Lines in the sands of time

February 19, 2015

Up to Hull today to deliver my first lecture tomorrow in what I hope will be a long term relationship.   Yasmin Merali has moved there from Warwick and my loyalties have moved with her, although I am still to lecture on their MBA programme this year.    Yasmin is an old and loyal friend.   Unlike the Prof at Surrey University she stayed with me during the dead-john-years in IBM (I may tell that story one day, but it was nasty, brutish and short) at some cost.  She also introduced me to Max Boisot for which the debt is beyond my ability to pay.   We were both swapping stories of the consequences of his loss earlier today.  Both of us would speak to him most weeks for inspiration, advice and criticism.   Either way the systems centre at Hull now has Yasmin as a full Prof and she joins another old friend there namely Gerald Midgley.

So the three of us went out to dinner last night for a long conversation.   One of the issues which came up (and not for the first time) is how to create some boundaries, or lines in the sand that would allow people to distinguish both the differences and commonalities of different approaches that people generally lump under the banner of systems.   I distinguish systems thinking from complexity, but I have never been happy with the labels.  What we really need is a multi-dimensional typology and that was under discussion last night.   So if we look at attributes or dimensions of that typology there are some clear candidates:

  1. Causality or dispositionality?
  2. Goal or present (not presence) orientation
  3. Dependency on models, or differences as to what can be modelled
  4. Experience derived theory or theory informed practice?
  5. Power orientation in deterring goals/direction
  6. How are constraints handled (not theory of constraints although that is in there)
  7. Natural science v social science
  8. Modernism/post-modernism/post-post-modernism
  9. Focus in actors (not actor network theory) or network/interactions

I am sure there are more.   Other ideas?   I then plan to set up a SenseMaker® database for people to signify different methods and approaches in order to create a typology.


17 responses to “Lines in the sands of time”

  1. Cybersal says:

    Really interesting exercise. How about adding something on firmness of boundaries (distinct or fuzzy) Also I can’t see reductionism vs holism explicitly in your list, which you would need if you are going to extend the typology into the systems engineering space for completeness.

  2. Simon Robinson says:

    Hi Dave,

    In our book Holonomics we coined the term “holonomic thinking” in order to draw out the difference between mechanistic thinking, systems thinking and the dynamic way of seeing which comprehends wholes as “active absences” which come to present in the parts. I have written this article which shows how holonomic thinking integrates with the systems view of Fritjof Capra: https://transitionconsciousness.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/book-review-the-systems-view-of-life-part-two-into-the-phenomenon/

    And in this article I outline holonomic thinking in terms of systemic, phenomenological and hermeneutical. I really feel that the phenomenological aspect can be hard for people to grasp, as it entails going “upstream” into the “coming-into-being” of phenomena, as opposed to just thinking in terms of finished objects. As you will see in the link above, people can be mechanistic in their systems thinking, and I do see this in reference to some people who use the terms “holistic” or “holism” and “holons”. There is a much deeper way to get into the relationship between the wholes and the parts, and this is what I am referring to here.

    The final aspect of Holonomics is the ethics, but this is perhaps not a dimension you would look for in the typology?

    There have been many debates about complexity vs systems thinking and I really think that a typology will help alot.

  3. Chris Corrigan says:

    It has bothered me in the past that you have thrown out “systems thinking” because what I think Cynefin does is illuminate types of systems and problems and onotologies very well and complicated and complex add something to “systems thinking” practice. I’ve used the terms “complicated systems thinking” and “complex systems thinking” to try to be clear and simpler about the distinction, which has the effect of challenging those of us raised in one tradition or another to see what we are missing. And so I welcome this early typology at understanding the nuances of these different views, and so here are a few more…

    1.Praxis vs. Practice and Theory. Kind of like 4, but I find that in the traditional systems thinking world there is still a split between theorists and practitioners, and both come to play, but I’m learning that it is helpful to have both become praxis-titioners.
    2. Something about the relationship of not just constraints are held but attractors too.
    3. How information is handled and knowledge produced: research vs. awareness, myth vs. fact.
    4. I don’t know quite how to say it, but the idea that in complicated systems thinking you can discover and delineate all the connections in a system whereas in complex systems thinking you understand those connections as emergent and not always knowable. So it’s about your view of connections and relationships and how stable those are in time.
    5. The role of personal transformation in relation to systemic transformation (and even the idea perhaps of what “transformation” is and whether that is a a worthy end in itself, or even and end at all).

    Maybe these help a little. i’ll think about more.

    And it strikes me that as you continue to develop the Cynefin dynamics stuff, this nuance will be very useful because it invites different views, perspectives and capacities as things cross the domain boundaries, and indeed as they travel within different parts of the domain spaces.

    • Dave Snowden says:

      I never threw it out Chis I distinguished it from Complexity thinking and refused to accept it as a ‘master label’ So unlike Stacy I argue for its utility ( he really does throw it out and anything that he doesn’t like gets the label). Otherwise really appreciate these ideas – keep them coming

      • Chris Corrigan says:

        Gotcha and good. Arguing for the utility is really important.and this conversation is timely as I am trying to argue for this utility to in several circles in which I’m working. Happy to keep exploring here.

    • Chris corrigan says:

      Another occurred to me this morning. Source of metaphors for describing systems. Physics/biology for example and an over reliance on mechanical terms “efficiency, smooth, well-oiled, humming along, grid lock, stuck, broken, fixed…” These are all markers for me of a group heavily invested in complicated systems thinking…chris

  4. tonyjoyce says:

    May I suggest a dimension of structure vrs. dissipation. As we’ve discussed privately, there is something distinctive about dissipation and the complex domain. I’ve been thinking about the distinctions between induction, deduction and abduction, and it seems that they may fit in different places along such a scale. Although it could well be covered in the modeling typology, or one of the others, I think that Cybersal’s comment on firmness of boundaries may be related to this type of typology too.

  5. Bruce Waltuck says:

    A great question. I think about the “presumptions of knowability” that seem to often distinguish various frameworks. And… I think about the extent to which various frameworks seem to express, for lack
    of a better term, “presumptions of exclusivity.” That is, can I view a challenge through this lens…AND… That lens? Stacey’s earlier extensive critique of Systems Thinking for example, clearly concluded that the Systems folks were wrong, and the Complexity folks were right. When I met Peter Senge in 2003, this was the one questions I wanted to ask him about. To my amazement, Senge looked me in the eye and said, “who’s Ralph Stacey?” Oh well.

    • Dave Snowden says:

      Interestingly Ralph has a similar problem acknowledging others …
      That said I think he gets it badly wrong in rejecting, not bounding ‘systems thinking’

  6. IPC says:

    Funny – was just making a similar list as I noodle potential thesis focus(es)… foci.
    Some are variations on similar themes, but best to add and delete later than to never add at all.

    Linearity and non-Linearity
    Determinism and Stochasticity
    Tractability and Intractability
    Gaussian and Pareto
    Naturalised Epistemology and Coherentism
    General and Restrictive Complexity
    SM and Prediction/Simulation/Algorithmics
    Budgeting and “Transactional Emergence” – no real term for it yet, so made my own (Hurry up, Dr. Arthur)

    Laboratory and Ecosystem
    (Super-)Generalist and Expert
    Individual Accountability and (Radical) Democracy
    Contract and Agreement (WRT scope of work – informal/implied vs. explicit/legal agreements – important consideration for contractors)


    • Dave Snowden says:

      I’m interested in creating a sensemaker system for this but its robably a MA not a PhD thesis. But if anyone is interested ….

      • IPC says:

        If that was a subtle hint… I’m considering switching to the PhD programme and going full time in construction Eng & Management. Sept 15 start. 50/50 industry and fed $ being sourced as we speak 😀

  7. Marco Valente says:

    Greetings Dave,
    I am trawling the internet to write a short literature review on the core differences between systems thinking and complex adaptive systems theories. Knowing your un-ease with labels on ST literature. Naturally, the blog post from Sonja Blignaut from a few years ago and your reflections here came to help as very important food for thought. I am also reviewing Stacey’s critiques on ST, and found a couple of good pieces by Gerald Midgley, which then led me to this old post too. I will publish it by the end of next week. Your thoughts would be highly appreciated. Best.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts

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.


Social Links: The Cynefin Company
Social Links: The Cynefin Centre
< Prev

Thinking differently for SenseMaker®

- No Comments

A rather novel to start to the day; discovering that the Cathedral Road B&B I ...

More posts

Next >

Narratives of culture: overture

- No Comments

There are some basic truths about culture in organisations that are pretty self-evident to anyone ...

More posts

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram