The first Cynefin artist in residence

December 7, 2020

This fall I had the pleasure of being a member of the faculty for a Cynefin retreat on aesthetics and semiotics. It was a deep dive at the intersection of beauty and meaning and was, for me, a rare opportunity to “sense-make” in community. Often I’m left to do my deep sense-making in solitude, creating short animations about ideas and research I find interesting or thought-provoking. Joining others in this playground of exploration yielded a rich harvest of possibilities. Many of the informal, self-organizing working groups that met for the final few days of the retreat surfaced ideas about the use and presence of art-making in our work and workplaces.

I spent these working sessions with a group convened around the sweeping label of “Artist in Residence”. Several tensions cycled repeatedly throughout our conversations. Many times we ebbed and flowed between talking about Art with a capital A — that is, as the product of a skilled and masterful Artist — and art-making, as a playfully engaging, participatory (and optional) exploration, free from expectations or outcomes. Many ideas from those sessions captured my imagination, among them the possibility that a resident artist might:

  • act as a model, legitimizing and catalyzing not knowing;
  • move us towards “universal design” for communicating, expanding our sense-making artefacts beyond the literal to include more pictorial, metaphorical, musical, rhythmic and/or embodied forms of expression and meaning-making;
  • foster the expansion our repertoire of skills in using and making tools — tools for engaging with messy problem spaces.

Conversations between Cognitive Edge’s Sonja Blignaut and I followed, catalyzing us to put this idea into action: This year at Cognitive Edge I’ll be the first Cynefin artist in residence! (no pressure). The idea of BEING an artist in residence is one I have pondered quite a bit in recent years, but traditional artist residencies have not seemed like a good fit for the kind of embedded, ethnographic, theory-informed sense-making I’m drawn to do in organizations. I couldn’t be more thrilled to have this space to play with a community of complexity-aware sensemakers, and am looking forward to seeing what emerges as we experiment with a variety of enabling constraints.

One of the conventional constraints I have requested we suspend during this exploration is around payment. As a result, we are approaching this collaboratively rather than transactionally. After several years of germination and one year of trying out a non-transactional approach to my livelihood, I probably need to clearly articulate why it is that I am drawn to work non-transactionally. I will tackle that shortly and post on the Patreon site I’ve created to make it easier for folks who value my work to support it.

In the meantime, I have put up Patreon page to make it easier for folks to support my work if they find value in it. Cognitive Edge has generously offered to (pro-actively) become one of my patrons. (Thank you Cog edge for that!). Most of what I have posted on Patreon to date is freely available whether or not folks become patrons, but I’ll be posting some extras for patrons shortly, for instance downloadable high resolution images of some of the illustrations from the recently published #cynefinbook: Cynefin – Weaving Sense-Making into the Fabric of Our World

Final note: an important (to me) idea that surfaced in our working group on this topic at the retreat was that organizations are already full of artists, and that perhaps one of the aspirations of such an exploration is to carve out spaces in our work lives where it’s ok to bring our artistic, creative (and less formal or formed?) selves to work. If a space for creative experimentation existed right now in your workplace, how might today be different for you? Would you make use of such a space (whether physical or psychological) and if so, what might you try out in that space?


Sue Borchardt holds a Bachelors Degree in electrical engineering from University of Maryland, and a Masters in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. In her early professional life, she designed and prototyped user interfaces for the first generation of color radar displays, and later, query tools and visualizations for the Human Genome Database.

A fascination with the complexity of individual, group, and organizational change efforts motivates her to continue to learn about learning, bringing an ever-expanding set of lenses to her inquiry. Among these are neuroscience, biology, adult development, cognitive science, social psychology, and anthropology. Through her work and continued research, she has collected a treasure trove of theoretical models and frameworks from these domains (Cynefin among them!), as well as generative practices that inform her animations and her explorations with groups.



Dear Reader, while we have your attention: we are on a determined drive to expand our network around the world. We’re certainly living in uncertain times (sic), and we believe that it will take a large collective of like-minded people to help organisations and societies navigate stormy waters, make sense of the world and make good decisions. Consider joining the Cynefin Network by clicking on the banner below. Links to eBook and paperback copies of our latest book are also available on this page.

Join the Cynefin Network Banner 5

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

Nature & nurture

- No Comments

One of my favorite walks in the Black Mountains is the ascent of the Cat’s ...

More posts

Next >

The straw man fallacy

- No Comments

One of the things that most irritates me on social media is the complete ignorance ...

More posts

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