St David’s 2024: 5/5 The 3A’s & more

April 20, 2024

This final post in the annual update series has a flavour of putting things together and tying up some loose ends.   When I started the series I listed seven frameworks; three are stable or have only recently been updated, so other than listing them, there are no updates.  Those are Cynefin, Flexuous Curves and the Uncertainty Matrices.   In my second post, I covered ASHEN and AIMS, and those also handled some of the inputs to the Estuarine Framework which was described in the third post.  In my last post, the fourth in this series, I outlined seven principles of intervention design in the complex domain.  In this post, I am going to cover the 3As Framework and then start to show how they all fit together, which will produce another big scary diagram at the end.  I also plan some brief reflections on maps and charts, which will give you some insight into future directions.

The 3As originated as an alternative to mindsets and mental models, but they have grown since then.  It stands for Agency, Affordance and Assemblage and represents a way to frame where you are and where you can and can’t go next.  This framework is not just a theoretical concept but a practical one that presents a tool for mapping and then starting a journey, or journeys, with a sense of direction. This is key to understanding complexity.  It also makes a lot of sense to try and make micro-changes in the here and now in order that what projext or programme you choose to initiate is more likely to generate beneficial outcomes with less effort.  This is managing the dispositional nature of the system, rather than making false assumptions of causality.  It also incorporates the Frozen II concept of doing the next right thing or, in complex, something that is known as the adjacent possible: in practice adjacent possibles

As a side note, the three A’s are the basis of a forthcoming chapter in the Handbook of Future Studies edited by my good friend Roberto Poli.  It focuses more on affordance and assemblage than agency, which is covered in another book chapter that is due out in August.  I had a prolific writing period over Christmas.  One of the arguments is that mapping the 3As represents a different and possibly more resilient approach to scenario planning than the more traditional forces and factors approach.  Some of the new thinking in distributed decision-making also starts to offer an alternative to the Delphi technique – but that is for the future.

At a high level, the 3As basically say that you need to understand three things:  what is possible (affordance), what attitudes and beliefs enable or inhibit change (assemblage)  and what type of agency is needed for change.  Once you understand that, you change the manner of intervention and also de-risk initiatives.  Whatever has the lowest energy gradient is also likely to win out so it gives you better predictive power.

So let’s run through the three:


Estuarine Mapping creates an affordance landscape, telling you what you can change and what you can’t, so I don’t need to add to that here. The third post in this series covered it.


I will start this with a quote from Anna Panagiotou and Ellie Snowden’s chapter in a forthcoming book on SenseMaker®

 “An assemblage is an ensemble of heterogeneous elements which compose a territory.   Assemblage is a slightly problematic term in English as it doesn’t mean an assembly of parts. It “translates to agencement; meaning to arrange, to play out or to piece together”; it is “not a unified whole, but more a heterogeneous co-existence”.  

So it is an emergent and constantly emerging pattern of beliefs and attitudes which exert pressure on the system and create what is known as a strange attractor in complexity science or a trope in narrative theory.  Assemblages are not just territories; they are the very fabric of the system.  They are not something we can be trained out of or choose to voluntarily escape; they have a real impact on the current situation.  There are examples in our citizen engagement project and the EU Field Guide. I also wrote a three-part series I wrote in 2020 using the Deluzian title of ligne de fuite (lines of flight), which is relevant here.  

Another partial synonym for agencement is bricolage.   There is a useful quote here from Lévi-Strauss ( Savage Mind i. 21)

The characteristic feature of mythical thought, as of ‘bricolage’ on the practical plane, is that it builds up structured sets by using the remains and debris of events.

That fits well with the basic Cynefin definition of the place of our multiple belongings, our whole lives involve using the debris of past experiences and future imaginations.   Understanding the assemblages in your system is key, and if they are negative, then they need de-territorialisation.  This is one of the main uses of SenseMaker® within our work, and while we have traditionally used fitness landscapes, we are now starting to look at something a lot more sophisticated,  but more of that next year.


Agency can mean the obvious, who is authorised to do what?  But it is a much wider concept than that.  Authority may come with a role, but it can also be earned and not formalised.  Having the power does not, in itself, compel you to action.   Agency can also exist in non-human and non-social ‘things’, hence the concept of Actants (which gives us a link to the AIMS framework), so we can also see constraints and constructors as having agency. The latter is of particular interest to me going forward.  Remember, a constructor is something that achieves transformation but does not change substantially of itself.  In designing complex systems these have particular utility and can act somewhat like objects in software development.  While a complex system is not causal, it is dispositional.   Scaffolding within the system can have permanence, and constructors give a consistency of output if you know the input.  How those interactions combine will produce novel, unpredictable and emergent outcomes, but constructor design and maintenance are key aspects of overall design.   We are currently working on a process for distributed decision-making and resource allocation, which is itself a constructor with the capacity to dramatically reduce bureaucracy, increase engagement from front-line staff and citizens and reduce risk overall in the system.   Constructors can short-circuit a move to habituation (link to ASHEN), and this reduces the energy cost of effective (note the avoidance of the word efficient) decision-making.

This is a major area of development and opportunity, so keep an eye out for future posts and announcements. The above description is a teaser for something still under experimental development. We are currently creating simulation environments to allow organisations to test and refine the process in their own context. There are also links here with our passionate commitment as a company to epistemic justice. Two other ‘A’ words come in here as well, abstraction and abduction, which I referenced in the previous post in this series.

A note on maps and charts, with an eye to the future

I used a map of Vienna before the Habsburgs’ decided to tear down the walls that were a formative part of European history  (check out the references to the Siege of Vienna if you are not aware of this) to open this post.   I love maps, and when young, I used to triangulate using a compass before drawing my own, both for Porth Colman,  where we had an annual holiday mainly messing about in boats and Llyn Tegid, which we explored via a two-seater kayak on many weekend trips from home.  I only mapped the land there as I could walk it, and the purpose of most maps is to enable you to navigate the surface.  In the banner picture, I showed a sea chart and instruments but I could equally have used a geological map.  In both these cases what is visible on the surface is only a clue to what lies beneath.  Both have their own semiotics, and their purpose is navigation, but also avoidance of unseen hazards.  What we are doing with the 3As is more akin to a chart than it is to a map and that is another current and future area of development.  There is a lot more to come here over the next couple of years.

Another big scary diagram

So I put all the frameworks together into one diagram.   It should all hang together if you have read the blog posts so far.  I’ve added in the method assembly of  Knowledge Mapping as that has strong links to ASHEN and also to Issue Mapping (under development as a method) which can also be used as an easy entry into Estuarine mapping. 

I’m not going to spell out the rest in detail as I am interested in what happens when people reflect on it.

Big Hiary Diagram.



The map of Vienna, before the vandalism of Franz Joseph I in the 1850s,  is published by the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  The original work is by William Barnard Clarke, Engraver, and was published by  J. Henshall; Baldwin & Cradock, London, in 1833, obtained via Museo.

The banner picture was cut from an original photo by  Cottonbro Studio obtained via Pexels

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