The Cynefin Retreat on ‘Learning in Complex Adaptive Systems’ was idyllically located in the Welsh countryside. A group of big, interwoven, fairy-tale-like looking trees in front of the impressive (and unpronounceable) Coed-y-Mwstwr hotel seemed to welcome us, participants. For the next three days, we would apply Dave Snowden’s Triopticon process to explore and discuss what lifelong learning, un-learning and re-learning mean in the context of complex adaptive systems.
The Triopticon Process
Unfolding in three phases, the Triopticon process resembles ‘part conference, part symposium, and part laboratory’. Participants’ roles are named after animals. Three Eagles, our keynote speakers, offered divergent expert perspectives on learning in formal and informal contexts. After each Eagle’s talk, we participants came together in Raven trios to reflect on the keynote speaker’s input. In the final stage, we integrated what we had collected throughout the process in larger Beaver groups to build something new. During this formation phase, Magpies would swoop in and out of our groups to drop or grab shiny ideas and ensure the process was open to constant exchange. Our Owl, Annika Varjonen, completed this busy scene, and her illustrations are scattered throughout this post. As if seated high up on the crown of a tree, she watched and listened carefully to visualise our learning journey in illustrations.
Entering the realm of nature and adopting those roles of eagles, ravens, beavers, magpies and owls, initiates a first step out of our familiar environment and patterns of thinking. This is just what the Triopticon process intends to do: trigger us to think outside the box and inspire our imagination. All we needed to do was to let go of expectations. Let go of the idea of rigid guiding questions to help lead us through discussions or those colourful little sticky notes to neatly line up our reflections we so love. I have to confess I felt a bit lost at the beginning as the process left me wondering: Where is this discussion going? Will our group ever come up with the right reflections? What is our goal after all? At some point during the second day of the Retreat, I gave in, trusted the process, and allowed myself to drift into the unknown. And suddenly things started to fall into place. The process carefully set the stage for an open space where ideas could form, deconstruct, and re-group in a surprising, playful, and creative way. It was as if each Eagle had planted a seed. Throughout the process, these seeds would grow and intertwine like those big trees in the garden. It is a beautiful showcase for how learning in complex systems should be: a co-creative endeavour and discovery process, moving from divergence to convergence to create something new.
Learning is more than Education
Education needs to get students out of the classroom, engage emotions and recognise that lived experience constitutes viable and valuable knowledge. Jane Booth, our first Eagle, spoke on the topic of ‘Co-creating Disruption: Education for a Future’. It felt like a call to action when Jane shared her vision of how education should inspire us to be better humans who contribute long-term to a healthy and vibrant society. Rather than merely preparing us to be better professionals, and successfully maximising profit, education should endow us with intelligent kindness and empathy. Education and society interact and shape one another. This interconnectivity, a property of complex adaptive systems, leads us into a loop: what kind of society are we creating through education and what kind of education does our society produce? It also leads to the question of how we measure the value of knowledge and skills. There was anger in Jane’s voice when she reflected on how metrics reduce knowledge to whatever is deemed ‘market fit’, thereby recreating the current system. While metrics can help us measure progress, doesn’t a metric stop being a good metric once it becomes the sole focus and a goal in itself?
Being measured creates pressure that hinders play and creativity in a learning process. Our second Eagle, Lene Rachel Andersen, reminded us in her talk ‘Bildung & Complexity’ that the zone of optimal learning is this sweet spot where we play and where the new stuff is really interesting and just challenging enough; just out of our reach. Lene extended the concept of education beyond building knowledge. She introduces the term ‘Bildung’ which encompasses the idea that education should also shape our values and spirits. It allows us to survive but also to thrive, as individuals and societies. She takes this notion of Bildung further with the Bildung Rose. This model portrays six domains of society: Production, Technology, Science, Ethics, Narrative, and Aesthetics. Lene argues that with growing technical and digital progress we need to find the right balance, rather than allow one domain to dominate. We need to build connections between these domains and embrace cross-disciplinary approaches. In a complex system, society is more than the sum of its parts; it’s what happens between those parts.
Why is it that organisations and schools ended up functioning in the hierarchical and rigid structures we often encounter today? Caryn Vanstone, our third Eagle, took us back in time to understand the historical context and mental models by which institutions were formed like fortresses, built to defend against alteration. We attribute machine-like characteristics to organisations like efficiency, control or predictability. However, Caryn notes, this addiction to stability reduces our capacity to act and meaningfully engage with reality. A false impression of safety in a complex system through over-simplification doesn’t actually increase safety – only our risk. Life in its essence is movement and alteration, and we need to meet it where it is, crazy and complex. Furthermore, this addiction to stability inhibits deep change. And this is the moment where Caryn throws in the word love: true alteration is only possible from a state of love. If we want to step outside of what we have defined as ‘normal’, we need leaders who create change from a beginner’s mindset and ignite the inner fire that attracts other people to step in and take action. Acting from a place of uncertainty and daring to do things differently needs an environment of love, trust and courage.
Organizational Learning to Create Incremental Change
With all the input we had harvested from the Eagles’ and Ravens’ discussions, our Beaver group gathered around the question: How can we rethink adult and workplace learning? The rapid change in the world of work brought about by digitalisation and the potential of AI affects the skills we need to develop and challenges the purpose of organisational learning and the way we set up learning environments. How we learn might be much more important than what we learn. Learning how to learn is an essential future skill. It is the ability to navigate through the not-knowing, to explore different possibilities and to continuously adapt and evolve in response to the ever-changing conditions inherent to complex systems.
The purpose of organisational learning environments should be to curate a space for inquiry and incremental change. They should create conditions that inspire us to play, approach questions like beginners and challenge us to step outside the comfort zone while keeping us ‘safe’. As we move beyond established patterns of thinking or acting, the architecture behind organisational learning environments should be designed like a container that holds the disturbance that emerges when change happens. In setting up learning structures that foster an iterative approach of exploring, inspecting and adapting, we create the possibility to pause and reflect on our progress and its implications. Isn’t this what complex adaptive systems require us to do – engage in a constant balancing act of weighing opportunities with refocusing on what supports us and where we want to direct our energy towards?
All three Eagles pointed out the need to be engaged as integrated human beings. Learning environments should speak to the mind, heart, and soul. Society and education interact and shape one another, and so do an organisation and its learning culture. Just like trees that stretch out in many directions through their branches and leaves to find the light, and are invisibly connected underground through an immense mycelial network, so should we as learners reach out across disciplines to integrate different perspectives, connect with one another, feed one another, and interweave ideas. This is what allows us to ignite the spark of new creation and what speaks to the innate human quality to be creative.
About the author:
Catherine Khazarian is an independent consultant and coach for agile processes and organizational learning. She works with organizations, the public sector and academic institutions to design co-creative work and learning environments that foster inquiry and turning knowledge into action.
Created for the retreat by Annika Varjonen
Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.
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Society… as in any living organism, is the co-operative consensus of multitudes of cells, each ...
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