Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Confluence

Here is a series of recent discoveries regarding models and frameworks for narrative sensemaking. I'll tell it as a story. (Narrative sensemaking, for those unfamiliar with the term, is where people, usually a group of people, begin with stories, or elements of stories, and consider them in such a way that larger patterns emerge among them that provide insights about a topic of interest. It builds on the work of Weick and Dervin in the sensemaking field.)

To start with the dilemma, or if you prefer, the instigating incident: I've been working on the method sections for the rewrite of Working with Stories, and I've been snagged on an obstacle. I dodged this obstacle in previous editions of the book but now I'm taking a hard look at comprehensibility and find I can't avoid it any further. It's the section on building narrative sensemaking landscapes, and it's snagged on the Cynefin framework.


Two great tastes that taste great together

As some may know, I helped Dave Snowden refine his Cynefin framework from 2001 to ... some years later, I'm not sure when. In order to tell the larger story about sensemaking landscapes and Working with Stories, I'll have to tell you something about this collaboration. So bear with me, it will be useful later. My mandate when I first started to work with Dave was to help him and Sharon Darwent with conceptual and methodological development to support their work in developing new consultancy practices. Eager to start, I read everything Dave had written in the field. I understood the narrative stuff; it was similar to what I was writing at the time, having spent two years researching organizational narrative (with John C. Thomas) at IBM Research. But Dave's Cynefin model, as it stood then, left me entirely confused. This wasn't Dave's fault; we were just used to thinking in different ways. He would say things like "the vertical dimension is culture" which caused little stars and whirligigs of bewilderment to appear in front of my eyes. In my world dimensions go from something to something else, and I couldn't make head nor tails of a variation-free dimension. I was trained as a scientist, so of course I was most comfortable with axes of variation; and Dave was trained primarily as a philosopher and businessperson, so of course he was most comfortable with non-dimensional conceptual distinctions. [Update: Apparently Dave has a physics background of which I was not aware, or of which I was aware at one time but forgot about. Apologies to him for the unintentional misrepresentation.]

Trying to find my way out of this confusion, I decided to try and build my own decision support model. Perhaps backing off and thinking about the issues on my own could help me come back and understand another perspective. I asked Sharon (whose background was in hydrology) to help me, and we two scientists sat down and for several hours talked about complexity and systems and societies and decision making. We asked ourselves: if one was to help people make decisions in many situations, what axes of variation would it be reasonable to consider? We came up with two axes that we thought mattered more than anything else: "the degree of imposed order" and "the degree of self-organization." We drew up a two-dimensional space with those axis labels on it and began to place examples into different areas on it (the French revolution, guilds, dictatorships, bees, pulleys, and so on). The messy diagram I show here is one of the few versions I still have (I seem to have discarded most of those notes).

After playing with our new nameless model for a while, I felt confident that I could return to Dave's model and try to make sense of it. The next day (or so) I presented our model to Dave. Sharon and I were a bit nervous, since Dave didn't exactly ask us to create our own model. Dave looked at the model I had drawn in silence for half a minute. Then he jumped up out of his chair, rushed across the room, and exclaimed, "It's the same thing!" And it was. Sort of. Mostly. We had it turned around and upside down from his, but essentially we had arrived at the same mapping of concepts. I didn't believe it at first (and have little ability to manipulate objects in 3D in my head, so he had to show me the flipping around part several times) but then I saw it was very close in meaning. In Dave's known/simple domain, the degree of imposed order is high and the degree of self-organization is low. In the knowable/complicated domain, both imposition and self-organization are high. In the complex domain, self-organization is dominant; and in chaos neither are strong.


The seeing eye

So we merged the models and called them two "forms" or "versions" or "facets" of Cynefin. I found this a great relief, because every time Dave talked about his version of Cynefin, I simply translated to my version of it, and I could magically understand what he was saying. Soon I started drawing what I called my "seeing eye diagram" as a way to translate between the two models more easily. I have these eye-diagrams littered all over my notes from that time. The eye probably came from the Eye of Providence, which is as close to a central directorate as you can get (and is on US money). Later the eye got dropped from official uses of the diagram because some people found it too confusing. But I always draw it, myself; it's what distinguishes the director from the others. (I particularly like the areas where the central directorate gropes after the self-organized pawns but can't quite get a grasp on them.)

If you look closely at the 2003 IBM Systems Journal article Dave and I wrote together about the framework (sadly no longer available for free from the ISJ, but if you search for it you may find some unofficial versions), you can see signs of negotiated compromise between what are essentially two different models. The sections called "Keep the baby, lose the bathwater" and "Connection strengths of Cynefin domains" show my way of thinking about it (minus the eyes). And this quote comes from me:
We say "build the framework" because the Cynefin framework is created anew each time it is used, with distinctions meaningful to the current context. To some extent, it does not even exist in the way we describe it here, devoid of context, but is always used to enable sense-making in a particular setting.
That's not exactly true in practice, at least not the way the framework has been used by many, but I would like it to be true. By the way, the reason we started calling it a "framework" instead of a "model" was that the reviewers for the ISJ article threw a fit at our casual, non-scientific use of the term "model." (Such scientists.)


Drifting apart

Anyway, we called my version of the model many things: the dimensional form of Cynefin, Cynefin with axes, continuous Cynefin, Cynthia's seeing-eye thing, and so on. When I explained Cynefin to people, I found that those who didn't understand Dave's model understood mine, and vice versa. It seemed to come down to whether people had more comfort with concepts or with gradients. Over the years, Dave usually used and explained his version and I usually used and explained mine. And eventually I came to realize that even though we had made the two models live together in one article (in sort of a shotgun wedding) they never were exactly the same. For one, my original model had no boundaries (the boundaries in the seeing-eye diagram above were a compromise, and I didn't always draw them). For another, I never really wanted to have any one-word names for states; I preferred talking about the degree of something that covered a continuous range of variation. It's not better, it's just different. It's who I am. (A note to those who will say that I should be saying "Sharon's and Cynthia's seeing-eye thing" because Sharon and I built it together: it could have been that, but Sharon didn't seem to want to use it. At least she never called it "our" model, so it sort of became mine. Though she is certainly welcome to share it again anytime she likes, and she definitely gets credit for discovering it, if credit is due to either of us.)

I'm not sure why my version of the model has been talked about so little over the years. It might have a lot to do with me dropping off the seeing-and-being-seen scene following the birth of my son. Or, my version might just be less useful to the greatest number of people. I don't mind if it is less useful; it works for me. I don't need to storm the world with my ideas. Last year I put a (self-published? unpublished?) white paper on my web site essentially trying to explain my form of the model and help people use it, but it was awkward to call it a "form" of the Cynefin framework when so few people think of it that way. And I don't really think of it that way anymore either.

And now we come to the issue I've been pondering lately. What should I say in Working with Stories about building a sensemaking framework with stories? I never could write very well about Dave's Cynefin model, and nobody will think that my model is the Cynefin model. I don't want to confuse people, but I don't want to leave it out again. After a few months of pondering over this, I've finally come to a solution. I think the two models want to amicably part company. They aren't the same model, and they no longer need to be forced to live together, and my life and my task would be easier if they lived their own lives.


The confluence model of decision support

After coming to this realization, I needed a name for my model. "Cynthia's seeing-eye thing" just doesn't work if you are trying to write about something. As I thought about what sort of name might be best, I went on a walk to our nearby creek with my son. Watching the water swirling around large boulders (central directorates) and pooling in little eddies (self-organization), I realized that the most important element of my conceptual model is that directed structure and self-organization intermingle and interact. They are not found in separate domains, and they are almost never found alone, and they almost never fail to impact each other. In my model the locations in which only one of these forces can be found are infinitesimally small points in the corners of the space. The word "confluence" occurred to me as I watched the waters swirl and join. So I think a good term for the model is the "confluence" model. (There is already a confluence model of intelligence and birth order, and another one related to sexual agression. Still, a few supporting words will differentiate it.)


More confluence

Now I want to continue the story into another type of confluence, one having to do with thought and originality. I've seen so many people make good use of the distinction between complex and complicated that I began to wonder where the distinction came from. It seems that the earliest mentions of this distinction go back to a 1987 paper by the anthropologists Shirley Strum and Bruno Latour called "Redefining the social link: from baboons to humans." (This is in Social Science Information, volume 26, number 4. You can find it online, for a fee, here.) Strum and Latour introduce the terms in this way.
For the rest of our discussion we will consider that baboons live in COMPLEX societies and have complex sociality. When they construct and repair their social order, they do so only with limited resources, their bodies, their social skills and whatever social strategies they can construct. A baboon is, in our view, the ideal COMPETENT MEMBER portrayed by ethnomethodologists, a social actor having difficulty negotiating one factor at a time, constantly subject to the interference of others with similar problems. These limited resources make possible only limited social stability.

Greater stability is acquired only with additional resources; something besides what is encoded in bodies and attainable through social skills is needed. Material resources and symbols can be used to enforce or reinforce a particular view of "what society is" and permit social life to shift away from complexity to what we will call complication. Something is "complicated" when it is made of a succession of simple operations. Computers are the archetype of a complicated structure where tasks are achieved by the machine doing a series of simple steps. We suggest that the shift from complexity to complication is the crucial practical distinction between types of social life. ...

How does the shift from social complexity to social complication happen? Figure 1 illustrates how we imagine this progression. The first line indicates a baboon-like society in which socialness is complex, by our use of that term, and society is complex but not complicated because individuals are unable to organize others on a large scale.... The second line positions hypothetical hunter-gatherers [where] language, symbols and material objects can be used to simplify the task of ascertaining and negotiating the nature of the social order. ...
To summarize our theoretical model, once individuals are aggregated and choose not to avoid each other, there must be a secondary adaptation to a new competitive environment of conspecifics. Two strategies are possible: manipulate the genotypes to obtain different phenotypes (eusocial insects) or manipulate the phenotypes of similar genotypes through increasing social skills. Similar bodies adapting to social life have, themselves, two possibilities: build the society using only social skills (non-human primates) or utilize additional material resources and symbols, as necessary, to define the social bond (human societies). In the human step different types of societies are created depending on the extent of new resources that are used.
This explanation exactly connects to things I have written about how the dominant force in hierarchy is the arch, meaning the structure inherent in the nouns we create (words, symbols, objects), and how the dominant force in meshwork is the work, or the constant construction and repair of the social order (conversations, imaginings, projects). (I'm not sure when I first encountered Manuel de Landa's terms for structure and self-organization, but I increasingly use them in preference, as they are much more meaningful, to me at least.)

Now, have you looked closely at Strum and Latour's diagram of their theoretical model? If you haven't, look again. It is identical to my confluence model. Their "ability to organize others on a large scale" is my "degree of imposed order." Their "degree of social complexity" is my "degree of self-organization."

Finding this connection to Strum and Latour's model gives me two senses of happiness. First, I'm excited that it came from ethology, my original field, which gives me a sense of circular completion. (It also makes me wonder if I read Strum and Latour's work in graduate school, since it was published the year after I entered a Ph.D. program in the field. Stranger things have happened....) Second, I'm excited that instead of talking about "my" model while standing alone (or with Sharon, or with Sharon and Dave), I can instead talk about tapping into the great confluent stream of understanding that is humanity.

And that thought leads us on to ...


Ancient confluence, ancient sensemaking

Now for the final piece. There is another confluence, a more important one, an ancient one, that I discovered just a few months ago. How I managed to miss it all these years (and everybody else along with me, apparently) is a mystery.

Here's how I discovered it. I was having one of my career self-pity-parties and typing my name and the names of everything I've ever created into Google and thinking about how nobody cares about me. (You do it too, admit it! Or some clever spammers wouldn't create fake links that start with "A smart blogger put an intriguing blog post on [your blog name].") So I typed in "Three strands in a braid" which is the name of a paper I published in the online anything-about-the-internet journal First Monday. Surprisingly, I also found links to Three Strands in The Braid, Paula Underwood's book about bringing Native American wisdom to use in contemporary society. I have great respect for Paula Underwood, having been moved by her book The Walking People. I had not meant to tread upon Ms. Underwood's book name, and out of contrition began to look over her braid book. This got me started roaming over web sites on Native American wisdom, which was only a desultory way of avoiding work until I stopped, breathless and amazed, in front of the medicine wheel.

The medicine wheel refers to a body of ancient wisdom shared by many tribes throughout North America, as well as a series of sacred structures, some dated to 5000 years ago. Small differences in interpretation and application abound in the medicine wheel structure and meaning, but the essential form is fairly consistent. The medicine wheel is also remarkably similar to my confluence model, to Strum and Latour's social-link model, and to the Cynefin framework. Since this eye-opening discovery I've been reading several books and web sites about the medicine wheel, and it has become clear to me that the confluences on this topic are much, much larger than just a few great minds thinking alike. What I believe we have tapped into, each in our own way, is as large as what it means to be a human being.

Let me show you the connections. Most medicine wheels use the map directions North, East, South and West (usually going round in a circle) to introduce the concepts involved. Nearly every book or web site on the medicine wheel differs in its precise labels as to the attributes of each direction, so I need to choose one. Of the books I've read I like The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology by Sun Bear and Wabun best, so I'll use those directions. (Sorry to you folks down under; you'll have to reverse the North-South directions.)

The North is the direction of winter, night, old age, earth and the physical world. In the North a dominant central force -- age, cold, darkness, the laws of physics -- holds each constituent element in its grasp. Here everyone knows the answer, because there can be only one answer. This is the realm of categorizing, of predicting trends and of following strong unchanging traditions. From The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology:
The power of Waboose [the North] is a paradoxical power. It is new life cloaked in death, rapid growth cloaked in rest. It is the power of the ice-goddess with a warm heart beneath a frozen exterior. It is the power of new life beginning to throb through an apparently rotting seed... It is the power of the trees covered with ice crystals, dancing in the North wind. It is the power of the animals huddling together for warmth, hunting together for food.
This relates to what I said (in "Three strands in a braid") about the extreme state of the simple/known condition:
People naturally form constituent connections all the time, so in a sense, as they say, "hope rises." Dictators attempt to move the situation to the extreme bottom–right corner [simple, known, the dead of winter] where they have absolute control and no other connections exist. Loyalty tests and other mind games are meant to sever nascent connections among the subjugated masses, especially those given subordinate power. However, keeping up such an unnatural situation requires a huge influx of energy, so these situations eventually implode through their own fragility. 
In other words, extreme order is the paradoxical power of new life cloaked in death, rapid growth cloaked in rest.

The East is the direction of spring, sunrise, youth, air and the spiritual world. In the East old connections are broken and everything starts anew. Everyone is floating in the void, kings and paupers alike. Here no one knows the answer, because no question has yet been asked. This is the realm of mystery, of uncanny sensation, and of action. From The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology:
For humans, youth is the time when everything is fresh and new, when they can see the universe in a raindrop and spend hours looking at the beauty of a blade of grass. Watch an infant stare at a tree and you'll know some of the power of Wabun [the East]. Youth is ... the time of experiencing everything as a first. It is the time of swimming in the stream of pure energy unhampered by the limitations of age, or of fears. It is the time when vision is expanded, like that of the eagle, when people seee as if from a high place.... [People who are comfortable in this place] have the ability to reach to the realms beyond the earth, in a natural and intuitive way. The people associated with Wabun have wisdom, and the possibility of bringing illumination and enlightenment to themselves and those they touch.
From Kurtz and Snowden 2003:
The chaotic domain is in a very real sense uncanny, in that there is a potential for order but few can see it — or if they can, they rarely do unless they have the courage to act. In known space it pays to be canny, that is, to know how to work the system in all its intricacies (canny meaning not only shrewd but safe). But in chaotic space, a canny ability gets you nowhere (there is no system to be worked). You need a different type of ability, one that is uncannily mysterious, sometimes even to its owner. Canny people tend to succeed in their own lifetimes; uncanny people tend to be recognized and appreciated only centuries later, because during their time their actions appeared to be either insane or pointless....  [Chaos] brings new perspectives, which cause radical disruptions in stable patterns of thought and lead to new complex patterns.
(I suspect the uncanny are afforded more respect in Native American traditions than in the corridors of power in the Western world. This is only one of several differences in value and belief that come up when these frameworks are juxtaposed.)

The South is the direction of summer, mid-day, young adulthood, water and the emotional world. In the South meshwork connections form and strengthen like growing plants. Here everyone has their own answer because everyone has their own path. This is the realm of storytelling, of mutual aid, and of learning by trial and error through probing explorations. From The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology:
At midday the lessons of the spirit received during sleep are put into action as people make plans and their direction for the day grows and takes shape. This is the time of reaching outward and growing in the things of the world. It is the time of testing wisdom by bringing it into physical being and helping it to grow. Sometimes the original direction is correct, and sometimes it must change; to know, the idea must first become an external reality. 
From Kurtz and Snowden 2003:
The decision model in this [complex] space is to create probes to make the patterns or potential patterns more visible before we take any action. We can then sense those patterns and respond by stabilizing those patterns that we find desirable, by destabilizing those we do not want, and by seeding the space so that patterns we want are more likely to emerge.
The West is the direction of autumn, sunset, middle age, fire and the intellectual world. In the West connections begin to harden into customs and rules, and central and networked forces intermingle for good and ill. Here the experts know the answers, because they keep the knowledge and wisdom that has arisen and stabilized. This is the realm of teaching, of listening to elders and encountering the wisdom of distilled knowledge. From The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology:
In human life the middle years are those of power. You have experienced some of life. You have learned some of its lessons and made your initial mistakes. You have tried working on the many projects that seemed appealing in your youth and often have found the direction that you were meant to take. Once you find your direction, you receive the power that comes with knowing where you are going.... The middle years are the ones of responsibility. There are growing children to raise, there are aging parents to care for, there are younger brothers and sisters to teach and help to find their own paths.
From Kurtz and Snowden 2003:
While stable cause and effect relationships exist in this [knowable] domain, they may not be fully known, or they may be known only by a limited group of people. In general, relationships are separated over time and space in chains that are difficult to fully understand. Everything in this domain is capable of movement to the known domain. The only issue is whether we can afford the time and resources to move from the knowable to the known; in general, we cannot and instead rely on expert opinion, which in turn creates a key dependency on trust between expert advisor and decision maker.... Just-in-time (JIT) transfer is movement from the complex to the knowable, selectively. This movement is often called exploitation in the complexity literature, and it involves the selective choice of stable patterns in complex space for ordered representation.
If you are at all familiar with the domains of the Cynefin framework, you can quickly see the mappings here. You can also see that the dimension of central order shared by my confluence model and Strum and Latour's social-link model increases from the Southeast to the Northwest, and the dimension of self-organization increases from the Northeast to the Southwest.

As happy as I am to find this connection, it is not all that surprising. I had an inkling of it back when I wrote this (in Kurtz and Snowden 2003):
We do not pretend that all the basic ideas inherent in the Cynefin framework are new or unique. They can in fact be found floating around history for thousands of years.
I just hadn't known they were floating around in this amount of detail at the time. When I wrote that I was thinking mainly of the many folk tales and mythologies that distinguished between imposed and self-organized structure (I mentioned the Babylonian creation myth which is just one of many such references).


The power of tapping in

This association opens up whole new areas of thought for me. For example, most versions of the medicine wheel include a middle region analogous to the disorder region in Cynefin terms. There are two more directions -- up to the sky and down into the earth -- which are not found in either the Cynefin model or my confluence model, so I'll be exploring how those might usefully fit in. I'm intrigued as well by the circle around the outside of the wheel, which is meant to demonstrate the unity of all conditions in one intermingled world. In addition several books have been published that explain how the concepts of the medicine wheel can be used in sensemaking exercises not unlike those I've used myself. For example, one activity involves "walking the wheel" to think about how a situation might be seen from each of the four directions and how one might thereby gain a deeper perspective on it.

It's hard to describe my feelings of humility, privilege and wonder on realizing that I and others have stumbled onto a truth that is at least several thousand years old. I am only beginning to explore what has been written about the medicine wheel and will continue to do so. Of course, what I can discover as a person of Eastern European ancestry and conventional scientific training will be something quite different than what a Native American can learn from the elders in their tribe. From what I've heard there is much more not available in books. Still, I eventually hope to arrive at a place where I feel that my understanding has benefited from all possible exposure to the great confluent stream of thought and wisdom I have encountered, and where I can in turn give something back, if only respectful attention, to the stream itself.

Now please note that I do not wish to claim that the medicine wheel is the same as the Cynefin framework, or Strum and Latour's model, or that it is better or more correct than these, or any other such nonsense. The reason I am excited about this discovery is because it enlarges, not reduces, my ability to help people make sense of the world. This is an amazing degree of parallelism between systems that seem on the surface to have nothing in common. I'm beginning to think the whole construct is something that may have come up many times in human history, like the Golden Rule or the ziggurat or the oft-repeated concept of "it's bigger on the inside than the outside" (that's one of my fantasy-Ph.D. dissertations right there). What I'm most concerned about is not who can claim credit for anything but what we, all of us, can do with it.


What makes a model fit for sensemaking?

In practical terms, this solves my problem with writing a method description for sensemaking landscapes in Working with Stories. I will simply describe multiple ways of framing a landscape for group sensemaking, among which people might have different reasons (background? personality? goal?) to choose. You might want to choose the labels of the Cynefin framework, of my confluence model, of Strum and Latour's social link model, of the medicine wheel, or of other models I know nothing about. This also allows me to write about each of the frameworks I do know about without either subscribing fully to it or assuming that everyone else thinks in the same way I do.

I've seen it noted that the Cynefin framework covers similar ground to Herbert Simon's bounded rationality model and to Elliott Jacques' requisite organization model, though I have yet to read more about these models (but plan to do so). Manuel de Landa's concepts of hierarchy and meshwork (and their intermingling) are also similar, as are Dee Hock's writings on chaordic organizations. (If you know of any other overlaps, reader, please send me a note. I'm interested in giving people as many ways to find a good fit for their contexts and purposes as I can.)

The obvious next question is: where do we stop? What sorts of models are not useful for narrative sensemaking?

The utility of building a sensemaking framework lies in its ability to enable the emergence of new understandings from the overlaying of many seemingly disparate experiences and perspectives. It is a convergent technique, a way of moving from specific to general: but not by categorizing, which is done beforehand and is not an activity of discovery at all. Rather, it shares something with the idea of grounded theory, in which data create rather than prove or disprove theory. Because of the way sensemaking works, many models work as well as others, in the proper context; but for the same reason there are some characteristics a model has to have before it can be useful. I've come up with three so far.

1. Value-free dimensions. Sensemaking depends on the self-organized emergence, not the straightforward creation, of meaningful patterns in the things considered. If the placement of items into patterns is predetermined, no sensemaking can take place.

To illustrate this, consider two group activities you might conduct in a gymnasium full of people. Let's say you first ask everyone to stand in front of a large marked scale of heights. This is a predetermined placement, so doing the exercise brings no additional insight that could not be gathered from, say, measuring each person independently and collating the responses on a computer. Now consider what would happen if you asked each person to stand in a location that best fits their agreement with a series of statements posted around the room. The patterns that result from this exercise probably cannot be predicted even if you know the people in the room very well. If you ask each person to answer a set of survey questions, you will not get the same result. To begin with, an act of physical positioning (whether of yourself or of an object) invokes a different set of cognitive processes than preparing a linguistic response. But more importantly, the people in the room wouldn't be human if they didn't negotiate meaning by continually monitoring where they and the others are in the room (constantly subject to the interference of others with similar problems). Such an activity would not represent an objective or experimentally repeatable method of measurement. But measurement is not the goal; sensemaking is.

Many models built for understanding and communication have implied or explicit value axes. The classic case is of the graph where the approach you wish to evangelize is in the upper-right-hand corner (nearest to God). You can use value-based models for sensemaking, if you can obfuscate the value axes. You can switch the directionality so that our common up-is-good bias is subverted (the right-is-best bias may be culturally variant and probably has a lot to do with writing direction -- hey, wouldn't that be an interesting dissertation topic).

Another method of subversion is to change the terms used so that they confuse direct communication of value. If you want to use a model with an axis called "efficiency," think of either a value-free way to talk about it (perhaps "precision" or "agency") or think of some way to highlight both the positive and negative aspects of it at once (something like "getting things done efficiently, even if they are nasty things"). But if you have to work really hard to push a model into value-free use, don't deceive yourself; better to use another model than to destroy what could be valuable insights.

2. At least two dimensions. The essential activity in building a sensemaking framework is the mapping of elements, in this case narratives or elements of narrative, onto a space of resonant meaning. Building a topographical map entails gathering information about point descriptions: longitude, latitude, height and meaning. The addition of meaning is not always noticed, but if you look at a real topographical map, labels such as the names of mountain peaks and lakes and the locations of human-made structures are as important as contour lines. In the example I show here, roads, streams, buildings and administrative boundaries are marked. (The little dot near the bottom is my house, which has a lot of meaning around here.) Building a sensemaking landscape requires a similar process. So it follows that in order to build such a map you must define what your longitude and latitude mean; what height pertains to (if anything); and what features will be marked. All of the models I've described here define two dimensions of variation, either explicitly or implicitly (by marking out the rarified extremes of the space). From what I've seen, you need at least two dimensions in order for sensemaking to work well.

Models that feature triangles or pyramids (lots of this, some of this, little of this) are really only unidimensional, so they don't work. Why doesn't one dimension work? Well, first, if you are trying to squeeze the values out of an axis (and people are very good at squeezing values into axes), the effort is more obvious if there is only one axis. People have a harder time finding out the correct answer if there are two overlaid dimensions, especially if at least one of them is flipped from their expectation. I've seen people use one dimension of variation for sensemaking, but the insights gained seem to be thinner and weaker; there is less sense made.

What about three dimensions? Well, there are two problems with sensemaking in three dimensions. First, it requires more physical preparation. Preparing to place flat objects on a wall is much easier than preparing to place three-dimensional objects in 3D space. You could have people sculpt a clay surface together, and that might yield some fascinating insights, but it could also just get messy.

Also, I must enter here a plea from the non-3D-thinkers population: beware of thinking 2D representations of 3D objects are 3D objects. Some people have the ability to look at such representations (usually on computer screens) and think about them. Many of us don't. I remember in graduate school when the wave of 3D Tetris hit. I had been marginally adequate at regular Tetris (though I'm not a fast thinker in any number of dimensions). But when I was faced with a 3D Tetris challenge, I simply froze, turning the virtual object over and over but unable to come up with any plan for putting it anywhere. I watched in amazement as other people manipulated and dropped the Tetris things (what do they call them?) in microseconds. Clearly this is a genetic determination, and clearly some of us were not standing in the 2D-as-3D line when they gave this ability out. (I think I was over by the left-handed synesthesia booth.) It's much easier with physical manipulation, but people who have the 2D-as-3D ability sometimes forget that the rest of us can't follow them into that world. So to be safe and include every voice, I'd stick to two dimensions.

3. Meaningful space. The last requirement of any model that supports sensemaking is that it resonate meaningfully with the people who use it. This is the main reason that I think replacing the terms on the bubbles or axes or quadrants or circles of whatever model you want to use is perfectly permissible, as long as the translation is true. Because if the space doesn't mean anything to the sensemakers, the patterns won't mean anything either. Find a space that works in practice, not just in theory. You can only find this out by trying it in practice with any particular group. What I like to do is have a few manifestations of any sensemaking model on hand so that if one isn't resonating I can pull out another, relabel, and try again. Or you can use the salad-bar method and present two or more sets of labels at once and ask people to choose what works best for their group. (The spring, sunrise, birth, air, spirit labels do this in the medicine wheel.) Another method is to explain what you mean in general and ask the people themselves to come up with their own labels (while you check the translation for accuracy). This approach tends to require a more motivated group; some will respond to such a request with bland refusal. Be ready to do what works and adapt to the conditions you find.

There are other requirements for sensemaking regarding the items used (their focus and breadth), the physical setting, the people involved, and so on, but that is another topic for another time.

With regard to the conceptual frameworks and models you can use for beneficial narrative sensemaking, I'm happy to say that I've found much to explore. Hopefully this will be of as much use to you as it has been to me.

25 comments:

  1. Cynthia, to start, I must say "thank you thank you thank you!"

    This immensely valuable post has resolved many long-term difficulties for me around Cynefin - its history, development, focus, initial purpose and divergence. I'd always seen in Cynefin this same layering you'd described, and yet I'd been told many times that I was wrong to interpret it that way: from this I now understand that it does indeed exist in there, where it comes from, and why it's not acknowledged by certain of Cynefin's proponents. Thank you!

    Interesting to note that you and Snowden have travelled such opposite path: Snowden from philosophy to a purported science, and you from science to a (to me) much more real philosophy.

    "If you know of any other overlaps, reader, please send me a note", you say above. I've been working with 'Cynefin-like' framings for many decades, the first version of which appeared in my book 'Inventing Reality' back in 1986 - see http://www.tomgraves.org/3science . You can see my various interactions with Snowden on Cynefin-related matters in the articles (and comments) at http://weblog.tomgraves.org/index.php/tag/cynefin/ .

    Most of my books on enterprise-architecture and related themes - see http://tetradianbooks.com - make use of Cynefin-like frames. The most recent of these, 'Everyday Enterprise Architecture' is probably the closest in content and aim to what you've described above: more details at http://tetradianbooks.com/2010/05/everydayea/ - at present you can also download the full content in PDF form.

    I strongly agree with you re boundaries, and would perhaps take it a bit further. (The diagrams in 'Everyday EA' unfortunately do not reflect this well enough at present, as they all had to be redrawn at Snowden's insistence just before publication.) Using the Cynefin terminology recursively, we could say that the boundaries may be:
    - Simple: fixed, static, tightly delineated ('digital boolean')
    - Complicated: explicitly delineated, but may move along one or more spectra of values ('digital numeric')
    - Complex: not so much 'boundaries' as amorphous 'regions of interest without distinct edges ('analogue/greyscale')
    - Chaotic: there is a boundary and there is no boundary, at the same time; everything and nothing coexists ('analogue boolean'? domain of all-possibility)

    On 'not 3D thinkers', I might suggest that the difficulty is not that you don't see in '3D', but that your preferred 'third' dimension' is more likely to be social-depth or deep-time than simple physical-depth. (There's also a well-known gender-component to this, which goes all the way back to the gatherer/hunter separation of gender-roles: important to celebrate these differences in perspective rather than complain about them. We can model physical-depth with relative ease via numbers, but we can only model mythic-depth or deep-time via stories: the greater difficulty in modelling does not make the latter any less valuable!)

    On anthropology and deep-myth, you might find it useful to take a look at some of the Australian equivalents of the Medicine Wheel: see, for example, http://aboriginalart.com.au/culture/dreamtime3.html, and other links via Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreamtime . Another useful American crosslink is F. David Peat's 'Blackfoot Physics' http://www.fdavidpeat.com/bibliography/books/blackfoot.htm - that would be particularly relevant to your theme of confluence.

    And yes, I known exactly what you mean by "I was having one of my career self-pity-parties"! :-( :-)

    Hope this helps, anyway, and would love to discuss this further with you - direct email is tom at tetradian dot com.

    And thanks again - many thanks.

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  2. Tom, thanks for your comment and for the valuable links. The most exciting for me is that there is an Australian equivalent of the medicine wheel. Though I am also excited to hear about your work and will be reading your writings. I'll just respond to a few points.

    When I talk about background in influencing preferences, or what we are most comfortable with, I don't refer to competency. Dave has educated himself about science and I don't think that's any less valid than my self-education in narrative. Knowing somebody's background does help you understand their customs of thought better, but it tells you nothing about their potential. I've been told "you can't do that because you're an X" enough times to argue against any kind of labeling. Not that you are labeling, but I don't see a reason to call Dave's science "purported." He entered into legitimate inquiry, which is commendable, and I have no doubt he has learned much about science. I'm sure I have learned less about philosophy (but I sure know a lot about six year olds ;)

    On boundaries, Dave and I worked some on different forms of boundaries back in the day, but I don't believe we ever settled on anything all that definite. (Perhaps he has since, I don't know.) But I think of models like I think of cars: if they get me from A to B I'm happy, and I don't care that much how many cylinders they have. I know there are lots of mechanics and car designers out there, so they can tinker. I'm more interested in going places. So far in practical terms I haven't found any boundary configurations that actually helped people get to new insights, so I haven't pursued them. I do have a section in the white paper I mention in the post (The Wisdom of Clouds) where I talk about using different forms of Cynefin (or different sensemaking models) in different situations on Cynefin. So we are thinking alike here.

    Considering that people reportedly interact with male and female infants differently *from the moment of birth* and considering the massive plasticity of the early brain (as I can plainly see played out every day in front of me) I don't think we can tease out nature and nurture so easily as some have suggested. The gender component is not well known so much as well contested, and the hunting-and-gathering argument has had as many detractors as supporters. The countering "spatial experience" argument is that only men can do this because only boys do this. I've seen studies that say people without the 2D-as-3D ability can "catch up" to some extent if they receive enough help to compensate for the gap in their experience. Others point out that men tend to have more experience than women with computer games, and most tests of 3D rotation are presented in the context of computer-game-like rotations. When I do Legos with my six-year-old son, he can build the model from instructions even when the 2D representation is turned around backward, while I can't. However, Lego is his middle name and has been since he stopped trying to eat them. When I was a girl, girls didn't do Lego (and we had like 100 of them while my son has probably millions). Girls still don't do Lego, from what I hear. My husband spent his childhood soaking in a Lego-like system (Tog'ls was his middle name) and video games. I rarely encountered either and spent most of my time in the woods and in books. I liked Lego, but it was not an option available to me. So it's a heck of a lot more complicated than hunting and gathering, in my opinion. I do believe there is a genetic component to this issue, but I don't think it is necessarily gender based. Many of the skills I rely on in my work, and that I didn't mention, are supposed to be male-only traits. So, really, best not to get me started on that.

    But let me thank you again for the links to the dreamtime and other sources. I will definitely be following all of this up.

    Cynthia

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  3. Ditto on the thank you for posting this amazing story about an intellectual journey and putting it in a way that makes it so useful for others. I've always been intrigued by how many times I've seen different models and frameworks that, at bottom, are essentially addressing the same primary elements. And this set (because I've been working with Cynefin since the early days that you and Dave first presented at the IKM!) resonates so very clearly for me.

    I really really look forward to your book.

    /patti anklam

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  4. Patti, thanks for the thanks, and for putting it in such a graceful way. I've enjoyed your blog series on social media, by the way; it has helped put the whole thing in perspective for me.

    Serendipitously, I was just reading an article about Einstein in the Atlantic magazine, and this quote seems pertinent:

    'And so Einstein and his new wife, Elsa, set sail in late March 1921 for their first visit to America. On the way over, Einstein tried to explain relativity to [Chaim] Weizmann. Asked upon their arrival whether he understood the theory, Weizmann gave a puckish reply: "Einstein explained his theory to me every day, and by the time we arrived I was fully convinced that he really understands it." '

    I think there is merit in the elements different models and frameworks share, AND there is merit in the details that differ. It's like I wrote in the brambles paper about organizational silos: both engagement and disengagement have their benefits, and it would be a shame to waste either of them.

    I think I'll print out your last sentence and tape it above my computer screen. It's motivating!

    Cynthia

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  5. Nice story.

    I really like the "eyes" in the early Cynefin model. The current version has lost any reference of "viewpoints". F.e. four "eyes" in the chaos domain would clarify what's going one there must better IMHO.

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  6. Cynthia - fascinating account, so thoughtful. I'm working with Dave and only now get the value of the tetrahedrons. Keep those eyes!

    My experience is that the imagery of black lines that are the boundaries between the domains, can confound people. It makes it a model rather than a heuristic. The result is that in my sector (international development), people put EVERYthing in the 'complex' box thereby really warping the whole idea of gradients and partial co-existence of different states. Dave does talk about that and stresses the gradient notion when people start to make the Cynefin heuristic an absolute (so I disagree with TomG that it is not acknowledged) but most people like to label.

    Multiplicity of heuristics is good. Tailoring them is good. Cynefin is one option, a useful one for many people who are 'liberating' themselves from linear rational planning and pre-determined indicators etc. But I'm also all for calling these other models other things if they have different labels and axes. So yes, here's to other models rather than destroying the strength of existing ones.

    Thanks again!

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  7. Harold and Irene, thanks so much for commenting!

    On the eyes, I use them mainly to distinguish between the central directorate (who is trying to control the entire situation) and the pawns (who are trying to build connections and just sort of live without trying to control everything). I take your point, Harold, about eyes being useful to represent perspectives, but if everybody was eyes that distinction would be lost. The dots (in my mind) do have eyes; they are just little tiny eyes that look down. They are local eyes, eyes on a small scale. It is the central directorate who looks out over everything (with its giant eye, which I always draw much larger than the dots) and tries to "organize others on a large scale." Of course these are not people, but tendencies within people and situations and combinations of both, which intermingle.

    The contextualized derivation of Cynefin (where you place items in a boundary-free space and then derive contextually-meaningful boundaries) arose over the course of several long and intense (and productive) workshops in which we worked on improving the depth and quality of sensemaking that resulted from using the framework. In one workshop in particular we contrasted categorization (with pre-existing domains) and contextualization (where domains emerged) and found that contextualization improved the sensemaking that took place. However, we also found that the simpler process was easier and faster, and less prone to creating frustration and abandonment of the process. I wrote then about creating "learning spirals" in which people use the framework with increasing complexity over time. But later I refined that thinking, and in my "Wisdom of Clouds" paper wrote about how I think the MOST sophisticated use of any decision support system is not simply to move "up" on any scale of complexity but to develop facility in using ALL forms of the system and the ability to tack back and forth between them to produce a multi-faceted benefit. Simpler pre-bounded spaces may be a better entry point, but that does not mean they should be abandoned later as inferior.

    Whether this tacking back and forth is done within one model that can be used in multiple ways, or across multiple models with complementary features that together make up a preferred system-of-use for any particular person, group and situation, is to my mind not that important -- with respect to utility alone, that is. The NAMing of models, and talking about models sharing ideas and features rather than invalidating or subsuming each other, has more to do with mutual respect and fairness than with utility. What is important in our USE of such models is augmenting our individual and collective abilities as best we can using all the tools we have at our disposal. (Which includes coming up with your OWN take on these ideas as well!)

    Thanks again for the stimulating discussion, I'm enjoying it.

    Cynthia

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  8. You speculated about effects of culture on direction. There are some points in this piece

    http://edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html

    that should be worth following through.

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  9. Cynthia,

    Before I comment any further, can you increase the resolution of the first figure: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_iKJoNyl5v08/TB-586gg2OI/AAAAAAAAAJc/_mMHF4sUhco/s1600/confluent+model+cropped+and+cleaned+up.jpg. At this resulution I cannot read it while it seems very interesting.

    Thanks,

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  10. Steve, thanks for the great link! I am reading it.

    Harold, I suppose it was tredidation on my part that led me to shrink the first figure to an unreadable size. It's pretty messy to read if you are not me. I've just redone it as a better looking diagram, both what I had then and an updated version, and will put them them up in another blog post in a moment.

    Cynthia

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  11. Hi Cynthia,
    I was one of the early trained cynefin people, in 2003. I too am pleased to hear the other story, as i have felt your shadow over the years, not in a negative way just a concern that a voice was missing.
    I 've worked with the framework in my job as a crisis manager(turnaround ceo) ever since, and your perspective is one i have used - i also talk about the collective brain and leadership in the non ordered contexts and management in the ordered contexts.
    There is a lot more, firstly relationships hold systems together, secondly contextually triggered cognitive filters generating unstable perspectives and of course the raft of emergent tools that have been emerging over the past 10 years. One of my favorites is systemic constellations, which ties in with NLP and your spacial human filters versus linguistic ones. Constellations also provide a unique opportunity for the client to get out of their system in itself an intervention. Which leads me to intervention design, "what do we do?" when we've made sense of it. Would you be ok to continue the conversation off line, i have many questions and ideas which resonate with your story. Julian Still Belgium

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  12. Julian, thanks for the comment and yes let's connect (email is cfkurtz at cfkurtz dot com).

    Whenever I read about techniques with emergent aspects I am reminded of an old quote, possibly from the I Ching, that says times of great potential are times of great danger, and times of great danger are times of great potential. So, while emergent techniques have greater potential in some contexts they also have greater danger in those same contexts - for manipulation, deception and self-deception. That doesn't mean we should reflexively avoid such techniques; it just means we should be aware of both sides of them. It seems to me that nearly everything that works in the unorder side comes inseparably tangled like this. This also connects with stories, which are powerful and dangerous at the same time. As the great philosopher Sting said, the wounds she gave me were the wounds that would heal me.

    I had not heard of systemic constellations but it seems fascinating (and possibly powerful and possibly dangerous). I just quickly read the Wikipedia article on it, which I'm sure is incomplete. One thing that struck me was that the article said "They are not role playing." That strikes me as odd because it certainly seems to me that they are. People don't need to speak or act to play roles. Roles are agreements, not actions. Indeed that seems to be the whole point of the thing. It also seems a narrative technique, though in a story-making rather than story-telling sense of the term. But of course I know almost nothing about it. Much to learn, as always.

    Thanks Julian and I look forward to connecting.

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  13. Hi Cynthia, Thanks for your interesting story here and I can remember such a discussion on 2D vs 3D models. I suppose computer 3D graphics must help these days (see the great example in the opening of Young et. al. "Visual Statistics: Seeing Data with Dynamic Interactive Graphics" where they show that 3D visualisation is needed to *see* the problems with the Randu random number generator) but to be honest, I had a huge problem initially even with 2D. I was one of those people who'd sit in my hotel room looking blankly at the floor layout diagram used for fire escape instructions and not be able to see that this diagram was truly a representation of the corridors and rooms I'd walked past from the elevator to my room. So I would add one needs to be aware that some people struggle with any diagram form of visualisation. Another example was a lovely diagram illustrating Napiers logarithms (it was some sort of machine that illustrated the relationship between logs and the natural numbers) - it took me years to figure out the diagram but I could understand the argument given in the book because they'd also place the differential equations under the diagram - that I could understand). Anyway - I loved your story here and think there are some great and positive comments from other readers. Take care, Peter

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  14. Peter, thanks for commenting. You make a good point and I agree that every style of visualization requires some understanding and practice (and perhaps some natural ability) to make good use of. As adults we sometimes forget that we spent years learning how to make sense of these things!

    Cynthia

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  15. Seriously, any one who can lend some insight into unidentified disconnects with Dave's model, I'm listening, actively. And everything 'else' that you're looking at is all relevant.

    But I have one major issue with where you supposedly have commonalities with Cynefin. What the heck is "known" in a business and how is it "known" and who qualifies its validity?

    I've found of more recent that there is a lot of things 'believed' to be known. But I've also gotten in the habit of actually trying to validate long-held beliefs -- things that businesses fundamentally operate off of. In most cases there is nothing to support the belief -- ok, in many cases there are 'appearances' (I like to think of them as "apparitions" of truths), and often there are people paid to defend the appearances, but they don't DO anything -- at least not the things needed to be done for the purpose of the label they bear/defend.

    That's only half of it. Even if we did "know" something and it was valid, where is the validity in the label "simple"? I challenge you to find such a reality and offer it as evidence.

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  16. Thanks for the comment, Paula! You make some interesting points.

    I wouldn't say the things I blogged about are unidentified DISCONNECTS with Cynefin; rather they are CONNECTIONS with Cynefin, and with other frameworks, some ancient. My goal was to bring our attention to confluences, not divergences (though each have their places and merits).

    The rest of your comment was so interesting that I've made my response (which was getting too long for a comment) into another blog post. See "Of hypotheses and tools, models and frameworks." Thanks again for the thought provoking response.

    Cynthia

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  17. Do you know of the Four-Room Apartment framework for organizational (and personal and social) change?

    Claess Jansen, the originator, is Swedish, and from time to time writes with an odd sense of humour (for me). For example, in using the religious terms of God, the Devil, the Holy Ghost, I think he is referring to the archetypes underneath or the symbolic meanings of those names, not the actual entities. From what I've read of his work in the past, I do not think of him as religious.

    Another perhaps-useful tidbit of information. I am guessing you may know about or have heard of the group process design know as Open Space, which has gained immensely in understanding, popularity and use over the last decade or so. It too uses the medicine wheel as an underpinning 'touchstone of sense-making'.

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  18. Jon, thanks for the link to the Four-Room Apartment framework. Yep, another similar set of ideas. I'm adding it to my list (which is growing and growing). And I didn't know that Open Space (which I like) used the medicine wheel. All great connections and of much use. Thanks again.

    Cynthia

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  19. Hi Cynthia,

    Thanks for your comment on my blog. I'd be happy to discuss the various models.

    One things that has bugged me recently about the models of Snowden en Stacey is their distinction of complexity versus complication. The more I thought about it the more I thought it wasn't useful for me to distinguish between different systems.

    Dave described in one of of his posts that he split the ordered domain into simple and complicated. And I thought, "why doesn't he do that with the complex and chaotic domains as well?" Because some complex systems (for example: three-body problem) are much simpler to describe and understand than others. And some chaotic systems are much simpler than others.

    And then it dawned on me that structure and behavior are two dimensions. There are ordered, complex and chaotic systems, and all of them can be either simple or complicated. For me, this makes more sense than a separation of complex and complicated in 2 domains.

    As for the difference between your model and mine: I don't distuingish between degree of imposed order and degree of self-organizations. They are one dimension in my model. You don't seem to distinguish between behavior and structure of a system. When combined that would make 3 dimensions. That's probably a bit too hard to draw, and hard to understand. Which doesn't help people in their sense making. :)

    Of course, they are all just models (excuse me: frameworks). I suggest people use the model they think is most useful to them. :)

    Thanks for the inspiration.

    Jurgen

    http://www.noop.nl/2010/09/simplicity-a-new-model.html

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  20. Jurgen, thanks for the comment! I totally agree that many frameworks should flourish and that the more the merrier.

    The only issue I have with what you have outlined is that the use of the distinction between complex and complicated (to mean self-organization versus organization) is strong and widespread. Repurposing complicated to mean something that can be complex and can be ordered ... might be hard for people to understand and use. I'm all for coining new words, but saying "this doesn't mean what everybody has been saying it means for decades, it now means this" tends just to confuse people.

    I like the distinctions you have drawn, but I have two reservations: One, the name, as I said; and two, sometimes the line between simple and shall-we-say involved is difficult to place in complex and chaotic systems. You can get some pretty "involved" behavior in a system with only a few elements, from what I've seen, and you can get behavior that looks simple in systems with many elements.

    But it's all useful food for thought!

    Cynthia

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  21. Actually, the words complicated and complex have existed for centuries, and long before scientists and researchers started attributing a different meaning to complexity.

    And I only see agreement in that all complexity scientists use the word complex for self-organizing systems.

    But I _don't_ see agreement on what complicated means and how it relates to complexity. Only few people have actually tried to address this issue. And then, usually, the see complicated and complex as different domains. While I propose that they are about different dimensions.

    I believe my proposal finally clears up many misunderstandings. And, given the comments on my blog post, almost everyone seems to agree with me. :)

    Thanks!

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  22. Oh, and by the way, confusion started _because_ scientists themselves repurposed the word complexity (which was already used by many people to mean things that aren't simple.)

    See for example the work of Roger Sessions and his attempts at reducing complexity in IT systems:

    http://www.objectwatch.com/whitepapers/ITComplexityWhitePaper.pdf

    I disagree with Roger's use of the word complexity. But the confusion is already there. :(

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  23. Jurgen, thanks for the comments. It appears that my experience of the use of the words complicated and complex has differed from yours. If you Google "complex versus complicated" you will find many people using the distinction as I do; but you may have seen different things. That happens. My guess is that you will help people more if you pay attention to that fairly common usage, but of course you are free to ignore that advice, as we all are.

    I believe every framework clears up many misunderstandings, and every framework generates many misunderstandings. No one of us has all of the answers or none of the answers. May we all use what we find around us to make sense of things.

    Cynthia

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  24. From mid-western USA grew the plains people of "Black Elk Speaks" and their Sacred Hoop: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Elk_Speaks.

    These people lived after the Medicine Wheels and before the Cynefin framework, but on the continuum about which you write. Their Sacred Hoop of Life gives a high-plains version added to the confluence.

    Thanks for the nice piece.

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  25. Lee, thank you for passing on the valuable connection. I've ordered "Black Elk Speaks" and will be looking for more confluence in it. Each of these systems adds something complementary to the whole picture.

    Cynthia

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