Dave Snowden

A sense of direction (3)

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I really should be cutting back on the email and task backlog at the moment but I keep getting distracted by the print of Cynefin on which I have made a growing body of notes so its probably best to get it out of the system. Tomorrow I head off for a cottage on Ynys Môn to break the back of the book over eight days. I’m staying next to the reputed site of the druids last stand against the Romans in Rhoscolyn whose name derives from Rhos meaning moor and colyn meaning column from a Roman boundary marker. I have coastal walks around Holyhead and down to Traeth Crigyll beach, not to mention one of the best gastro pubs on the island (next door) to provide inspiration and refreshment. I’m having to take non-book work with me but I’m rationing my time and will try and blog daily about the work I am doing. This series, and the Christmas one are a part of the process.

That aside lets get on with the description of how we set goals and targets by Cynefin domain. In my last post I made the important point that the traditional KPI approach only really works in the Obvious domain and to a degree in Complicated. However the main issue in Complicated is the process and validation of mechanisms of professions and the various controls. I’ll return to that in tomorrow’s summary.



The system is dispositional without linear material cause. I’m going to assume past knowledge here by the way and I don’t have time to make all the linkages to prior posts so you may need to do a search or two if the material is familiar.

Given the nature of a complex adaptive system have some key things we need to pay attention to:

  1. How accurate is our description of the here and now?
  2. How much of the recent past can we account for/model by the modulators we are aware of?
    The more we can account for the lower risk we have going forwards.
  3. Have we established realtime feedback loops?
  4. Have we disinter-mediated decision makers?
  5. Can we make outlier views or opinions readily visible? Will people pay attention to them?
  6. What level of diversity do we have in our networks and response mechanism?
  7. How broad a knowledge base can we draw on in a timely manner?

Now notice that all of these can be measured and to a large degree targeted. But they are all about measuring the nature of our knowledge of the eco-system not the goals. When we set targets they are about setting a direction of travel, shifting to the next stepping stone: What can I do to create more like these, fewer like those. I’ve written a lot of posts on this subject, for example on the banality of measurement but I haven’t out it all together yet.

Improvisation is critical here and the idea of bricolage, using what is too hand, is vital. We really can’t afford to be too efficient here as that will damage overall effectiveness by reducing variety in the system. Here exceptions are opportunities, in Complicated they are check points, in Obvious deviances to be eliminated.

Liminal: Complex to Complicated

As a body of knowledge starts to stabilise are ability to make statements about desired future states increases. So here we are creating a professional capability. Critically that is not just about training, it is about the process surrounding that training, peer validation and apprentice based learning. As the generations of knowledge increase these become custom and practice, but in the early stages we need to be more paranoid. Hence by strong objection to accreditation and certification schemes based on attending courses possibly enhanced by simplistic multi-choice questions.

We are shifting from a measure of the overall eco-system to ones of our ability to structure, to create predictability. Obviously we need to be very, very careful before making this transition, hence liminal.

Liminal Complex temporarily into Chaos

One of the standard questions I get when I challenge the whole idea of explicit goals is Kennedy’s famous 1962 challenge to get a man on the moon by the turn of the decade. Historically I’ve responded that there is a place of aspirational goals but we tend only to remember the ones that work not the ones that fail. I stand by that as the technique has more failures than successes. However I realised that its really a way of dipping into chaos, to challenge assumptions that things can’t happen. I’m still working on trying to define how we create legitimacy here but the principle is clear.

One aspect of this by the way is the ability to commit resources to allow the achievement of the goal and also to reallocate resources or abandon other objectives. Timing of course is key, this is a way of realising an as yet unrealised potentiality; but the potentiality is there to be realised but it may only be perceived by the few.


With the development of the liminal, contained, domain between Chaos and Complexity then Chaos itself is always a crisis. Either a failure of containment or a complacency induced collapse from the Obvious. Here our goal is survival and the ability to allow and permit draconian decisions to stabilise the situation is key. Exceptions now become an objective for extemporising solutions.

Our solutions and measurements are closer to Complicated than to Complex. We need to create professional approaches to crisis management. Small teams trained through multiple exercises of failure able to cope with the situation. Distributed decision support which does not require disclosure of intent thus maintaining options. I’ve got a lot of posts and links there but I need to pull a lot of this together, including the material original used in the Chaos domain model (now being replaced by liminality and that link is to an early version). More on that when I get to Crisis management in the book.

I’ll conclude tomorrow.

  • Sebastian Ghelerman

    I think the liminal concept can account pretty much of the history of western knowledge a.k.a science. For instance, I always use the complex-to-complicated switch from alchemy to chemistry as a didactical example to account for the evolution of how mystical metaphors, dreamscapes and perennial philosophy were a complex-like means to describe the transformation processes of matter-soul from darkness to light altogether.

    In time, as a more abstract language to describe complicated-objetive Nature was being built the alchemical view point started to be disregarded and taken as false knowledge (paradoxically less-enlightened) and eventually relegated to a pseudo or proto-science knowledge. We might as well say the same about astrology and astronomy.

    I also think complexity and systems theories are currently the new complicated domain to describe complex reality in an abstract language: complexity is the new complicated.

    I recommend the reading of C.G. Jung and Wolfgang Pauli exchange letters in which the latter suggest that the there must be a “neutral language” to describe the reality that binds the new kind of psychology Jung provides with the quantum physics theories when it comes to the synchronicity concept and the suggestion to include it as part of the main principles of science together with time-space and causality.

    • Dave Snowden

      I agree with aspects of that. Newton was Alchemist as much as Scientists and valued the first as much if not more. Philosophers such as Vico argued against for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But that said I think astrology is a pseudo-science and was probably never a proto-science while alchemy would quality. All the natural sciences reside as much in the complex as the complicated these days and the way that Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Neuroscience is coming together at the moment is encouraging; both are needed.

      I’d agree that a lot of what I call computational complexity attempts to use stimulation to provide certainty and that might be considered complicated. If you look at my Christmas series on anthropology-complexity you will see that I think there is more to this that those people think but to say complexity is the new complicated lacks nuance. We have a programme on meaning and identity which is exploring a lot of this, including transcendence http://www.emergent-meaning.com

      Otherwise I really think we need to stop talking about western and eastern thinking. When people say this they are really talking about a specific form of Northern Euroean & North American thinking and contrasting it with a frequently neo-colonial misinterpretation of Buddhism ignoring significant other traditions of more value. I also think we need to break away from Jung, he was of his time, but has a taste of the causal as to most people writing in that period. Lacan and others are much closer to complexity.

      • Sebastian Ghelerman

        -Astrology and alchemy: in retrospective it does seems to look like astrology is more a pseudo than proto science, but if you take into account that planets were also metals and that for given operations you need to take a look on the sky, I think it´s an integrated system of thought that evolved together.

        -Complexity is the new complicated: when I was writing this I was thinking more on the “expert needed” label from complicated domain that could be applied to the fact that in order to understand or explore complexity people not familiar with it might be looking for these experts. But that might be related to the lack of information of these people rather than an intrinsic characteristic of complexity. To put it short, it´s the complication of the complexity as social attachment to the statu quo of complicated thinking.

        -Western knowledge: Of course it´s a reductionistic term. There is no such thing as “western” out there but the bias of putting things together into one label to describe reality in a broaden concept. Getting back to to alchemy and history of science, it is well documented that pretty much of it came from ancient China and mixed-up with islamic philosophy recovered by the christian thinkers. Interesting thought about Jung and I´d to hear more about his causal taste. Lacan is a pending signature so far. My point was more to point out this “neutral language” that complexity theories seem to provide as a new anti-metaphor to describe reality.

        As an anthropologyst, cogntive psychology student-researcher and agile practitioner it´s a pleasure to be nourished by these more philosophical (but not less practical) conversations.

        • Dave Snowden

          I’m prepared to accept that the curiosity induced by or initiating astrology had an impact on scientific discover. The attempt to reduce human complexity to simulation is I think an example of what you are talking about – My Christmas Blog series was an attack on that! I think you make a similar point on the West/East issue but it may matter less to you! It is one of the dichotomies that irritates me.

          • Sebastian Ghelerman

            *lol* I think I have so naturalized the fact that ethno/eurocentrism affects us nonetheless in almost every assumption we make that I paused my critical thinking on that. Especially with the fact that as an Argentine guy in my graduate journey I got used (and sometimes bored) to the marxist-like decolonizing thinking which is at the same time necessary and sometimes reductionist and even tautological.

            I like to see the simulation issue as an attempt to complicate the complexity as well.

            I will catch up with your christmas blog series.

  • Metatone

    Coming to this late, but I think it’s worth adding that by 1962, we had already seen Gagarin’s journey. This is not (as a former rocket scientist) to downplay the difficulties involved in replicating it and then going beyond to the moon. I do however think there’s a mythology that has built up which declares the visionary goal as more of a “leap in the dark” than it was.