Flood lights and traffic circles

June 15, 2012

For the first few years of my work with Cognitive Edge, the Cynefin framework, and complexity in general, I did not fully understand the value of ambiguous instructions or messaging.  Coming from a hard science background, specifically applied science in mechanical engineering, I was far more at home and comfortable with making things explicit and clearly understood with minimal chance of misinterpretation.  So I, like many of my peers and colleagues, sought to minimise and eliminate any ambiguity in communications or explanations.  For those of us who are familiar with the Cynefin framework and the concept of bounded applicability will appreciate that this form of clear communication or explanation that does not leave any room for ambiguity has a valid context of use and should be used where appropriate.  However when we want instructions and messaging to be adapted in the context of use or to transfer between domains of reference we should purposefully invoke and use ambiguity to allow context informed interpretation to have a better chance of emerging and taking effect.  The challenge is that recipients of ambiguous instructions or messages are cognitively more stimulated and some do not respond well to the degree of cognitive effort required to arrive at the contextually relevant meaning and understanding.  Now in workshop or group settings you have a degree of resilience since a team of people (typically groups of 5-7 or so) dealing with an ambiguous instruction or message can share the cognitive load and work out meaning together.  The degree of ambiguity is an important parameter to be mindful of since for some too much will tip them into cognitive chaos while too little you will over-constrain.  I often think before arriving at an instruction or message in a workshop “is this scripted in a way that the message is a traffic light or does the way the message or instruction come across act like a round-about?”

One of the things I often teach in training sessions is that working with complexity one needs to avoid seeking clarity where clarity is not possible.  Instead you shift to illuminating the contrasts found in shades of grey.  I see ambiguous instructions as a way to stimulate the negotiation of group sense and meaning making and the key is that through the negotiation of meaning shades of grey get illuminated. Interpretation is also situated in the local context which provides a coherence with the system represented by the participants engaged in the process.  In this sense a much broader range of possibility and understanding can be taken into account.   Very clear and explicit instructions or messaging is at risk of over constraining and hence narrowing the field of possibility explored or the situational landscape taken into account.  To use a metaphor think of using multiple flood lights to illuminate a wide area rather than a highly focused flashlight or concentrated beam of light.

Photo attribution: Floodlight at Grace Road Cricket Ground (Mat Fascione) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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