Dave Snowden

On energy gradients

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Now bear with me on this as I am thinking aloud ….

I woke up this morning to a question from a good friend with whom I have had many discussions over the last few years. To quote, he asked about “the logic behind the complex domain (quadrant) being lower than the chaos domain (quadrant)”. The simple answer to this is that it chaos is not a stable state. The absence of constraints will not sustain itself without considerable energy being exerted. In a major crisis true chaos does not last for long, constraints quickly appear. This transitory nature can worry people who want to use Cynefin as a simple categorisation model as they want to fill the chaos domain with ‘things’ whereas in full use both Chaos and Disorder are temporary states.

Either way the question got me thinking and with tax deadlines out of the way yesterday I knew I wanted to start blogging again. So in the bath I started to think about showing a simple well with complex at the bottom and order at each end. To create order, or maintain chaos requires energy while complexity is a natural state. As with any bath inducing musings I started to elaborate that idea in my head and it ended up as a first, very provisional, sketch which I replicated above. In this I haven’t explicitly mentioned chaos but I have identified two aspects of that domain namely:

  • The deliberate removal of constraints to create innovation, or to allow for mass sensing – something we are developing more at the moment.
  • The complacency induced catastrophic failure caused by the imposition of best practice in the obvious domain where the system is not yet ready to sustain that level of constraint.

As it happens I was talking about this yesterday at Guy’s Hospital in London. I used the checklist procedures in an operating theatre as an example of the legitimate use of order. But I pointed out that the context is a highly ritualised environment with a high training cost and several decades of practice. A context that cannot be simply replicated elsewhere. Valuable order takes time and resources to create and we often don’t have that, or the context is not stable to allow it anyway.

So the picture shows phase shifts between domains in white, with the ordered domains overlapping. I put the complex and ‘removal of constraints’ together as this is really a boundary condition: I’m thinking and working on the boundary domains in Cynefin as regular readers will know. So the doimant, lowest energy cost domain is complex, but that requires comfort with uncertainty and a degree of self-organisation. To step up to complicated, created boundaries or good practice takes energy but once done we are in a plateau state and have stability for a long period of time. I then portrayed Obvious as a steep climb high energy to a potentially unstable state of best practice. Removal of constraints is an overhang – the climbing metaphor emerging here. In that case there will be a return to complexity. For the catastrophic collapse I’m tempted to look at a return to excessive order but I’ve left that open.

Either way, work in progress, more on energy gradients this month,

  • tonyjoyce

    Interesting ideas. I think most of the energy metaphor you’re describing can be explained by simple springs. Complex is the relaxed state, and each governing constraint added stretches the spring. In obvious with strict constraints the spring is stretched to the max. It breaks in catastrophic failure, and to recover we have to replace the spring. The replacement aspect gives us path dependency even.

    Enabling constraints serve to balance the governing constraints mostly in oblique ways. Has to be oblique, for if it were direct we’d have obvious tradeoffs and the metaphor would collapse. There may be direct tradeoffs which are discovered by experimentation for most of us. Some direct tradeoffs are obvious to experts and this aspect may give the experts an evolutionary advantage in various settings.

    Lastly, if Chaotic is a dissipation state, it may serve to shuffle the constraints without directly stretching or relaxing the spring.

  • Michael Hill

    I started thinking about direction, because normally I’d think of movement left to right, but that isn’t why I’m commenting. It just simply led me to consider about how the energy would change if you tried to make a change from the Obvious to the Complicated or Complex domains. While initially I thought it would take less energy, much like simply removing a constraint, my memory intruded with the times I’ve experienced a change like that. It often takes energy to get much more than a few free spirits to purposefully strike out on new paths. You see those who will expend energy trying to maintain the old way even if it is no longer required. Then again, it’s probably hard for people to see when the should move from the Obvious domain.

    • Dave Snowden

      I could have drawn it in either direction! I think the wider point is that in a formal system where people don’t want to change they are using energy to maintain the formality while the informal networks are making things work anyway – but wasting energy,

      • tonyjoyce

        Sensible. What about the opposite case: an informal network that is trying to move to formal status? If it isn’t obvious, I’m thinking a lot about protest movements these days.

        • Dave Snowden

          As I said, complex to complicated (informal to formal) requires energy and is not always advisable

  • Kerry O’Connor

    Have you considered running this through the U.S. political system as a scenario? With Trump’s campaign, we witnessed the removal of social norms as a typical constraint. And now in his governing, we now come to realize how much rule of law is based upon social norms. Indeed, many have come to realize we are closer to the British common law system than we realized. So if the constraint of social norms is lifted to a significant degree, then we are in chaos. The immigration ban episode could be described as chaos to those experiencing it. But it could have also been described as complex, in the sense that the ban was actually a probe of the system by those in power. Now we see the courts coming into play, and constraints are being revealed as still relevant…

    On the population scale, people are trying to make sense of what’s happening in order to know how best to act. Your voice in this context would be incredibly valuable.

    • Dave Snowden

      Interested in that and also a wider engagement programme – looking for a sponsor

      • Kerry O’Connor

        Do you need a paying institution, or a willing network as a sponsor?

        • Dave Snowden

          Either or both – email me and I will send you details of a new programme here