How to make sense in a complex environment

September 23, 2015 | Blog-Admin1 | Methods & Tools |


Rating: 4.6 out of 5

During a 4 days-training, Dave Snowden, the founder of Cognitive Edge, introduced his audience to the challenges, risks and opportunities of working in complex environments. With the Cynefin-framework he proposes a tool to get a better understanding of the working environment and the appropriate strategies in order to be effective. Collecting stories from all the involved stakeholders is in his view the only way for making sense.

By Charlotte Nager, SDC

Dave Snowden is an acknowledged, sometimes disputed, authority in regard to complexity. And it is fascinating listening to him and following his thoughts meandering through time, philosophy, computer sciences and human resources-management. The Cynefin-framework – forming the heart and the foundation of Snowden’s thinking – wants to support leaders in taking better decisions. It differentiates between obvious, complicated, complex and chaotic working environments and proposes specific approaches and strategies.  No domain is better than the other – important is that the appropriate strategies, approaches and tools are chosen.


Safe-fail experiments for innovation

Our working environments are more and more complex – continuously changing contexts with a high number of stakeholders.

In a dynamic unknown environment you have things that are not predictable and where failure is just not evitable. In such contexts we need early detection, fast recovery and speedy exploitation. Exploitation means that we can detect emergent patterns that form an opportunity for innovation.
Dave Snowden

Only with testing multiple parallel ideas in a safe-fail environment it is possible to find  starting points for innovation. If these experiments can turn into good or even best practices that can be scaled-up and used as standard procedure, depends on the environment. In complex environments scaling-up, or repeatability, is according to Snowden neither possible nor reasonable.

Human beings are not computers; there is not one answer to a problem that can be replicated.
Dave Snowden

For testing novel ideas a lean structure, iterative processes with feedback loops is necessary. This allows ideas that are not useful to fail fast and in a tolerable way. The emphasis is therefore not so much on ensuring success or avoiding failure.

People learn better from failures, as these are better remembered. But non-failure does not equal success.
Dave Snowden

Archetypal stories

But how to detect these opportunities for innovation and novel ideas? Here Dave Snowden is all anthropologist and turns to the stories of the stakeholders. Not only the official stakeholders, but in a very broad sense – beneficiaries of water systems, pupils, parents, politicians, people on the streets … He insists on stories that come from as many perspectives as possible, and that are not already biased by the content or type of questions asked. Open prompting questions, allowing a broad range of different stories, and the fact, that the storytellers are asked to interpret their stories themselves, ensures the directness of the stories, showing the deeply-rooted archetypes of the storytellers. And here Snowden sees the space where the safe-fail experiments can start.

With SenseMaker Dave Snowden offers a software solution for the collection, the clustering and the analysis of the collected stories.

Potential of SenseMaker in  Development Cooperation

Collecting stories can obviously be very useful for monitoring and evaluation. In a short video, Irena Gujit underlines also the usefulness of SenseMaker for understanding the context. By collecting stories even the local partner organisation and the partner ministry in Rwanda learned new things about the situation of Rwandan girls.

See also:

Even if it is not the the SenseMaker-software that is applied – it needs a minimum amount of stories of 200 and can go up until thousands – some basic insights struck me: to collect stories from a diversity of actors, to be open in collecting the stories and to leave the interpretation of the story to the storytellers themselves. And: Dave Snowden insists on learning from the stories, finding ways how to promote “good” stories, not trying to eliminate the “bad” stories.

Further materials and related stories


Comments to“How to make sense in a complex environment”

  1. Riff Fullan says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights on Cynefin and Sensemaker, Charlotte. I don’t have hands-on experience with Sensemaker, which is something I would love to check out. I get the feeling that it requires a significant up-front investment of time, and of course the engagement of someone who has experience using that methodology.

    I am totally convinced about the need to ensure multiple perspectives are included in development dialogues, decisions and activities. Even if one doesn’t use Sensemaker to do this, one advantage of collecting stories (or in Snowden’s case, micro-narratives) is that you can get a very rich picture of how someone perceives a given reality. In a project context, for example, it would be interesting to collect, share and discuss stories from different stakeholders (implementers, community members, funders, other partners) to help everyone gain a deeper understanding of others’ perspectives and experiences, and to use this mutual understanding as a basis for the co-creation of new solutions.

  2. Anne Bichsel says:

    Great Blog-post! Just about everything we do is in the complicated or complex domain (and increasingly even in the chaotic domain). Sense-maker is an interesting software whose application we should test in the COOFs. In combination with captured stories (as developed in the recently held storytelling workshop), such an approach could significantly enrich the Annual Reporting and PCM in general.

  3. Hi Charlotte,
    Clear piece if info on Cynefin; thanx.
    In my recollection Snowden insisted on addressing the fifth area: undecided, in the middle.
    For the story-story it is important contributers self-signify their contribution; a sot of animated questionnaire :-)
    Anyway, well put.
    All the best, Jaap

  4. Charlotte Nager says:

    Thank you a lot for your comments!
    I agree, that applying Sensemaker probably needs a lot of preparatory work and conceptual decision-taking beforehand. It would be great to try it out once … Even without Sensemaker the collection of micro-narratives from a diversity of stakeholders would be very interesting. The key is most probably the formulation of good trigger questions, that are still open enough to provoke unexpected answers.
    And, yes, the self-signification is crucial! Animated questionnaire sounds good. Currently the undecided area does not appear in Snowden’s graphic.
    Best, Charlotte


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