Complex actions workshop

March 8, 2013

An early morning briefing session today for a strategy session I am facilitating next week.  I've done a few of these over the years but they seem to be coming thick and fast at the moment.  Another sign that complexity thinking is coming into its own.   It is going to be interesting as I run a process based session on one day, then on day two they will get the more personal experience, examine yourself type session that is characteristic of the soft end of systems thinking.

I had to put an outline together to explain what goes on and decided to publish it here both for the record and to inform others.  Most people who have been through the Cognitive Edge training (advanced) should be able to run one of these, although best to be mentored the first time.   I've taken a fair number of people through it over the years and its always fun when they realise if you hold the final deliveries for as long as possible then you get powerful, divergent actions as a result.

No idealistic statements that will require work to make them tangible downstream, just hard concrete, tested actions.  It is also directed, it is not open space as people don't choose what they discuss or who they work with.  In this type of workshop we are more concerned to extend scanning capability of the group as a whole.

There are new action forms for this, and also a whole new approach to portfolio management of complex interventions.  Those are all taught on the new courses which we will announce early next week.

Overview of Workshop

The Cynefin action workshop is designed to engage participants in thinking differently about a generic area or a specific problem or collection of problems. The workshop is constructed based on insights from cognitive science (in particular breaking pattern entrainment and ritual dissent) and complexity science (sometimes know as the science of uncertainty).

Background material for the principles can be found in the HBR article A Leaders Guide to Decision Making by Snowden and Boone as well as a wealth of material at

The basic structure of the workshop varies depending on if it is over one day or two and also is adjusted on the day depending on the responses of the group. It is around 80% doing by participants and 20% instruction and guidance.

The workshop allows for engagement by senior management either during the event or to review the actions at the end. If they choose engagement throughout then its important that they are participate in an open way, not imposing authority on the group.

As stated the structure can vary but in general follows this pattern:

  • Future Backwards can be used as a tuning in exercise to get things started
  • A basic introduction to complexity theory using metaphor in the main. Summary of key language
  • Exercise to identify issues, action areas, opportunities etc. within the designated subject using the Cynefin framework. For the first exercise people are group in teams based on having people to tend to think alike sitting together. This increases the contrast when they look at their results.
  • The groups are then merged and split so that each group has people from the first exercise. Issues for resolution in the workshop are then clustered and defined.
  • The principles of designing interventions in complex and complicated situations are then introduced, supported by forms that will be used in the next exercise
  • Teams then produce proposals for actions using the form, and the more general portfolio management system which is also introduced at this point.
  • Actions as they complete are subject to serial review using ritual dissent – something that always raises energy level!
  • Depending on the time available, other techiques (such as building cross silo teams) are introduced and used by the workshop to create further actions. Which techniques and the number depend on the time available and the pre-brefing discussions with the client.

In the final session specific actions have been completed with detailed implementation plans. These can then be reviewed by Executives and/or the group as a whole.

These actions are reviewed in a structured follow through process agreed with the client after the event and has variable engagement from Cognitive Edge from coaching to review.

The process can be run with small groups, although less than 12 requires some modifications. It has also been run with several thousand, although for those numbers a large facilitation team is required.

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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.


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