my conference. As the Faculty chose not to participate in certain activities, I chose to do the same so that I could observe the event and the faculty. Quis custodiet ipsios custodes.

      It would appear the phenomenology surrounding CALMalpha and Cynefin is not alligned with the ontology. Further, my epistemology is not allign with that desired by the faculty. This is a complex space, the only way I could think of determining the ontology was to act on it with its own stick.

      In game theory it is very important to understand the difference between intent and behaviour. It is VERY easy to mistake one for the other.

      I am engaged and will continue to be engaged. However you should understand that Antigone is the story that inspired me the most, Medea was just to close to home.


      p.s. You may find the question I asked myself amusing http://www.hanoulle.be/2011/08/who-is-chris-matts/ Then again, you may not.

  • Paul Beckford

    Hi Chris,

    “Not easily packaged and sold. Fortunately for me, I was never looking to buy”

    From Dave’s comment, he wasn’t looking to sell. I for one am grateful for him open sourcing his work.

    My guess is that it comes down to a misunderstanding. It sounds like you and others thought you were buying something? Hence the disappointment.



  • Liz Keogh

    Dave, the methods we were taught – even the ones I got from the official Cognitive Edge training – are licensed under a non-commercial, non-derivative agreement which is useless for those of us who want to help teams and get paid for it.

    In fact, I now have to be careful if I come up with an idea to be sure that it’s really derivative of other work and not your methods, so from that point of view it’s actually been harmful. I find it hard to partition my brain that way and occasionally wish I hadn’t taken the course.

    That the methods are so interesting and come up with the kind of results they do only makes this more annoying.

    I was told some time ago that a commercial license would be forthcoming, but as yet it hasn’t been. Until such time as this happens, I can’t see any way of mashing up the Cognitive Edge methods with Agile and Lean for use on commercial projects. I did get some insights from the sessions, but only to highlight the enormity and intractability of the problem our industry faces. We didn’t develop anything we could do differently as a result. I came out of the sessions with a profound sense of depression, which I communicated, and I am still feeling that frustration now.

    I don’t believe that anyone had an agenda, and I’m OK with attempts that fail – it was worth the time to try, and it was good to see old faces and meet new ones. That alone was worth the time for me.

    I do share Chris’s concerns that Cognitive Edge’s licensing arrangements will stifle any attempt to innovate using your work. CALMalpha highlighted this for me, and obviously for Chris too. You say that the methods are “open-source”, but this isn’t the same as being “open”.

  • Paul Beckford

    Hi Liz,

    Is the problem you raise with the Creative Commons License? Or is there another license I’m unaware of?

    Are you saying that you aren’t free to use these methods in your day Job?

    Isn’t it as simple as getting Dave’s permission first?



    • Liz Keogh

      Right, which means that if I want to use them I can’t do it as and when it seems useful. I have to wait for Dave or CE to respond.

      If he’s always going to say, “Yes, sure,” then why not just put that in the licence?

      The last time I asked, I was explicitly told that commercial arrangements were in the works, which suggests that it’s not necessarily always going to be “yes”.

      Also, it’s no good just giving the permission to me, because one of the things I do when I run a session with people is I teach them what I’m doing – leaving them with the same problem.

      And this is without looking at the restrictions that no-derivative causes.

  • Heimo Laukkanen

    At least in the wiki it reads about the IP:

    “All Cognitive Edge methods and the ideas that are represented here on the pages of this wiki are subject to a restricted form of the Creative Commons License. No contributor to this Wiki acquires any IP rights in their or other contributions, or the right to develop software tools or other commercial offerings without explicit agreement in writing from Cognitive Edge. In its term Cognitive Edge commits to make any methods available without charge for use on client projects and to grant any supporting license at cost, other than to develop software, as shall be reasonably requested by any person.”

    Don’t know what the supporting licence would mean, nor what reasonably would mean in this context.

    I don’t see much problem in the licence as I assume I know what was meant.

    However it would be great to get a clarification from Cognitive Edge on the intent as well as status of licencing.

    • Liz Keogh

      Heimo, I already had a conversation with the Cognitive Edge trainers about their licence some time ago, when I took their course. In that respect, I’m very slow – Chris’s post prompted me to take action that I should have taken a while ago.

      With the greatest of respect to Cognitive Edge, though – we wouldn’t be bothered if their methods didn’t have merit.

  • Dave Snowden

    I replied on Liz’s blog on the CC license options

    Chris – one of the key aspects of ritual dissent is that all participants and observers are fully aware of the option for the attacks to be savage, unprincipled and irrational (to use the words I gave when I set up the exercise). For that reason it works. To simply launch such an attack without making readers aware of that really isn’t ritual dissent. I responded to what was said. Otherwise if you choose not to participate but stand aside, OK its your choice. Pity really

  • Heimo Laukkanen


    has the comment been deleted / not approved, as I can’t see it on the blog.

    And agree totally on your comment about ritual dissent. For anyone who wasn’t at the event the post can/ could give an quite strange image when they do not know what they are reading.

  • Dave Nicolette

    Wow, it sounds as if you guys had a very interesting experience. Chris, you may be mistaken in thinking you didn’t learn anything from the event. Based on your post and the ensuing discussion, it seems you did. It just wasn’t what you expected to learn.

  • Ann Witbrock

    As an external observer, I see Chris introduced the notion of ritual dissent and then proceeded to say ” I intend to do just that”… which I read as setting his post in that context.

    I also read an article about Ritual Dissent and Fly on the Wall a couple of days ago (via Liz I think). This seemed to me a horribly micro-managed conversation which could only fail to leave gaps for necessary truths to emerge.

    I fear now I shall have to learn a new definition for the word complexity.
    As if we don’t already have enough overloaded terms to deal with if we’ve been around a while.

    Some of my very clever ex-colleagues are terrified of agile explicitly because of DSDM (which I had never encountered till I asked why they were resistant to agile, when XP or Kanban to me seemed a very natural mode for them to use). I’d say it has made them perverse to their best interests.

    The world is full of nasty little rituals. Mutually appreciative exploration is a much nicer way to discover things.

    • Liz Keogh

      I think the “Fly on the Wall” works a bit differently when it’s something you really care about – not an experience we got at CALMalpha, but we did at the patterns workshop. When you know someone cares deeply about something, you tend to be cruel to be kind, which you can do safely because of the lack of eye contact. There are a number of other sessions which also happen and which ensure that the valuable aspects of the idea are captured.

      Afterwards, we all go down the pub. One of the nicer little rituals, IMO.

  • Forgiveness « The IT Risk Manager

    […] by Willem’s blog, I wrote up my experiences of the CALMalpha event. I did it in the style of Ritual Dissent. In effect, I acted within the […]

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