Aporetic Meditations

March 27, 2020

These have been trying times. Yesterday, I watched our National Development Minister tear up at a national address as he thanked frontline workers who are doing their part against COVID-19. Singapore released its second stimulus package yesterday, drawing a landmark $48bn from its reserves. The package is set to last for 9 months, and we are already 3 months into this journey. The fight ahead is long, and we have to brace ourselves.

Last week, I traveled back from North America to Singapore as a response to the government’s recall of all its citizens. Making the decision to undertake the journey home was a process of weighing odds. But all in all, I am glad I am home. I am now on Day 5 of strict 14-day Stay Home Orders. 

Before coming back, I had been watching the news coverage of the COVID-19 responses attentively – Singapore’s, the US’ and the world’s. I was back in Singapore in Jan 2020 visiting my parents when the news of the virus was first announced. I observed the actions that the Singapore government took to respond to the situation – trauma-induced muscle memory type reflexes from SARs, then H1N1, then MERs. The actions it took were swift and decisive, and has earned it a reputation through its handling of this pandemic, but the thing that most stood out for me, was the leadership displayed, and how they communicated these through public health messages and addresses. 

It struck me how much value there is in allowing oneself to sit in Aporia. Not to use the space as an excuse to not act, or to get lost in it through confusion; but to understand the value of admitting that we do not know, and we need to deconstruct. To admit that we do not know, and we need to watch the situation evolve. To say we know a bit more now, but we will need to re-evaluate our current assessment again, and again.

Ad nauseum, ad infinitum. 


Aporia provides a safe and curious vantage point for leaders.

Dave has recently updated the Cynefin framework to rename the domain of Disorder to Aporetic/Confused. I recall the email exchange that inspired that naming – our colleague in Stellenbosch University, who has been writing a paper with us, had been reading Derrida. Screenshot-2020-03-01-at-07.35.png

French Philosopher, Jacques Derrida, has been known for developing an approach to semiotics that is centred on deconstruction. He has been criticised by some for being a relativist, but Derridean scholars have long argued that Derrida was always concerned with aporias and their impact on ethics (or a field of aporetic ethics). Derrida’s aporia is a fundamental concept to aid in continuous deconstruction when approaching decision-making. Derrida subscribed to a very purist definition of what qualifies as a decision. He believes that in order for something to qualify as a “decision”, it is defined by the fact that it was “undecidable”.

That is, where things had worked before, and we did not have to ponder the decision, then they are not in essence “decisions”, but part of programming. Here is a quote taken from an interview with Derrida that more eloquently explains this than I can:

Think here of Kierkegaard: the only decision possible is the impossible decision. It is when it is not possible to know what must be done, when knowledge is not and cannot be determining that a decision is possible as such. Otherwise the decision is an application, one knows what has to be done, it’s clear, there is no more decision possible; what one has here is an effect, an application, a programming.” (Force of Law: the “Mystical Foundation of Authority”’, in Gil Anidjar, ed., Acts of Religion (New York and London, Routledge, 2002), 255.

Or to quote Derrida quoting Kierkegaard, ““L’instant de la decision est une folie””, “The instant of a decision is a madness”, a leap of faith – 

The moment of decision as such… must always remain a finite moment of urgency and precipitation; it must not be the consequence or the effect of theoretical or historical knowledge, reflection or deliberation, since the decision always marks the interruption of the juridico-, ethico-, or politico-cognitive deliberation that precedes it, that must precede it. The instant of a decision is a madness.” (‘Dialanguages’ in Points: Interviews 1974–1994 (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1995), 147–8.)

Real decision making is really hard stuff! It is a series of judgment calls, followed by a leap of faith. And, leading in crisis and uncertain times makes every decision weigh more heavily!


Leading and Managing through crisis.

The HBR published an article yesterday, where the question was posed : “Are you leading or managing through the crisis?” There is a clear distinction between the two approaches: managing through a crisis involves operational responses which are very critical, and open to public scrutiny. When executed well, acknowledgement will cause an addictive adrenalin rush (think of how Trump’s ratings shot up after he decided to declare  the wartime Defense Production Act, or sign the new stimulus package). There are, however, dangers when leaders “manage” without “leading”. 

Leading requires an ability to step back, to avoid a narrow focus – or to adopt what the authors call a “meta-focus”. This, to me, is the value of Aporia, or aporetic contemplation. 

In thinking about the leaders who have earned the public trust in their handling of this situation, it appears to be a common thread – that balance between managing and leading. Between being comfortable in an aporetic mode, and being able to operationalise and take action through the other Cynefin domains. Derrida’s definition of “aporia” is suitable when we consider the domain of “disorder” as a domain where things are too coarsely grained to take action on. Let us consider the 4-points construction method, where things that end up in the domain of disorder are encouraged to be deconstructed into more manageable parts. The discussion and examination that such a framing opens up encourages insight beyond mere questions around operationalisation.


Aporia allows for Humanity.

Aporia is part of ontological reality when facing crisis – but the burden of leadership is to communicate with clarity and authenticity. At once providing direction, demonstrating action, but acknowledging where there is uncertainty. Acknowledgment of this uncertainty is where the invitation for collective action can take place.

Leaders who have demonstrated this are able to communicate through messaging that resonate with the uncertainty and aporia everyone is feeling:

Screenshot 2020-03-27 at 10.16.21 AM


NY Governor Cuomo’s approach has won support because it displays a balance between taking charge and managing, whilst maintaining humility, opening up the space for participation, and consistent acknowledgment of the situation –

Let’s practice humanity together”.






New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern, has excelled by realising early that she doesn’t know about pandemic control, and communicating clearly the advice of those who do –



If you have any questions about what you can or can’t do and you’re looking for answers, apply a simple principle: Act like you have COVID-19. Every move you make could be a risk to someone else.”





Marriot International’s President and CEO, Arne Sorenson’s video address to his group where he openly discusses his cancer treatment, and his new “bald look”, on top of the current crisis 


I have never had a more difficult moment than this one. There is simply nothing worse than telling highly valued associates… that their roles are being impacted by events completely outside of their control.”


There are plenty more, and it’s hard to choose. Let us not forget the small business owners who are struggling hard to continue supporting their staff despite negative cashflow. But all this brings to mind the old adage, that in hard times is when people show their salt.

In the meantime, I believe that aporia can offer us some comfort. Aporia allows us to be in touch with our humanity, and to continuously re-evaluate and contemplate, and to be comforted that feeling that we cannot fully understand this situation is the right thing to feel. To bring it back to philosophical basics, Socrates argued that the unexamined life is not worth living, and aporia is part and parcel of the necessary puzzlement that contributes to the examination of life in order to truly “know thyself”.  

I hope humanity continues to rise to the occasion.

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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.

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