ASHEN redux

December 24, 2020

Grant durr fG9FM4tl8Mk unsplashRedux came over into English in the 17th Century as one of those rare postpositive adjectives in English to mean brought back, or the more active bringing back.  The postpositive form landed itself to literally use which often contains a sense of things being right again in consequence; think of Trollope’s Phineas Redux if you want an example.  I like the original Roman use where Fortuna Redux was “one who brings another safely home, a reference to the Goddess Fortuna.  Hence my use here in the final post for the moment on my bringing ASHEN back, as it was, but also as it will become.  Strong links to the meaning of Cynefin here.

For anyone who has been wondering why I have used railway tracks and pictures from ancient studies of the human body, I probably owe you some explanation.  I’ve always liked old anatomy illustrations and even those that imply some form of phrenology (I used one yesterday) as they demonstrate human curiosity and the process of discovery by dissection, taking something apart to understand how it works.  It is the basis of modern medicine and also transplant surgery although that process now raises significant ethical questions of identity.  ASHEN is a tool for the dissection of human knowledge and acts of knowing.  But like dissection, it requires the whole to operate hence by seeing it as a perspective question or a typology rather than a rigid process.   I need to document the linked process of knowledge mapping in the open-source wiki we are building as this is a key technique for crisis management.  If you don’t know what you know then that is problematic of itself, but if you don’t know what you have known at a necessarily fine level of granularity then radical repurposing of that knowledge for a novel purpose will be accidental at best.  That exaptive process is critical to crisis recovery.

The railway lines, and when I used points, are a metaphor for the way we can get comfortable and just follow the line accepting the restricted choices offered by the point system.  Nothing wrong with that in stable situations, but the danger of pattern entrainment is always there.  I’ve been in a series of exchanges with people who like the idea of mental models on social media recently.  In its day it was a cute concept as it explained non-rational decision-making.  It had a strong cybernetics aspect to it with the idea that we were programmed and disrupting or installing a new programme was the way forwards.  Senge popularised it and simply can’t break away – in fact, the conservatism of the Learning Organisation is one of the great ironies of modern management theory.  We now know a lot more.  We know about partial data scanning and first, fit pattern matching, we know about the conceptual blending of fragmented memories, we know about the natural human capacity for abductive reasoning (both good and bad by the way) and we know that consciousness is embodied and enacted (at least in part).  There is growing evidence it may also be extended and all of that before the growing understanding of the olfactory element of human sense-making.  It is a lot more messy and complex than mental models as an idea can accommodate.  Also, the engineering metaphor carries over into intervention techniques but that is a whole other can of worms.

Of course, ways of understanding produce methods and tools that have utility and excite empathy.  We had ways to use gravity before Newton discovered the why and those didn’t lose validity in consequence.  We know that in therapy what really matters is the relationship you have with the therapist, not the theory they are working from and the justification for the theory is a good example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.  The linear, causal ideas that underpin Freud and in a different way Jung were hugely valuable in their day and there is a body of methods and ideas that have emerged from that understanding that has utility; although for who is a question.  Modern propaganda and manipulation of voters all come from Freud; a lot of the early work on group dynamics in the UK was to make workers content with their lot.  Most of the supporting ‘evidence’ is phenomenological in nature, dependent on self-reported effects and evangelical prayer meetings can claim the same authenticity.  Humans are complex and the many diverse ways in which we see the world and change our perspectives are subject to bad science as well as good science.  My first Twelvetide post for 2020/21 will pick up this theme but the basic approach of naturalising sense-making is to find out what is reported to work and see if we can understand why using natural science.  Where we can we don’t have to abandon the practices, but we need to move on from the theory to better understand how to scale said practice.  There will also be things we can’t explain, and there we apply a test of coherence not it worked for me so it must be right argument.  My own view is that one of our key tasks in Cognitive Edge and the Cynefin Centre is to create the processes and the practices of that theoretical reframing of past good practice to better understand its utility.

This brings me back to ASHEN …

Now yesterday I brought in the idea that ASHEN provides a lens that allows us to break pattern entrainment, or five lenses to be more precise, six or seven if we expand heuristics to include habits/rituals.  So let’s look at how we might use this in the context of understanding teams, team formation, and individual development.  I’ll lay this out as a series of stages but this is not intended to be linear, it’s just easier to explain it that way.  This is also a development of my earlier posts on Leadership.

  1. Ideally, we start by understanding, as far as is temporally possible, the context in which we are operating, which can be a discussion but is better done through MassSense in order to check the overall dispositional state of the system and identify outliers.
  2. There is a special case here which is linked to the key exaptive and competence-induced failure points in the Flexuous Curves framing.   Those relate to special cases where business as usual is not possible and timely change is critical.  If in that phase shift period then new structures are needed.
  3.  Within the context, we now map by a team, or team of teams the ASHEN elements we are likely to need.  The more uncertain the environment the more diversity we will need in all five elements but especially the EN elements.  Measuring requisite diversity is something I am working on and the core theory is done so now looking for cases to develop the practice.
  4. We then take stock of what we have, not by the person, but by the ASHEN elements, and validate the formation of teams and team of teams to make sure we cover that need, with high levels of redundancy in the EN elements.  But those may need to be distributed into parallel teams.  The more knowledge is based on EN the more you have the danger of key person dependency and competition for resources.
  5. Now if we have taken the idea of Entangled Trios seriously the various informal systems that will have arisen should have done the mapping and selection for us.  Within the Entangled Trio method, we are working with ROLES that themselves need to be mapped onto ASHE and some of the questions on critical dyads and optional threes may link back to ASHEN.

Still more to develop here, but that is it for now, so onto a notice about the future posts


Some years ago I started the practice of writing twelve themed blog posts for the twelve days of Christmas.  I’ve mostly completed them and it is often frustrating as it can delay key posts that I want to write.  But it is a ritual, like the St David’s Day update on Cynefin.  So after a lot of thought, I think it is time to try and set out the core principles of Naturalising Sense-Making (and Anthro-complexity as a part of that) including questions of what is coherent to the approach even if it does not fully belong within it. By its nature this is fluid and I am planning to do it in four sets of three posts which roughly follow my own pathway in developing both theory and practice.  These are:

  1. Knowledge and how we know things
  2. Narrative and the use and abuse of story
  3. Complexity and anthro-complexity in particular
  4. Sense-making as a coherent whole

I may flex that a bit and what goes where is occupying my thinking time while walking in the Lakes.   I’m ensconced in the Lake District for the whole period so the walks I do may inform those posts at least in the banner pictures.  For the opening picture, I am using the metaphor of dry stone walling.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Opening photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash


Dear Reader, while we have your attention: we are on a determined drive to expand our network around the world. We’re certainly living in uncertain times (sic), and we believe that it will take a large collective of like-minded people to help organisations and societies navigate stormy waters, make sense of the world and make good decisions. Consider joining the Cynefin Network by clicking on the banner below. Links to eBook and paperback copies of our latest book are also available on this page.

Join the Cynefin Network Banner 4

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts

About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


Social Links: The Cynefin Company
Social Links: The Cynefin Centre
< Prev

ASHEN reused

- No Comments

One of the purposes of ASHEN was to change the way we talk about knowledge ...

More posts

Next >

Twelvetide 20:01 Acts of knowing

- No Comments

As promised yesterday the main theme of this Twelvetide series is to summarise the main ...

More posts

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram