Cynefin St David’s 2023 2 of 2

March 2, 2023

Pickled stardust xBYsohNqXs0 unsplashIn yesterday’s post, I provided a basic update on where Estuarine mapping is in terms of method.   I’d also strongly recommend people to read Tom Kerwin’s account of an Estuarine Mapping exercise we ran together a few weeks ago – not just for the account but also for what he did to integrate the results into a more conventional approach at the end.  One of the really pleasing aspects of this framework is the speed with which people have picked it up and experimented with it, some with me and some without.   All good signs that there is something of value here and I am now heavily focused on the supporting tools to manage it at scale.

In this second post, I am less metaphor focused than reflecting on some of the backgrounds of the framework and its linked methods together with some implications, not to mention the estuarine metaphor itself.  Please consider this a very speculative post in the main, more me thinking aloud than anything else.

The origination of the metaphor was a reaction to constructal law and the popular adoption of that as a form of linear flow which I am happy to accept at a macro-level in nature but I am not at all sure about it in terms of human systems or for that matter at a micro-level.   In human systems (and to be clear I am not asserting this is the intention of Bejan et al) it was being picked up and promoted by stage theorists, or those close to those approaches in psychodynamics and such.   That in turn ties into a very culturally specific and neo-enlightenment framing of change.  I’m interested in transformation in the sense it is used in physics, not the cult-like approach to organisation transformations, agile or otherwise, for which I have developed a healthy scepticism over the years.  So, in one conversation I picked on the metaphor of an estuary and it stuck – the tide can flow in both directions, the turn of the tide is significant in terms of opportunity and there is a complex ecosystem of things that only have to be checked infrequently and other things that change with each turn of the tide.   To me, that made a lot more sense for human systems especially when we know that the assumption of continuous progress is dubious, to say the least.

As I said in the first post on this subject, I had been playing with ideas from Constructor Theory since 2015 and could see the potential for the wider application of complexity theory.  It also came from quantum mechanics, not thermodynamics and that seemed significant.  I also had to dive deeper as someone I respect suggested it was derivative of constructal law something I disagreed with when it was stated, and further investigation convinced me was a false statement.   All of that ended up in a jointly authored and very academic paper from which I moved onto the Estuarine framework as a practical working out of that theory, and also pre-existing work on constraint mapping and so on.

I’ve been careful to respect the origins in the language I have used in the framework, especially in respect of counterfactual which in narrative work means an alternative history.  But here I am using it in a different way; best illustrated by quotes from the founders of Constructor Theory:

 “A counterfactual is a statement about which transformations are possible and which are impossible in a physical system. A transformation is possible when you have a “constructor” that can perform a task and then retain the capacity to perform it again”

That from an interview with Chiara Marletto in Quanta Magazine and then this from  David Deutsch quoted in Physics World:

“This central role for the impossible is not only a formal implementation of the Popperian idea that the content of a scientific theory is in what it forbids. It is also an important difference between the constructor-theoretic conception of the physical world and the prevailing one: what actually happens is seen as an emergent consequence of what could happen, rather than vice-versa”

I think those speak for themselves, and as the framework develops I may have to change some names, but we will see.   It is important to be clear that I am not claiming the application of constructor theory to strategy, I am using it as one theoretical feed into the framework and I make no greater claim than to acknowledge the source. Deutsch and Marletto may well disagree with what I have done.

The two main attractions of constructor theory were the idea that the lowest energy gradient will win out and that there are some things we can’t change.  As the opening picture shows we can be very creative, but gravity is still gravity.  Linked to that is the whole idea of granularity; a hugely significant aspect of my work over the years has been to work at a micro-level to open up more possibilities than are possible with aggregations.  Of course, the properties of a level of aggregation cannot be predicted from the parts.  Superconductivity can’t be derived from the properties of electrons but is an emergent and unpredicted effect of clumping electrons at scale (yes I know that is crude but it’s good enough for the moment).   I’ve long argued that complex systems scale by decomposition to the lowest level of coherence and then recombination.  Estuarine mapping does exactly that and as such opens up possibilities and reduces conflict.  In the next stage of its development, we will start to look at what happens at different layers of aggregation from the same source data and the emergent properties that then arise.

By this time next year, I should be able to report on progress.


In order to make navigation easier I am using this section to add links to posts written before St David’s Day 2024 that extend or compliment Estuarine Mapping

I updated the typologies, with an emphasis on constructors on 8th April and we also have this reflection from Karl Scotland which came out of the recent online training

A post on Managing for Emergence expands on the basic ideas and was published in June 2023

The banner picture of a white boat on an estuary is cropped from an original by Nareeta Martin and the gravity-defying balancing act with a travelling theme is  by Pickled Stardust both on Unsplash

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