Sparks into Light: Complexity and the Development Sector

A NetIKX seminar, 28 July 2022

At our July 2022 NetIKX seminar, we welcomed Emma Jones of The Cynefin Company to discuss her work on the Power, Discrimination and Conflict research programme. Emma has an academic background in psychology and cognitive neuroscience, but ‘drifted serendipitously’, as she put it, into the field of complexity. In 2016, she met Dave Snowden and her involvement with The Cynefin Company (formerly Cognitive Edge) began. She now works for the company as a senior researcher and consultant.

Complexity and CynefinⓇ

Opening with a brief introduction to the CynefinⓇ Framework, Emma explained what complexity means in her work. CynefinⓇ is a Welsh word meaning ‘a place of your multiple belongings’ and was created to help leaders understand their challenges and make decisions in context. 

‘Cynefin® is a framework for understanding what kind of problem space you are in to guide decisions-making and action’ – Dave Snowden et al, Cynefin® – Weaving Sense-Making into the Fabric of Our World

The Cynefin® framework is based on complex adaptive systems theory, which suggests there are three systems at play in the world we live in: an ordered system, a chaotic system and a complex adaptive system. Cynefin® is a tool to understand which system you are in so that you can apply the best methods and tools to take action.

In this framework, the ordered system is split up into two domains: the ‘clear’ domain and the ‘complicated’ domain; the chaotic system is represented by the ‘chaotic’ domain, and the complex adaptive system by the ‘complex’ domain. Additionally, there’s a fifth domain, variously called the ‘aporetic’ or ‘confused’ domain, which is the state of being unsure of which domain you are actually in!

Sensemaking in a divided world: SenseMakerⓇ in action

An essential component of CynefinⓇ is the concept of sensemaking – how we can make sense of data within a qualitative framework. SenseMakerⓇ is an online crowdsourcing research tool which combines data capture with a narrative approach, in order to ensure epistemic justice (‘fairness of knowing’) and give marginalised groups a voice. This approach helps to mitigate the tendency, often seen in the development sector, for researchers to impose their own biases and cultural assumptions on the people they are working with. 

Through examples from the ‘Love Shouldn’t Hurt’ project on experiences of domestic violence, Emma showed how indirect, emotionally neutral questions can be used to prompt participants to share their experiences and stories on their own terms. The responses are then used to understand the struggles of survivors of domestic violence and find the best ways to help them. 

It’s complicated – or is it complex? 

Emma’s presentation was followed by a group discussion, in which we were invited to consider what complexity means to us and where it crops up in our work and everyday lives. What parts of our lives have we treated as ordered when they are actually complex?

In everyday discourse, we often use the terms ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ interchangeably, but the CynefinⓇ framework reminds us of the distinction between them. We discussed examples from our own work practices of tasks which we would class as ‘complicated’ (some common proprietary software systems were mentioned!) and those which we considered ‘complex’. 

Although ‘order’ can appear to be a good thing, we don’t always like things to be too ordered: nobody wants to read a novel where you already know who the murderer is, for example. We appreciate complexity in many areas of life. Similarly, we don’t always want to have ‘complicated’ relationships with others, but ‘complex’ relationships can be deep and rewarding.

Making sense of complexity: taking things further

Although time constraints meant we were only able to cover the basics of the CynefinⓇ framework and SenseMakerⓇ, we all learned a lot and gained an insight into how we can understand and manage complexity in our own lives.

For those wishing to explore the framework further, there’s a useful explanatory introduction and video here. Alternatively, if you prefer the hands-on approach, you can explore the Cynefin® Lego Game. If you’re interested in learning more about SenseMakerⓇ, the Cynefin Company website has a number of use cases. Many thanks to Emma for a fascinating and thought-provoking seminar!

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