Category Archives: sense-making

Refreshing read on regularities in complex systems

I just came across this blog post by Cynthia Kurtz, who wrote with Dave Snowden the paper “The new dynamics of Strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world“. Cynthia describes in her post how she perceives regularities in complex systems, so called oscillations.

I like the post because it uses a really refreshingly simple and jargon-less language to talk about this characteristic of complex systems. Compared with other texts on complex systems, it’s fun reading and seeing oscillation and, connected to it, unpredictability in complex systems with different eyes.

Here an example:

Those leaves remind me of a conversation I had once with a person with whom I was discussing the differences between complicated and complex patterns. He said something like, “You say a complicated pattern repeats and a complex one doesn’t, right? But how do you explain the fact that complex patterns sometimes do repeat?” I said, “They repeat until they don’t.” What I meant was, when a leaf is oscillating, it looks like it’s connected to some perfectly engineered device governed by a mechanical timer. But that’s an illusion that bursts when the leaf suddenly stops. Complicated patterns repeat because somebody or something made them repeat. They stop repeating when somebody or something stops them repeating, or when they break down and need to be fixed (after which they repeat again, if somebody or something makes them). Complex patterns repeat because they started repeating, and they stop repeating because they’ve stopped repeating. Keep in mind, of course, that the patterns we see in our world are rarely purely complex or complicated. Even those oscillating leaves I see out of my window have been influenced by the complicated design of the house that separates us.

Is this the dilemma of complexity in development?

I have not been around for a while, so my blog has remained dormant. But I have not abandoned it! I will try to keep posting more often again.

This post is about a paragraph of a book that I have started reading recently. The book is called ‘Harnessing Complexity’ and the authors are Robert Axelrod and Michael D. Cohen. The paragraph says:

Analyzing complex systems within [our] framework does not assure the ability to produce specific outcomes but can foster an increase in the value of populations over time.

This statement made me thinking if this is actually the dilemma we face when we want to apply principles of complexity sciences to development – or other real-world cases, for that matter. In development, we need to specify outcomes we want to achieve within a given time frame and we need to build a system that enables us to measure and report about the achievement of these outcomes. Now if the use of frameworks informed by complexity sciences does not target the achievement of specific outcomes but more generally the increase in the value of populations over time (in the case of development that would be what we call ‘well-being’), than it will be hard to sell these projects to donors. We cannot go there and tell them ‘Our goal is to make the world a better place but we don’t have any specific outcomes nor a clear time frame to achieve that goal.’

I do not really have an answer to that dilemma right now. Any thoughts out there?

What is complexity? II

One concept I like when I’m thinking of complexity is the Cynefin framework developed by Dave Snowden (see the picture on the right). I mentioned the framework already in one of my answers to the comments of the last post on ‘What is complexity?’.

The beauty of the framework is that it helps you to categorize problems in simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. Furthermore, it gives you a strategy for each of these domains how to design your problem solution. For example for complicated problems the strategy would be ‘sense – analyze – respond’, meaning that first you have to sense the problem, analyze the system (or call in experts who know the system) and respond based on the analysis.

I do think that it makes sense to differentiate between the four domains. The problem really is that in the past we treated many problems that are actually complex as only complicated or even simple problems. Also in international development. In order to categorize these problems as actually being complex, we need this sort of frameworks and guidance how to approach them.

I realize that I use the word categories here. Now if you listen to the video on YouTube where Dave Snowden introduces the Cynefin framework, he makes it quite clear that this is not a categorization model, but a sense-making model. A categorization model, in his explanation, is model where the framework precedes the data. That means that the data can be filled in quickly into the existing model – with the risk to lose out on the subtleties. A sense-making model on the other hand is one where the data precede the framework. Here, “the pattern of the framework emerges from the data in a social process”, as Dave Snowden puts it.

But I think it is easiest if I let Dave Snowden introduce the framework himself. Have a look here at the YouTube movie.

For more information, there is also a Wikipedia page on the Cynefin Framework.