Blog for July 2022 Seminar: Sparks into Light. Complexity and the Development Sector

Our Seminar Speaker  was Emma Jones (BSc, MSc) who is a Senior Researcher and SenseMaker® practitioner at the Cynefin Company, and leads the Power, Discrimination and Conflict programme. Cynefin is an action, research and development hub which specialises in the application of anthrocomplexity using complexity oriented tools and applying them across research, government and organisations. They are helping people to do research differently.

Emma introduced us to the Cynefin framework which helps to unpick which system you are in, in order to act. Complex Adaptive Systems Theory posits three systems – order, chaos and complex adaptive. Each system requires different responses.

1) Ordered System – Clear Domain. Clear rules, stable agreed cause. If you do X you get Y.
Sense – categorise – respond. Fixed constraints. Best.

Ordered System – Complicated Domain. Cause and effect relationships
not self-evident. Could be a range of right answers. Sense – analyse – respond.
Expert consultation. Governing constraints. Good.

2) Chaotic System – Chaotic Domain. Relationships unclear, random,
Unco-ordinated. Act first! Act – sense – respond.
No effective constraint. Novel.

3) Complex Adaptive System – Complex Domain. Relationships deduced in retrospect. Lots of connections but all entangled. Probe – sense – respond.
Enabling constraints. Exaptive.

So, it was time to get ‘hands on’ as Emma showcased a live project that she is working on at the moment called ‘Love shouldn’t hurt’. This concerns domestic abuse. The questionnaire is carefully crafted and is aimed at getting individuals to share their stories. They start with a video which shows domestic abuse. Then they ask the individuals to tell their story. They employ ‘triads’ where the individual can precisely match their responses by moving and marking the place which reflects their experience. The interpreter / coder is ‘removed’ and the individual voice is heard.

Checking the responses shows that the main effect of coercive control is emotional / psychological rather than physical. It is long term and much more debilitating but it is not often represented in law, advocacy or charitable support. What was the hardest thing in their experience? Present threat – the need to escape? The experience of social isolation ? The need to reach out to other people? The prospect of reporting it to the Authorities? The answers will help researchers to work out how to offer appropriate support. Where are there struggles. Also, there is an attempt to see where the blame lies. Are respondents blaming the perpetrator ? Have the respondents experienced residual anger? Is there a mental health issue? Is there a lack of justice? Looking for a ‘lay of the landscape’ around these kind of issues.

Intervention design creation. How can events be improved? Do we need to have better people in the world? Do we need better laws to safeguard victim survivors? More inclusive understanding, bit more empathy? Better employment? Better housing? Do they need more resources? Better therapy?

What is the hardest part to rebuild? Mental health, self esteem, confidence? Rebuilding trust in social relationships? Have they lost their job, their house etc.? Are they struggling financially?

Reflecting then on the positive part of the experience.  In Emma’ s story was there Strength and bravery? Was there empathy and understanding? Was there learning and opportunity?

We can then look at (say) gaps in ‘lack of empathy’ and collerate it with the previous triads concerning ‘social isolation’, ‘victim blaming culture’ etc. – how does it look etc.

Looking at the mental health ramifications – anger and resentment,  depression, guilt and shame on the long term outcomes of coercive behaviour. Residual effects.

Looking at justice – is it revenge, reconciliation or deterrence?
This frames whether people are in the past, present or the future.

Do people stay in bad relationships or will they not? This could be a bit of a negotiation between partners concerned.

So, now they do data analytics and look for patterns. Distribution patterns occur. This is the strength of SenseMaker®.  The benefits come through from a contextual richness of stories and the persuasive nature of these stories. Weak ‘signals’ are treated respectfully, smaller clusters of activity are evaluated properly – not thrown in the bin.

Meet people where they are at and see local solutions to local problems.

Emma works with UNDP collecting stories from migrants from Ukraine. There is an underground team in Moldova. Ripple effect of this migration. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – gender inequality among pastors. Hubilo too.
UN Foundation – how plantation workers are able to access sexual health and reproductive health information in East Africa.

Emma finished her presentation and we then had a Q & A session.

  • Is there a Cynefin ‘dummies book’? Well, there is a Cynefin Lego Game at and a book entitled ‘Weaving SenseMaker® into the fabric of our world’ published by Cognitive Edge / The Cynefin Co.
  • ‘You need to re-gear your brain to understand Cynefin’ was a view expressed by a few participants.
  • It is a way of looking at problems akin to TRIZ. Refer to the blog for the Netikx Seminar held on 5th October 2020. TRIZ is a ‘theory of inventive problem solving’.
  • It is a good idea to give the individual time to reflect on his / her experience.
  • Emma asked us ‘where does complexity come up in your life’? – what part of your life have you treated as ordered but are in fact complex. Let us get into those discussions.
  • What does ‘exactive’ mean ? Where something is re-purposed from one end to another end in Complex Adaptive Systems.
  • Probe = prompting questions to get to the narrative. Sense = Sensing through Signifiers and Real Time Feedback. Respond = Initiatives, interventions and ideas and the patterns that come from background iterations.
  • ‘Safe to fail experiments’ can be a probe and you get to see if it works and if you can see it work you can steer away from the complex to the complicated state.
  • There is a big difference between ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’.
  • According to Donald A. Norman in his book ‘Living with Complexity’, The MIT Press, 2016, he defines complexity as something where you can understand the underlying theories and principles behind the thing in question. ‘Complicated’ is something where you cannot work out those underlying theories and principles. One participant instanced Share Point as a ‘complicated’ system and visitor search engines as ‘complex’ systems.
  • People think that they want ‘simple’ but they like ‘complexity’.
  • So, ‘complex’ / ‘complicated’ is a useful distinction.
  • VUCA acronym. Is the complex in the Cynefin system the same? Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. No, it is not the same.
  • How did you devise the ‘triads’? How did you devise the questions? Literature searches and we have a facilitation design workshop. We do pilot testing.
  • Emma was asked about her work and she told us that she had a lot ‘to juggle’. Lately, Cynefin had been working around the Astra Zeneca vaccine ‘stuff’. Also, counter-terrorism and with IKEA. It was very wide ranging.
  • Analytics can be frustrating. Senior leaders sometimes do not want to hear about them. People’s stories are honest. It can be difficult to get senior people to have the curiosity to see things differently.
  • A participant said that it can be difficult to get people to share their stories and to be confident and forthcoming.
  • Emma talked about the importance of visual clues when talking to / interviewing people. It was necessary to ‘play around’ with the narrative structure in order to elicit full responses on issues.

The session ended. It was a very informative and enjoyable seminar.

RR 14/08/2022