Reflections of New Zealand Trip 2023: Part 1

September 18, 2023

I am recently back from “the road”, and as others might have found, you learn a lot in those circumstances. Especially when the road includes almost daily workshops, sessions, meetings, and seminars with your boss…who happens to be Dave Snowden…who happens to be working out some key things right now.   So before everything slips back into the rhythm of the every day, this post is a way for me to share with you some of what I have been learning, exploring, and thinking about through this trip. What follows is the first of two dispatches from the road. This one focuses on new elements related to estuarine mapping. It is a precursor to full posts on the method that will be coming later from Dave Snowden. It is populated by pictures of native fauna I encountered (although the photos are not mine) to reinforce the ties to such a unique place. 

Kaipara Moana: Estuaries all the way down

Takahē standing in the grass, public domain

Kaipara Moana is the largest estuary in New Zealand. Located near Auckland, its catchment area covers what appeared to me to be about half of the island (when shown in the pub). The Ministry for the Environment, who are Cynefin Centre members, is part of the Kaipara Moana Remediation (PMR) programme and wanted to share their complexity tools with the programme team. This is how Dave and I ended up discussing applying estuarine mapping to an actual estuary – a frankly irresistible prospect.

Estuarine mapping is still an evolving method, and the incredibly geologically active New Zealand was an excellent place for me to encounter the method’s latest tremor. For those unfamiliar with it, at its most essential, it is a method for mapping the present, with an eye towards the future. We do that by breaking up different elements and influences that are present in the here and now so that we can take action (both direct and indirect) around a desired direction of movement. This is the evolutionary potential of the present. I have been one of its early practitioners and dedicated followers and part of the team trying to iron out some of the inevitable tangles in new methods. During this trip, its latest development addressed three of those tangles, leaving me more excited about its future than ever.

An embarrassment of typological riches

Dave has discussed extensively exploring and using different typologies for the various elements that go into constructing an estuarine map elsewhere on this blog. Ever since the beginning, the purpose of such typologies was clear: they are meant to stimulate people into looking through different perspectives and potentially spotting different things. They were never intended to be exhaustive, essential, or prescriptive. Yet their introduction in practice remained an open question for practitioners: Which types do I introduce? When? How? 

Toutouwai in the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, image by Tony Wills, shared under CC BY-SA 3.0

The question of introducing types was addressed in New Zealand by landing on a much more streamlined typology as the standard starting point. Constraints (which in complexity are not things that limit us, but anything that alters the possibility space in which we operate) contain or connect. The latter (connections) also serve as the introduction to considering constraints as other than restrictions. Constructors transform through passage (like a ritual you go through) or contagion (like an idea that spreads and changes things in its passing). 

In schematic form:

  • Constraints
    • Contain
    • Connect
  • Constructors
    • Transform through passage
    • Transform through contagion

And that’s it! Simple, elegant, and if your audience gets stuck, different types can be thrown out for stimulation. And ritual can be so simple, yet meaningful – in New Zealand, I got used to starting every session with a karakia, a prayer, and every personal introduction not with my role, but with looking back towards my roots. Actions like that stake out a different sort of space – they designate it as different, special, and allow potentially new kinds of connections to happen, especially when they are perceived as meaningful. In that case, they transformed us all. 

When is an actant an actor?

The importance of introducing new words in creating micro-anomalies that force people to think differently instead of sliding into habituated patterns has also been discussed elsewhere. One such new word is now part of Estuarine Mapping – actants can be mapped alongside the other elements that go into the map. The strange word is being used to put distance between this term and human beings immediately coming to mind. Actors are human beings, but actants are anything that acts in the system. Actants might be people, they might not. Actants can include anything: from a person, to a schedule, to a building, to a narrative. If it acts within the system, it’s an actant. Mapping anything that acts in the system is another vital addition because it helps us sidestep the agency problem. It is critical to understand agency if you want to influence a system. People tend to equate it to autonomy or power, but this makes its role in the system easy to miss when it isn’t overt. Actants indirectly let us map agency at a much subtler level.

Dark matter is everywhere. In this room. Everywhere. 

Tīeke on Tiritiri Matangi Island, image by Duncan Wright, shared under CC BY-SA 3.0

The final significant addition to the Estuarine Framework is effects. If the reader is familiar with the typology of constraints, you might remember that one of the types is “Dark Constraints”. Dark constraints, like dark matter, are invisible. We only know they are there because of their effects on other things. They might, for example, be cultural practices that are so deeply rooted as to be invisible, or they might be wholly unknown constraints. People are often fascinated by this type and are keen to identify it in their contexts.

However, the trouble with dark constraints is that if you can readily identify them, they’re not really dark. And if you think you have identified them and are safe, trouble is not far away. “Effects” puts into practice one of the principles of complexity: obliquity. It approaches the problem sideways, sidestepping constraints themselves and goes into mapping effects that we note in our environment. Some of those will result from constraints (including dark ones), but starting at the other end increases our chances of spotting something we may have missed in the effort to directly and specifically identify constraints.

My time in New Zealand is not over. In the next instalment, I’ll discuss the thick present and emergent identities, among other things. Look out for Dave’s upcoming post on the revamped estuarine process. We hope to see you at the next stop on the road.

Image Credits

Banner picture: Image by Dave Snowden, taken round about the Red Rocks, Wellington

Takahē standing in the grass, public domain

Toutouwai in the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, image by Tony Wills, shared under CC BY-SA 3.0

Tīeke on Tiritiri Matangi Island, image by Duncan Wright, shared under CC BY-SA 3.0


With thanks to Rhiannon Davies for the proof-reading and editing advice and to Dave Snowden for pre-reading

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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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