Leadership & Ethics: Cynefin Australia Retreat Reflections

November 6, 2023

It’s just over six weeks since I attended the Cynefin retreat on Ethics and Leadership, and it’s almost taken me that long to recover from the cognitive overload during those three days. So, why was it a cognitive overload? Well for me, it was because of three things.

Firstly, the structure of the event is a triopticon. You can find more information here, but essentially, it is about deep listening to expert perspectives on the topic (in this case, ethics and leadership) and then shuffling off into small groups of random strangers to relate what you heard and understood for some collective sense-making. Deep listening is hard, you must be present in order to respond to what is said as opposed to just verbalising your earlier thoughts. It’s also hard listening to people who are sharing their thoughts on what they heard when, deep down, you are wondering whether you are responding to the same presentation. But that is the beauty and the challenge of the triopticon and why it is the first thing to cause cognitive overload.

That brings me to the second thing causing cognitive overload—random strangers. The retreat was attended by an eclectic mix of people – the academics, the practitioners, the boffins, the newbies and the curious. Perhaps, like me, you find yourself surrounded largely by friends, colleagues and acquaintances who hold similar views to you, perhaps are culturally similar, or you’ve just known them so long you can blank out their irritating or divergent qualities. At the retreat, however, when we weren’t deep listening, we were fumbling around for shared experiences to bridge the chasm of the unknown and to find some anchor points during the three days. Well, at least I was.

Stepping into the unknown and talking to a random stranger takes a lot of effort. It’s a high energy interaction until the energy fields begin to resonate – or not, which, in this case, you just bounce off into someone else’s energy field and start again. It can be draining. And this is not a reflection on the good people who attended; it’s just a fact that meeting new people is energy intensive, even if you’re an extrovert, so I’m told.

Then there’s the third thing. Self-awareness. Totally exhausting. Here we are interacting with complete strangers, in a whirlwind of ideas, opinions and understandings, trying to arrive at some sort of preliminary endpoint, and I am carrying on detailed, often distracting conversations with myself.

What am I talking about to myself? It ranges from ‘stop being so judgemental…’, ‘this is so boring…’, ‘how much longer…’, ‘I never thought of that…’, ‘I wonder if I could apply that…’, ‘wow, my kindred spirit…’. These mere snippets of the discussions I was having with myself, led me to consider how much my world views filter (or perhaps obscure) my access to new information. If I didn’t actively wrangle myself back into deep listening mode, I found myself prematurely discarding a variety of information available to me. Note, I said prematurely discard – I still discarded heaps but I gave it a ‘fair suck of the sav’ before I got rid of it. I, and many others I know, work in a variety of ways to push, prod and provoke systems change but recognise any change is largely dependent on relationships. Being at the retreat intensified the conditions most of us operate in on a daily basis. For me, it provided an opportunity to reflect on theories and concepts of anthro-complexity in a microcosm. I was able to note my own behaviour when placed into an unfamiliar environment, exploring a concept I do not regard myself an expert in and how I bounced around looking for connections on the right energy gradient for something to take home. In the end, I concluded that sense-making to arrive at a shared purpose in an unknown environment is highly relational and highly energetic. We constantly make choices about how much effort we will put into relationships and understanding other views and our tendency is to move towards those that will be less energy intensive, unless it is a bit sparkly or novel and little investment of extra energy is required to decide on whether to pursue or release. That is an important realisation when attempting to shift complex systems.

About The Author: Amara Bains

Amara Bains brings over 25 years of experience in senior management in Australian and international organisations across a variety of sectors including humanitarian aid, international development, mental health and community development. She has led teams to develop and implement programs in disaster management, health, community and organisational development. In those roles and as a consultant, Amara has conducted strategic reviews and planning with organisations to address complex challenges bringing an evolving understanding of complex adaptive systems and anthro-complexity to these challenges. Currently, Amara works at the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth conceptualising approaches to practical applications of methods for complex adaptive systems change and its evaluation. In addition, Amara monitors digital technology trends and their (potential) influence, especially with respect to children and young people and their inheritance.

Banner image credit: Photo by Hudson Hintze on Unsplash

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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.

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