Reflections on Complexity, Chaos and COVID-19

April 9, 2020

In 1990, from a distance of more than 6 billion kilometres away, the Voyager 1 spacecraft took a now-iconic picture of our planet. The image of earth caught as a tiny “dot” suspended like a mote of dust in a ray of light, inspired Carl Sagan to write:


NASA/JPL THE PALE BLUE DOT OF EARTH This image of Earth is one of 60 frames taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft on February 14, 1990 from a distance of more than 6 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. In the image the Earth is a mere point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Our planet was caught in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the Sun. Linked from:

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

Never before has earth felt quite as small as it does now. The COVID-19 pandemic is spreading across the globe at exponential rates. This microscopic virus has done what no leader, war or disaster has managed so far: it has united all of humanity to face a collective crisis, a common enemy.

It is in this context that we pulled together some of the leading thinkers in the field of complexity to explore where we are from different perspectives. I had the pleasure of engaging with Alicia Juarerro, Ann Pendleton-Jullian, Valdis Krebs and Dave Snowden in a 90-minute conversation that was so rich it warrants more than one listen.

Some of the key points that I am still reflecting on are:

  • The centrality of the notion of coherence – we have been focused on creating alignment for so long, that we have lost the diversity we need to be resilient.
  • The tension between being hyper-connected and at the same time experiencing hyper-local differences: we need to learn from hyper-local actions, but not fall into the trap of ignoring context and assuming these actions can scale or transfer as-is between context.
  • Complex systems are entangled systems; things connect and intertwine in unexpected, non-linear ways across different scales and even across time. Leaders and decision-makers need to learn how to see, work within and also intentionally create entanglements as opposed to thinking of hierarchies vs networks.
  • We need to break sense with the world we think we understand to imagine new possibilities. Sense-breaking sometimes need to accompany sense-making.
  • Language is important because it influences our meaning-making, e.g. we shouldn’t refer to physical distancing as “social distancing” – the two terms carry different meanings with very different consequences.
  • From a networks perspective, the things we have done to create this Just-in-Time world, i.e. to shorten the network paths to facilitate more efficient flow of information and resources, are working against us now as it also enables the virus to spread faster. How do we lengthen the paths for the virus while maintaining adequate information and resource flow
  • After the pandemic, there will be a lot of so-called retrospective coherence. We will connect dots in ways that satisfy our need for linear cause and effect and create stories that make sense to attribute success and justify failure. To learn effectively from this crisis, we need to capture the learning as it happens, in-situ. And we cannot afford not to learn, this will not be our last pandemic, and global warming is already becoming a crisis with even more potential impact than COVID-19.

These are just a few snippets that I captured from my furiously scribbled note. We would love to know what stood out for you, so we have created a Sensemaker journal where you can capture your learnings and reflections.

You can watch the replay of the webinar here. All of us, the panellists, me as well as the technical support team, donated our time. We therefore ask that you make a donation to the donation to the International Committee of the Red Cross to help us show our support for those on the frontline of the battle against COVID19.

In keeping with the format we have been following for our Cynefin Retreats, we are doing a virtual version of Dave’s Tricopticon method.

The process works broadly as follows:

  • Academics have a conversation about a particular topic, with practitioners (or Ravens) listening in on their conversation. 
  • The Ravens then come together to reflect on what they heard and how they might apply the thinking, with the academics listening in.
  • The Academics reconvene to reflect on how the practitioners interpreted their ideas.

The whole process is designed to integrate and build a theory-informed practice base.

We have scheduled two Raven Conversations with a diverse group of some of our most experienced international practitioners. To cater for different time zones, we have scheduled them ten hours apart.  

We are making these available free of charge to our Premium Members, and in order to help cover costs we are charging a minimal fee of $9 to non-members (this will give you access to both webinars and both recordings).

Raven Conversation 1 – Thursday, 16 April    0600 GMT | 0700 BST

Sonja Blignaut in conversation with Anne Caspari, Hannes Entz, Friso Gosliga and Gary Wong

Click here to register for this session @ $9.  Premium Members – find details for sign-up in Our Haunt.


Raven Conversation 2 – Thursday, 16 April 1600 GMT | 1800 BST

Sonja Blignaut in conversation with Andrew Blain, Chris Corrigan, Jesko von den Steinen and Vivienne Read

Click here to register for this session @ $9. Premium Members – find details for sign-up in Our Haunt.




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
Next >

Big, thick and rich (the data)

- No Comments

Plans for a series of key blog posts after my March update series on Cynefin ...

More posts

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