Ambiguity & Abstraction Immersion v Aversion

September 7, 2012

The recent Melbourne and Auckland Advanced training sessions have given me a deeper perspective on the Consensus-Coherence framework that is evolving for the complex domain.  What is a real delight in working on the delivery of content for the Advanced course over multiple sessions is seeing the way that the content is co-evolving with the participants questions, deeper insights, and links to our core set of methods that form the foundations course.  I was having a discussion over a coffee with one of the attendees in Auckland and I made a comment that I heard some concepts presented by Dave in a way that did not come out in the other four courses I assisted on.  Now its not that the core concepts have radically changed, however, what is evolving is the understanding and the presentation of the core concepts.

Recently after arriving back in Canada I had the opportunity to talk with April Mills, a CE practitioner located near Seattle who attended the inaugural Advanced course in Washington DC this year.  Early this past summer, April hired Cognitive Edge to mentor her through a 4-points Cynefin construction workshop and CE’s Laurie Webster traveled to Bremerton, WA to deliver on this engagement.

After working with Laurie and building experience in delivering a 4-points workshop in the context of her work, April more recently facilitated a large-group workshop which she discussed in detail on her blog called engine for change. One of the things that came up during our discussion was what April called ‘ambiguity aversion’ – the degree to which participants push back on working in, and with, ambiguity.  April was impressed at how managing the degree of ambiguity in workshops simultaneously deepen’s scanning, discourse, perspective realizations, and of course levels of frustration.  As we continued our discussion I came to a realisation that abstraction to the point of bland consensus and not going through the effort involved in “mucking about in low levels of granular detail” one can easily be at risk of not fully testing or being aware of the level of coherence.  So in this sense leaning on abstraction or ambiguity to realize consensus could potentially put you into the low coherence – high consensus area of the model.  So therefore in order to test and challenge the assumption of coherence related to abstract or ambiguous concepts one needs to stimulate engagement of diverse perspectives and detailed discourse at a greater level of granularity.  So leveraging ambiguous instructions or directions in workshops, preferably within a lightly constrained (i.e. higher level of abstraction and/or ambiguity) framework such as Cynefin creates a context where detailed and granular discourse is stimulated.  This process opens a space for emergent meaning to be explored.  In this way ambiguity, and in particular the discourse stimulated by ambiguity, drives a dynamic of breaking consensus (the disclosure of details about perspective and differences in understanding) that can facilitate the discovery of a higher level of coherence with the facts.  This I see is one example of the dynamic of compromising consensus in order to explore coherence that moves you to the desired diagonal (or I should say vertical in the rotated model)

I know I’m still exploring here, and my points above are abstract, however a key take away for me is a realisation of how abstraction and ambiguity can both drive you to an undesirable and desirable zone of the coherence-consensus model of complexity.  Applied properly, abstraction and ambiguity can yield a deeper state of situational awareness for more informed decision making. Embracing them in the right context rather than avoiding or being averse to them is key to deepening scanning.

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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.


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