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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Authorship of Method

Working with organizations is a rich and complex domain, and a large number of methods and frameworks have been developed to help people negotiate this domain. Over the past twenty years or so, I have myself developed or co-developed a number of methods and method fragments.

People may have many different reasons and motivations for developing methods. For my part, I cheerfully acknowledge that my own work has partly been motivated by the desire to earn an honest crust, to find a way of using my talents to feed my family and pay the bills. But I have also been motivated by the belief that this work is worth doing, that by promoting my own ideas and those of other people, I am contributing to making organizations healthier and more viable.

One of the indicators of successful methods is that they are widely adopted and used, and method authors typically aspire to this kind of success. But this kind of success causes new difficulties for its authors, as a broad community of users start to extend and reinterpret these methods for a much wider range of situations than the original authors may have anticipated.

At this point, the authors may wish to impose some authorial control over the evolution of the method: they try to assert a canonical version, to enfranchise carefully selected followers as the only ones approved to make improvements, and to repudiate any other developments as heretical.

I came across this phenomenon many years ago when I wrote an article about Soft Systems Method (SSM), interpreting a certain practice as consistent with SSM. Following my article, Checkland clarified his definition of SSM so that my example would no longer count as valid SSM. (Lakatos would call this "monster-barring").

Obviously there are commercial motives for doing imposing this kind of control - the authors wish to maintain a monopoly or franchise over consulting and training revenues, and to protect the brand from dilution or fragmentation. But for some of these authors, there also seems to be a lot of ego involved in this process.

However, there are also many reasons for relinquishing this kind of control. A key milestone for a notable method is that it gets its own article in Wikipedia, but Wikipedia policy requires some degree of independent coverage and commentary, rather than being based purely on the writings of the method author and his immediate associates. (Although there are many articles in Wikipedia that fail to satisfy this policy.)

Where methods are created by two or more co-authors, we often find that their followers form into rival camps. For example, the key early documents on Information Engineering were written jointly by Clive Finkelstein and James Martin, but many subsequent documents credited either Finkelstein or Martin as the sole author of the method. SSM has also undergone this kind of split - I recently heard someone talking about their experience with SSM and affirming that this was the Wilson version rather than the Checkland version.

One method author who is particularly vigilant in enforcing his brand is Dave Snowden, popularly known as the author of the Cynefin method. In his document on The Origins of Cynefin (pdf), Snowden traces some of the changes that the Cynefin method has undergone since he first invented it, and acknowledges the contributions of several collaborators, including Max Boisot and Cynthia Kurtz. Kurtz and Snowden wrote a paper in the IBM Systems Journal (2003), which must be the paper most commonly cited by other authors as the source of Cynefin. But Snowden doesn't like it when anyone names Kurtz as one of the co-originators.

By objecting to what he regards as an incorrect description of Kurtz's contribution, Snowden is not only claiming to be the prime author of Cynefin, he is also claiming to be the prime authority on the history of Cynefin. But given the complex identity of Cynefin as an evolving cluster of ideas and techniques, it is surely legitimate for a historian of ideas to offer an alternative interpretation of this history. (Just as if we were writing a history of the Beatles, we should of course treat Paul McCartney's account of the creative forces as an important source, but we should not assume that McCartney's account is the last word on the subject.)

Authorship itself is not Simple, as Barthes and Derrida and Foucault have shown. If a method is to be any good, it will pull together ideas and fragments from previous methods, so there will be many voices speaking through a given text. The most successful method authors (James Martin, John Seddon, John Zachman) have always reused and relabelled and reframed old ideas, even when they haven't always appreciated their provenance. (See my post Does Metaphysics Matter? about Zachman's curious misunderstanding of reification.) Tracing the true authorship of a method is Complex, and the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, if then.

Afterword: At the same time as I was writing this, and perhaps prompted by the same events, Cynthia Kurtz was writing her personal account of the history of Cynefin: Whose Truths Are These? Her account confirms just how complex (and perhaps ultimately unanswerable) are these tricky questions of method authorship.


  1. Interesting, I hadn't seen this before. I think you are misrepresenting things a bit. In practice Boisot had as much if not more influence than Kurtz and several others were involved as well. The original creation was mine, but no one person co-created it, many people influenced and added to it. I wrote that history in the context of one individual who was seeking to elevate Kurtz over Boisot, Boone and others.

    In the exchange on Cynthia's blog I said "To use the "Ship of Theseus" as a metaphor, You came along and we added oars, proper chalking and a gun deck to what had previously been a hull with a sail and helm and a few too many intellectual leaks/leaps. More recently in the work with Boone and others its also got a linguistic deck cabin that makes visiting managers more comfortable. Through that period its kept the name, as names carry history. Of course it did, as all ships do, attract the odd rat or two who tried to use the name for something wholly other, but that is life."

    Dave Snowden

  2. Thanks Dave. I'm interested to know which bit you think I'm misrepresenting, and whether you agree with my central point about the authorship of method?

  3. I think any method has multiple influences and Cynefin was one of those. However it was not a co-creation with Kurtz. The original form is myself influenced by Boisot, then Kurtz adds the tetrahedrons, then I add the catastrophic fold and the S-A-R etc. So its accurate to say I am the creator, but other people had a major influence (and have always been acknowledged as such which is more than many do). To say it was co-created with Kurtz (per Tom who was simply lashing out without doing any research) is simply wrong and undervalues the contribution of others.