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Sense-making in strategy: opening

May 31, 2022

Reed 1666746 copyI’ve been much occupied of late, developing the methods and tools around Estuarine Mapping, the third sense-making framework along with Cynefin and Flexuous Curves.  As a part of that, I’ve also been working on a range of typologies which includes enhancing constraint mapping from its very early days six years ago to the EU Field Guide and the new Hexi kits.   Then there are the 3As which are the most recent to add to existing work on ASHEN, ABIDE (which needs an update), Scaffolding (both emerging thinking and relatively new thinking in this key article and the EU Field Guide) and most recently Habits; there are probably others!  A lot of things are coming together at the moment, including my earlier series on managing culture. and my three-part series on The process of strategy.    I don’t think I’ve ever made that many links in an opening paragraph before so that may be an indication of how things are coming together, the messiness of the coherence is becoming slightly less messy while maintaining its heterogeneity (a few in-jokes there)

The ability to go back to physical workshops is making things a lot easier to develop.  I think in my heart I am a creator and purveyor of methods and at my happiest when theory hits practice and I get a chance to develop methods or tools, in the field under fire (not literally you understand).  As we start to get the Hexi Kits together and I work through the implications of the substrate paper we’re shifting to a body of methods, tools and linked processes that do not require knowledge of the theory to execute which is a good sign of maturity and also the point at which you start to think more seriously about different types of publication.  To reference Boisot, we are pretty close to a level of abstraction and codification that will allow significant diffusion and I’m pretty sure that we are on to something of significance here.  It still needs work but it is starting to look like a comprehensive approach to strategy and operations that is rooted in the naturalising approach to sense-making, or sensemaking (I still prefer the hyphen) which in turn uses anthro-complexity as one of its key elements.

Now this is going to take a few posts to fully elaborate and I will not do them in sequence so that this is a starting post to establish some of the principles, and also connect to previous writing. As I develop the material I will refer back to this and those links, some knowledge of which will be assumed.  To be clear, I can now do this stuff in workshops and in a distributed way using SenseMaker® without any need for people to understand the theory.  But in this series of blog posts, I am seeking to articulate the Why as well as the What.

There are some key principles to this overall approach namely:

  1. Focusing on describing the evolutionary potential of the here and now, the present realities which are part (to use Cynefin language) of a slow of meaning and experiences over time that has to be understood in the contact of that prior journey as well as future possibilities, some known, some as yet perceived through a glass darkly some unknowable until we reach some future state.  To put it more simply, start with where you are, and a realistic assessment of that, rather than some idealistic desired future state.
  2. Mapping that space without making more assumptions than are necessary and with as much objectivity as possible.  That means working indirectly not directly.   Humans can’t really assess a situation objectively as they always have some unstated and often unarticulated (even to themselves) assumptions about what we should do next and they tend to interpret the current situation in that light.  Admonishments to do otherwise only work with saints, and as I have said many a time no method should be predicated on sainthood.  The constraint-counterfactual-constructor mapping we have been developing avoids that by focusing on the right level of granularity to enhance the prospects of objectivity and to reduce the political dangers of committing to a solution or solutions that are too radical in nature.
  3. Using new language for new concepts, avoiding language that carries too many assumptions.  Constraint mapping is OK, but when you talk about managing constraints the general presumption is that they are things to be removed to enable better flow.  That is normally framed within a naïve reading of Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints but whatever it is an issue;  So once we have the constraints we identify which are creating replicable outcomes and call them constructors.  That allows us to ask which are producing good outcomes and which are producing bad and so on.  Counterfactuals define a space, which, however desirable, is not a present destination.  I’ll expand on all of that in future posts but for the moment that is a summary – new or unfamiliar words for new concepts to avoid and disrupt assumptions.
  4. Focusing change on multiple small projects, some of which contradict each other but which overall have coherence.  No grand plans or strategies but lots and lots of small things that shift us in the right direction.  I first pioneered this approach in my early work on Knowledge Mapping which ends up with a portfolio of projects either to (i) conform process with reality or (ii) to address intractable issues.  It is a lot easier to create portfolios of action, each of which can gain sufficient consensus to avoid rejection on (worse) passive-aggressive resistance, none of which is consequential enough if it fails to trigger a risk reflex.  Small things produce significant and critically resilient and sustainable change while large initiatives are a little too much all or nothing in nature and consequences.  Typically based on ideal future state definition they result in an approach which is more linguistic conformance than real change and involves a lot of gaming by the politically astute.  Smaller initiatives and portfolios of those initiatives are more difficult to allocate blame and in general, the right people are more likely to get the credit.  Also if something small fails we are, and this is ironic, more likely to learn from the failure than make excuses.  It is also easier, and this is a controversial statement, to break or reduce the impact of path dependency in human systems.
  5. Getting to the right metaphor is important.  The Estuarine metaphor is working well as its a physical image that people understand.  It’s not all about linear flows, tides matter.  Granite cliffs don’t have to be checked all the time, should we dredge and buoy a channel or rely on pilots etc. etc.  The children’s party story still gets the Cynefin ideas over as it resonates between the familiar and the novel.  It also gives you a body of material that you can draw on to reuse (radical repurposing or exaptation to reference the field guide) or adapt.  I’m working with nautical charts at the moment for inspiration in creating a real-time strategic representation for organisations with the ability to initiate surveys in real-time.  This also links to the future of C2 command in military terms by the way but that is a story for another day.
  6. All voices need to be heard but not all voices should be tolerated.  Strategy tends to be the preserve of the elite and their advisors and it’s not enough to simply say this is wrong or suggest that people walk the floor or take other perspectives into account.  None of that is natural for humans and falls into the predicated on sainthood pit I mentioned earlier.  We use techniques such as the triopticon to increase the number of perspectives and enforced with silent listing and ritual dissent we radically increase the number of things taken into account.  The Anthro-simulation game uses failure to enhance perspectives and explore options.   SenseMaker® in MassSense mode allows the whole of workforce engagement in sense-making, scenario creation and situational assessment.  I could list more, but a large number of our methods and tools are focused on enabling, through a process rather than exhortation or admonition, the ability to speak truth unto power.
  7. Any approach to strategy needs to be dynamic and non-linear in nature.  It needs to allow what I have called fractal representation – or maybe better holographic representation (break it and the picture is still there in the shards) to allow for a fluid integration of strategy with operations and tactics.  That also means we need new ways to express strategic intent – enough structure to give direction but not so much that spontaneity and adjustments are not possible.  That links in turn to the balance of rules and heuristics and critically ideas of distributed, not delegated authority.

More on all of these in future posts, for the moment I am laying down the groundwork


Stepping stones were cropped from an original by 은주 송  and the banner image is of the upper reaches of the Helford River Estuary at Gweek is cropped from an original by Andrew Songhurst both on Pixabay.  The latter is an estuary I crossed by ferry, having earlier waded Gillian Greek on the South West Coastal Path – it took some planning given the need for low tide at one and a high enough tide at the other.

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