Would it smell as sweet?

October 3, 2015

I got asked a question earlier today by Liza van der Merwe about what the name is for the various theories and practices surrounding Cynefin and SenseMaker®. Now Liza is one of a number of members of the Cognitive Edge community who never accept things as they are but ask questions in a way that makes me think. This contrasts with various one-eyed twitter-trolls who question from ignorance with little or no ethical or intellectual integrity, something that is very different.

Now as it happens I was already thinking about this in the context of what to call the book. On that front Cynefin is looking the strongest at the moment, but then the question comes as to the sub-title. So I thought it would be useful to outline some of the various names and phrases I have used over the years for discussion, or just as a means of thinking aloud. So in no particular order or preference we have:

  1. Cognitive complexity, which arose from the need to distinguish the approach from what I called computational complexity.  The latter I used to designate approaches to complexity theory that focus on models of various types, in particular agent based models.  The argument here is that human systems require the system to model itself as a whole and are distinguished by intelligent, intent and identity variance.  That distinction is made more important by the role of symbols in human decision making and evolution, along with the ability to create assemblages that have real existing and create downwards causation on actors in the system (think dominant myths). 
  2. Social complexity was used in the early days of Cognitive Edge but I have used it less frequently of late but it may be worth bringing back.  Reasons for the qualification of social to complexity are similar to those above.
  3. Naturalising sense-making combined a hyphenated version of Wick’s neologism sensemaking with the idea of basing philosophy in the natural sciences which is associated with naturalising epistemology and so on.  That works as it combines a realist scientific approach with the need to make sense of the world so we can act in it which is the way I have always described sense-making.
  4. Abductive research is one of the things enabled by SenseMaker® and contrasts with inductive or hypothesis based methods.  It has the advantage of being both/and statement rather than an either/or one as it does not challenge the validity of inductive approaches where there is a sufficiency of events which will repeat in similar ways in the future.

Now some of those phrases are used elsewhere to mean different things and we have the additional problems of complexity being used in an ordinary english language sense of the word as opposed to complex adaptive systems theory. What is clear is that needs to be some distinction made. In part because there are a lot of books and papers now which use complex adaptive systems theory, some authentically some as just the latest set of buzz words to dress up old methods and ideologies.

I’m increasing drawn to the idea of Cynefin as a title with some of the words above in the sub-title. In that case other words like innovation, exaptation and the like could come into play. But of course it is not my decision alone, Mary is co-author on the book, publishers have views as do communities and markets. So all and any ideas are welcome.

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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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