Playing with time

One of the characteristics of systems that are inherently complex and chaotic is that cause and effect can be separated by both time and space. Put simply, when we carry out an action in one part of the system we will generate consequences, often unintended if not unexpected, that are felt in different parts of the system and sometimes  much later. (See The Big Five - Chaos and Complexity).

This makes simple cause and effect analysis quite hard. The connection between our actions and their impact can sometimes be quite obscure. The impact of a reduction in the funding level for a programme may not be known for some months or even years. It is possible that by this time we haven’t a clear recollection of the decision we took, or if it is even connected in people’s memory with the events we are seeing now. Those events will be explained away according to the version of history that is prevalent in the organisation, the stories we always tell. Each organisation has these and they are more than familiar, peopled with heroes who saved us and fools whose decisions nearly wrecked us. It is through these that we tend to makes sense of what went on. (See The Big Five - Self-referencing).


It is therefore really helpful to map out how events have really unfolded over time. In an ideal world, this would be a contemporaneous record as inevitably when we come to recall historical events we filter them according to our existing paradigm. Diaries can show the dates of events but even minutes of meetings rarely provide the true and accurate record of everything that was said, how it felt or the things that were going on that led to decisions. 

A good tool for recording this is to create a learning history. In a learning history a researcher, often independent, interviews people at various intervals and therefore builds a record of how people were interpreting things they were seeing at the time. (See Food and Cornwall for an example.) When you read these at the time they can appear unsurprising, as if they added little value. When you read them retrospectively they can be most illuminating. I remember re-reading the learning history for Total Place four years after my involvement ended and being struck by the richness in the content.

Another really good tool for working with any group of people to begin to reveal unexpected consequences of actions and show new patterns and insights into behaviour is a simple timeline. I usually do these on three or four levels of granularity from market, to organisation, to team, through to self. You need a good big wall covered in paper and you draw these three or four levels horizontally along the wall. Vertically you break the wall up into years or decades so as you progress along the wall you progress through time. Then you get people to fill in the paper with their recollections of key events and happenings at the appropriate level or point in time.

What you see unfolding before you is the interaction between global downturns, market regulation, legislation, company fortunes, strategic plans, stock availabilities, personal appointments and promotions and on and on. Being big and visual, the timeline starts to show you things you could never see in a consultant’s analysis, conversation or bulleted list. It is there, in bold (or discrete) type and built collectively between you.

Reflecting on this individually, in pairs and in a group allows a fresh perspective to emerge on existing problems and gives a chance to spot new opportunities. I have done this with numerous groups and it never fails to deliver. These have included;

    a financial services company plotting its activities and decisions through the dotcom boom and crash, the 2008 crash and through to the present
    a children’s safeguarding team plotting how legislation, serious case reviews and local incidents had affected their work.

In both cases what emerged was a history known partially by some, but nowhere by everybody, that showed how events that had taken place before most staff were in post were still shaping perceptions and actions today. This allowed a rethink on several key strategic principles that led to significant shifts in how they considered their day-to-day work.

Timelines and learning histories are simple and easy to do. Yet we rarely do them. The result is we are caught in a frame of reference for our decision making that we are blind to and that limits our effectiveness. These techniques don’t tell you what you need to do, but they do make what you need to consider inescapable.



The Big Five