Encountering with the shadow at the fifth domain

September 29, 2010

Referring to the domain of disorder, Dave and Cynthia argue that “often in a group (…) individuals compete to interpret the central space on the basis of their preference for action. (…) The stronger the importance of the issue, the more people seem to pull it towards the domain where they feel most empowered by their individual capabilities and perspectives” (Kurtz and Snowden in “The new dynamics of strategy”)

Indeed, people naturally pull towards where they feel most empowered (safe) and, therefore, the central domain represents a disagreement (disorder) that has to be arranged (reduced). Yet, I think another meaning could be also attributed to this domain: the shadow. The shadow is what by nature we might be but we are not, due to what society demands from us as individuals. In Jungian terms, it personifies everything that an individual (or a group) refuses or fails to acknowledge about oneself; it can be either personal or collective.

What I have noticed in many courses is that people do not always pull the issues towards their own power and safety place. In some cases, they just leave them aside (untouched) either because they feel hostile to them or because they know (on a deeper level) that they are not (yet) in position to deal with them. These issues are usually placed on the fifth domain. From this point of view, Cynefin’s centre may also reveal the issues that a person or a system is unable to acknowledge or immature to face.

I can recall two characteristic incidents. The first was during a conflict resolution course, with a teacher of secondary education who was responsible for vocational guidance to pupils. He was very interested in the complexity approach and went in for the Butterfly stamped exercise. However, when the “entrepreneurship” tag was to be discussed in his group, he just said “to hell with them, put it to the centre” and he turned his body to the other direction, away from the group’s table. It is easy to imagine how this single-viewed perception would affect his orientation and guidance services.

The second refers to a train-the-trainer course, which I had to undergo in 2006, in order to be officially certified as an adult trainer. Within a few months period, each trainee (who was already working as a trainer, some of us for many years) had to attend four weekend meetings with a trainer-coach, conduct some case study reports and finally present an exemplar teaching of his/her own choice, which would be evaluated by a committee. From the beginning, the context was rather depreciating, as the underlying assumption among the participants was that the whole thing was “just a project”. Almost no one, except the trainer-coach, believed that his/her professional status was in need of all that … stuff, since “it was fine already”. Of course, nobody would express this openly or evaluate the course negatively in the final report. So, I decided to test this hypothesis by conducting (as part of my exemplar teaching) a short version of the Butterfly stamped with my co-trainees as participants. Among the SMIs I created, there was one serving as indicator for the overall assessment of the course: “weekends away from home”. The result was impressive: half of the trainees’ groups placed this tag on the centre!

Discussing later this incident with the trainer-coach, he said that he had a fuzzy idea of the participants attitude but he could not believe that the actual disapproval would be that big. I think that the group was either indifferent to the scope of the course or not willing to deal with the issues that emerged from the process and challenged the self-image we all have. I also realized that there was no other way for him or anybody else in his position to make sense of how much appreciated such an intervention can be. Answering to quantitative questionnaires is often misleading, for reasons of social desirability. In such cases, people find it hard to declare, discuss and explain their choice; we prefer to leave it in the shadow. Encountering the shadow is always the first (and most significant) step toward the achievement of consensus.

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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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