Estuarine mapping first edition

October 7, 2022

Screenshot 2022 10 07 at 16 47 44I started talking about Estuarine mapping as the third major framework in the Cynefin pantheon back in May of this year as part of a short series on strategy.  I picked it up again in a post on granularity a few months later where I also linked to the more theoretical paper on which all of this is based. That said I really started to think about this back in 2015 so it’s been seven and a half years in gestation.  I’ll say now that method development (and I’ve been involved in the creation of scalable methods for most of my life in one form or another) takes that long. Understanding the theory, experimenting with the practice through multiple iterations and teaching are all critical and one day it all clicks.  The speed with which some consultants and even some academics, toss together methods and frameworks is a problem, their trivial and inherently shallow nature lacks resilience and integrity.  For the avoidance of doubt, the trivial word applies to both the perpetrators as well as the methods and frameworks and adding certification is the final step into perdition.

The Estuarine framework and associated mapping process is my current focus and I’m more excited about it than I was by the creation of Cynefin.  One academic who went through it with me said it had the potential to be the complexity equivalent of Porter’s Five Forces which would be nice if we can get there but it’s early days.  We are now starting to run this through in training environments after the first experiments within organisations so if you are interested, the next public course is in a couple of weeks’ time in Berlin Bristol.

Estuarine mapping is a development of the EU Field Guide process of constraint mapping and the one-day course will also show off the new Hexi kits – our first experiments there were with the Field Guide.  I’m building up to a set of playbooks on aspects of the Field Guide along with the other two frameworks in the pantheon so expect blog posts summarising context for comment soonish.

Another key point is that this approach works at all levels – you can apply it to a corporate change programme, a software project or a military strategy.  In effect it allows (to use military terms) Grand Strategy and Tactics to be non-linear in nature, building both from the same core components and allowing real-time modification and alerts.  The language of constructors and counterfactuals comes from Constructor Theory in Physics with one difference: in that theory, a constructor does not change in the act of construction, for me it can, but it must show continuity of identity over time.

Some principles

The approach overall is based on three key aspects of working with complex systems:

  1. Initiating and monitoring micro-nudges, lots of small projects rather than one big project so that success and failure are both (non-ironically) opportunities
  2. Understanding where we are, and starting journeys with a sense of direction rather than abstract goals
  3. Understanding, and working with propensities and dispositions, managing both so that the things you desire have a lower energy cost than the things you don’t

Another way of thinking about the third of these is that we aim to create an ecosystem in which good things are more likely to happen than bad ones and that also requires balance in the system – the rewilding theme of much of our current work.  Rather than take the engineering approach, assuming a green field site and just building it in the hope people will come, you start by understanding where you are,  You build some boundaries, create some novel linkages, put somethings into the shade or eradicate them while giving energy to others.  The metaphor is that of an ecologist who uses engineering, rather than an engineer who sees the ecosystem as something to conquer.

I’ll develop those more over future posts but they have been around and about in this work for a long time now so should be familiar to readers.

Estuarine mapping – outline process

to be clear this is a bare outline, we expect this is a method that will require training and some mentoring for next year or so.  I’m still adding to it and modifying it each time I take it out.

1: map the constraints

One of the key early activities in the EU Field Guide is to map the various constraints (both governing and enabling) in play.  Constraints are the principal manageable aspects of a complex system so it’s a good starting point.  Within the Field Guide, we created a whole typology of constraints to make it easier for people to think these through.  There are six in all, in a typology, but we will over time create alternatives and additions to this and I suspect to increase the use of metaphor.  The purpose of a typology is to see things from different perspectives not to allocate things to types – always a difficult thing to get across.  The first three in the list below are robust (brilliant but failure is catastrophic) and the second three are resilient (failure is rarely catastrophic and the constraint changes over time.   In the Field Guide kit we have Hexi cards for each of these and I normally arrange them in two triangles to facilitate the process.

  1. Rigid or fixed, like a sea wall or dyke
  2. Elastic or Flexible
  3. Tethers – like a climbing rope they snap into place when you need them
  4. Permeable – some things can get through
  5. Phase shift – like Roe v Wade, there is a process in the system which can produce a sudden significant change
  6. Dark constraints – a reference to dark matter, we can see an effect but not what is creating the said effect

Brainstorming using a typology generally generates a lot more data than normal as the types force perspective shifts and improve memory recall.  We will also be distributing the capture soon with SenseMaker® which means we can use a large population and significantly automate the first stage.  That also allows colour coding by impact and so on which will be useful later

2: energy cost of change and time to change

The basic grid for this is shown above – every constraint is placed on a grid between the energy cost of change against the time to change.  In that process, they are also clustered and if the process is manual then impact is indicated by colour coding or overlay. Clusters may be relabelled as needed.

3: the counter-factual border

A line is then negotiated (shown in red above) where everything to the top right of the line is very unlikely to change.  In other words, the energy cost or time horizon of change means that it is out of consideration within the time horizon for strategy or planning.  It has been fascinating watching people at this stage, as the act of drawing the line creates a rich discussion in which things are moved backwards and forwards, and frequently broken up or redefined in the process.

Once this is done monitors are created for the line, and/or indicator or early warning constraints are described.- if unexpectedly things start to change you need to know fast.   I’ve also started to create a set of layers of warning here but I’ll teach that in Berlin.

All of this creates a set of micro-projects.

4: vulnerability border

The line on the bottom right left indicates where change could happen quickly and that is where impact matters.  If things in this domain have no impact then we can ignore them.  If there are high-impact ones then we work on containment strategies as a matter of urgency.

This can create another set of micro-projects.

5: acting on constraints and constructors

Now we identify which of the constraint clusters are acting as constructors, that is to say not acting as a barrier but instead creating a replicable outcome (a process, a ritual etc).  There will be some constraints which are neither barriers or constructors and I’m starting to think that there are ordered and complex constructors so expect the language to get more sophisticated here.

For all such clusters, we decide which should be maintained, which amended and which destroyed.  Where we haven’t got anything but we need something then again it’s down to safe-to-fail experiments to create them.  Overall the more we know the more we are able to manage

And another set of micro-projects arises

6: set a direction of travel

Here we use the more like this, fewer like those change approach which includes vector measurement and targeting along with more conventional approaches,  Less of a North Star (I’m not wild about that term) more something that recognises the direction of the wind and the currents as well as the fitness of the crews.  The following of stars is for Magi and the gifts you have to carry are costly …

7: combine the micro-projects into portfolios

Finally, all the projects are mapped onto Cynefin, clustered and developed as action plans – lots in common with the knowledge mapping approach in the Cynefin wiki.

Key to all of this

The domain between the lines is the effective area in which you can act. The domain of strategic and operational possibilities.  And the philosophy is simple: find out where you are and what is possible before you leap into the whole vision and goals thing.

Why estuarine?

Well, it was partly to counter constructional law to be honest with its threaded and overall (from my perspective) linear approach. I’m also tackling many of the more naïve aspects of ‘flow’ value or otherwise at the moment as its inherently linear and assumed to be progressive.  I’ll be thinking and talking about CAS and Lean in Florence this coming week by the way as one element of that

In an estuary (but not a delta)  the water flows in and flows out.  There are things you can do only at the turn of the tide.  There may be granite cliffs which you only have to check every decade or so, sandbanks that are checked daily and so on.  An Estuary is a rich metaphor, there are four types of estuaries, and debates about if or when a Fiord is an estuary or not – so lots to play with as we develop this

So I’m getting this out into the public domain so that authorship is clear and to get feedback – we are now running this for organisations in beta as well as starting public training so feel free to get in touch.

PS: for those who asked about my long absence from blogging, I managed to dislocate a finger walking in Donegal and it’s only now that typing is not painful

Additional material on constructor theory

A good response overall to this on linked in and one editor Soumen Sarkar came up with some useful comments on Constructor Theory so, with permission, I reproduce them here

The goal of constructor theory is to rewrite the laws of physics in terms of general principles that take the form of counterfactuals — statements, that is, about what’s possible and what’s impossible. It is the approach that led Albert Einstein to his theories of relativity. He too started with counterfactual principles: It’s impossible to exceed the speed of light; it’s impossible to tell the difference between gravity and acceleration.

The fundamental elements of the theory are tasks: the abstract specifications of transformations as input–output pairs of attributes. A task is impossible if there is a law of physics that forbids its being performed with arbitrarily high accuracy, and possible otherwise.

Constructor theory aims for more. It hopes to provide the principles behind a vast class of theories of physics, including the ones we don’t even have yet, like the theory of quantum gravity that would unite quantum mechanics with general relativity. Constructor theory seeks, that is, to provide the mother of all theories — a complete “Science of Can and Can’t”.

Whether constructor theory can really deliver, and how much it truly differs from physics as usual, remains to be seen.


You can think of constructor theory as a theory about theories. By contrast, general relativity explains and predicts the motions of objects as they interact with each other and the arena of space-time. Such a theory can be called an “object-level” theory. Constructor theory, on the other hand, is a “meta-level” theory—its statements are laws about laws. So while general relativity mandates the behavior of all stars, both those we’ve observed and those that we’ve never seen, constructor theory mandates that all object-level theories, both current and future, conform to its meta-level laws, also called principles. With hindsight, we can see that scientists have already taken such principles seriously, even before the dawn of constructor theory. For example, physicists expect that all as-yet unknown physical theories will conform to the principle of conservation of energy.


Time will tell whether or not constructor theory is a revolution in the making. In the few years since its inception, only a handful of physicists, primarily at Oxford University, have been working on it. Constructor theory is of a different character than other speculative theories, like string theory. It is an entirely different way of thinking about the nature of reality, and its ambitions are perhaps even bolder than those of the more mainstream speculations. If constructor theory continues to solve problems, then physicists may come to adopt a revolutionary new worldview. They will think of reality not as a machine that behaves predictably according to laws of motion, but as a cosmic ocean full of resources capable of being transformed by an appropriate constructor. It would be a reality defined by possibility rather than destiny.

Banner image by Robert Köpf from Pixabay

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