I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.
Hello, dear reader,
Systems practice is full of claims that unsettle themselves in their own becoming. Many of the claims made about how best to make sense of complex systems for example—like Binaries are bad or There is no one right way to understand complexity—are deeply ironic and yet productively indispensable. As strong claims about the world, they simultaneously confound and facilitate our sense-making. This kind of irony, as Carl Rhodes and Richard Badham put it:
… recognises incongruity and contradiction in human affairs … [and] encompasses forms of thought and action that find meaning in recognising yet questioning the vocabularies that frame our world, the conventional stories that we live by, the established meanings and coherence we impose upon the world, and the confident ambitions that we possess and strive for. In this sense, irony not only acknowledges fallibility, it also identifies folly, questions arrogance, and delights in reflection.
In the rich literature on systems leadership (link, link, link), it’s common to see some reference to the necessity of leaders being able to hold paradox but much less is written on irony. My sense is that irony is an essential tool for the modern systems leader, one that enables them to respond to demands for certainty without forcing a retreat from complexity or being crushed by its burden. Irony creates the space for play and improvisation where our sense-making comes up against the limits of language and logic.
Implications for systems leadership
I spent much of my week off deep in the academic work on irony (yes, I am always this fun…!), including the piece already mentioned by Rhodes and Badham, this, this, and this. Weaving between all four pieces and doing my best to reach toward a repeatable frame, I think we can begin to articulate the role that irony plays in systemic leadership as The Three Ps:
taking an ironic Perspective in which the leader accepts fallibility, paradox and incompleteness in the certainty artefacts they are called to create.
engaging in ironic Performance in which the leader makes claims to certainty while also communicating the structural and logical limits of certainty. In ironic performance, irony becomes a tool to subvert the idea of objective reality by introducing an element of contingency and play into literal, objective language.
cultivating an ironic Predisposition in which the leader invests in the different habits, rituals, and attitudes that enable them to filter their subjective experience of complexity through an ironic lens.
I routinely tell those I work with to expect irony from me. A dead-set way to know that I am uncomfortable in a situation or context is if I am not being ironic. Irony done well requires enough contextual awareness and comfort to be playful and to be willing to subversively test the edges of different concepts and the way that they are being communicated.
I’ve only recently started playing with these ideas, so there’s almost certainly space for further testing, stretching and revision. As always, whether they resonate with you or not, I’d love to hear from you about why.
I think there is an opportunity to explore irony, sass, and sarcasm, in their various forms, as a type of caring or ethical response to complexity, inspired by the work of Maria Lugones and her thinking about playfulness.
Modernist literature is full of literary irony, thrown into our field of vision with such intensity that no thread of coherence can ever reach completion, despite our best efforts.
Pragmatic philosophy has developed to be comfortable with irony. As Louise Glück beautifully put it: “My friend, / every sorceress is / a pragmatist at heart; nobody / sees essence who can’t face limitation.” The struggle is not all or nothing </irony>.
Other things I’ve been reading/listening to
The Culture of Coincidence by Laurence Goldman is a fascinating study of the way we linguistically code intentionality, causality, responsibility and control (often without a hint of irony…) into the way we make sense of accident and murder.
Listen to David Wengrow discuss his new book The Dawn of Everything, written with the late David Graeber. As with all things Graeber touched, the reviews have been polarised, but I think sometimes it is more important to be interesting and provocative than it is to be right.
Alanis always gets the last laugh
By the way: This newsletter is hard to categorise and probably not for everyone—but if you know unconventional thinkers who might enjoy it, please share it with them.