We would all like a ‘neat and compleat’ way of making sense of the world, of leading, consulting, managing.

But we’re all stuck in the swampy lowlands, whether we like it or not.

Bongard games are a brilliant, fun little way to illustrate that you can never have one theory to tell you what to do in all situations.

It’s simple. You have six postcard-sized images on the left, and six on the right.

an example Bongard game

The game is to identify the ‘difference that makes a difference’ — the rule that tells you why the ones on the left can be categorised separately from those on the right.

It was developed in the early days of ‘artificial intelligence’, when making rules for this sort of thing sounded… feasible?

The problem is, even in this simple game, making a rule to find the right answer requires the whole of human knowledge — and human creativity.

In the real world, leadership, management, and consulting approaches are an attempt to come up with a rule to answer them all.

But every method is a solution to a problem in a context — or an imagined context. When the context changes, the method may not work any more…

Can you solve the Bongard games in the slides?

(Slides 10–40, each game has its ‘answer’ on the next page).


If you want a real-world example, try sorting through government-published tenders to identify which ones are relevant to my organisation :-) — we have to do this every day, and it’s fascinating — the difference between provision of a home-care service or consultancy about how to procure home-care services, for example.

And if you want a fictional example, both House, MD and Sherlock Holmes are studies in working with the reality of Bongard Games — the shows and fiction are about working out the *context* in which the difference that makes a difference can be found. Look at how Dr House considers multiple medical tests and diagnoses, potential environmental issues in the home and work, relationships and emotional issues, lying and manipulation, coincidence and meaninglessness, his own psychodramas, and the fact that while it’s never Lupus… it could be Lupus.

What can we do about this conundrum? Well, you can shrug your shoulders and carry on — most people do, and are possibly none the worse for it. Or we can look into the possibility of seeing, and seeing beyond, context. Of understanding that while every way of understanding comes out of a particular orientation, we have some ability to avoid being locked in an orientation. Noise, looking at the gaps beyond the system, and diversity are all good ways to break open the crack that can let this possibility in, as is humility.

Oh, and the RedQuadrant tool shed is all about taking this stuff seriously in the context of consultancy, leadership, management, and change: https://medium.com/@antlerboy/an-invitation-to-the-redquadrant-way-tool-shed-8dba81a51c11

A list of sources for the attached slides: https://chosen-path.org/2020/08/28/meta-contextuality-bongard-games-systems-thinking-consultancy-transformation/

And me being a pompous ass presenting on this at SCiO: 

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