Whence, where, where next …

February 21, 2021

Hasan almasi 6i73Juo2OAM unsplashI’m spending the bulk of Sunday getting ready for an intensive series of sprints next week to get the Cynefin wiki populated with all the methods and concepts outlined within the recently published field-guide.  The decision to shift all the various methods that I, and colleagues, have developed over the years into open source was an easy decision to make.  For a start, most of them are out there anyway in various forms and a few have been copied with varying degrees of attribution over the years and frequently corrupted in the process.  By creating a definitive version of the method with full transparency not only do we have an authoritative source but that source is also publicly visible. It is also a strategic move with my being consistent to the flexuous curve framework which provides a contextual approach to strategy.  I’ll probably elaborate on that in a future post or write one of the retrospectively coherent books in a decades time!

I have been delighted by the sheer number of people (almost 200) who volunteered their time into the sprints next week. I’m giving my time to teach the methods and mentor people, they are donating their time to codification and that will also mean more than one voice and perspective is involved.  It may become a quarterly thing if it works as working together on a project is one of the best ways to build a community.  Most of the methods are reasonably well established and can be taught, but one area is still under some development in terms of the underlying concepts and typologies and that is constraint mapping.  So for that we are starting on Monday with an outline of where we are and then some active discussion in Slack and otherwise.  The above referenced field guide summarises constraint mapping and has some wonderful visualisation that we will develop in discussions.  I’ve also recently updated some of my thinking which all goes into the mix.  What follows is a part of me setting the scene for what is to follow over the next two weeks and I plan to reflect on the various sessions next week in a daily series of posts.

Now constraint mapping is a key aspect of any approach to sense-making and sits within the context of situational assessment.  To be clear, any method which starts with the idea that humans can objectively assess the situation as a whole and determine how to act has little utility in sense-making.  The reality is that humans are always making assessments in the context of short term action and overall that has provided evolutionary advantage, but the failure rate is high.  So it isn’t a simple matter of deciding where we are and what we do next.   I’m still working on this but I think there are three key aspects of situational assessment and I what to develop them using a variation on the classic, too often unattributed What, So What, and Now What questioning sequence but using a metaphor of location rather than assessment and taking a landscape approach.  So my three questions are

  1. Whence
    Where have we come from?  What pathways have we taken?  A complex system has high path dependency and the past and peoples’ perception of the past is an important component of where we are now.  Creating maps of those paths (and methods such as future backwards, run over multiple groups in parallel helps here) not only gives us information about what will or will not be acceptable but also allows us to introduce counterfactuals to disrupt the way people think about the past as the simple, complex facilitation technique of letting people see different perspectives on the same situation.
  2. Where
    By which I mean where are we now, and of course that might be dynamic in nature as it may be constantly shifting and changing.  This is where we map the constraints in play and critically identify which we can change and how over what timescales. Understanding the nature of change is also critical as some changes are not safe-to-fail, they create bifurcation points which are irreversible in nature.  The discussion is not I think this is happening and we should do X but more If we made that constraint permeable we could see quickly if things got better or worse and adjust.  That change in the nature of the question is vital as it opens us up to novel forms of discovery and we are alert to the experimental nature of the probes.
  3. Where next
    Or what are the adjacent possibles, the stepping stones that emerge as a result of changing constraints?   We also need to be fully cognisant of inattentional blindness, so this is where human sensor networks come into play; a key element in the field guide.  And of course there will be multiple where nexts which have to form a coherent whole but involve outlier detection, we need to find the needles in the haystacks.

Location determines affordances, and situating yourself is key before you ask what you should do.  To do that is a process of mass engagement not a single workshop or event and it involves the deliberate creation of diversity and hold for as long as possible before committing beyond the liminal; premature convergence is to be avoiding.

More on all of this as things develop next week.


I chose the images for this post deliberately, the one is of a sewer pipe, the other a rusty artifact wither leftover or awaiting use in a building.  Neither picture is aspirational or conventionally beautiful and that is deliberate; brown not greenfield architecture is the reality of most strategic decision making

The banner picture is cropped from Lakeside landing by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash

The rusty rebar which opens the post is by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

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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.


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