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  • Writer's pictureTatiana Vekovishcheva

Group Reflections on the Work and Teachings of Dave Snowden: a Collective Narrative

Produced by Tatiana Vekovishcheva

On Wednesday, June 16, 2021 a group of participants from Brazil, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Kenya, Sweden, and the United States gathered for the tenth virtual peer learning session of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program to discuss their reflections on the work and teachings of Dave Snowden.


Dave applies natural sciences to social systems through the development of a range of methods and the SenseMaker® software suite. He is particularly known in the social change community for the Cynefin Framework that has been widely used in systems transformation work.


Dave was among 11 guest teachers confirmed based on the preferences and financial contributions of 40 registered participants of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program. Participants had one week to study Dave's materials on their own before gathering for a peer learning session. The peer learning session provided an opportunity to share individual reflections, identify emerging patterns, and craft a collective message to Dave to help him prepare for a live session with the group. The recording of the live session based on this narrative will be published soon. Participants’ reflections were recorded and used to produce a collective narrative according to the Collective Narrative Methodology. Christiana Gardikioti, Drew Hornbein, Flora Moon, Johan L Botha, Joshua Baker, Julius Khamati Kuya, Ken Homer, Kennan Salinero, Maria Talero, Michel Sillion, Naveen Vasudevan, Rafael Calcada, Ray Guyot, Robert Lindstrom, Tarek Soliman, Tatiana Vekovishcheva, and Zen Benefiel participated in the session and contributed to this narrative.


Something that really resonated with many of us and created a ‘we space’ was a sense of gratitude for the very comprehensive and robust system that has been evolving over a long time. There was a lot of excitement for some of us in the discovery of the Cynefin Framework and for others in the opportunity to speak about how deep the framework really is. In our conversations, it was called a ‘framework’—which explores a way of looking at the world—or ‘topology’—which, in a way, includes many ways of looking at the world—and there absolutely was an appreciation of how powerful this framework or topology is.

Using Enabling Constraints to Address Opportunities Created by COVID-19

We discussed how COVID-19 changed the predisposition for change for people and communities and how even people who did not have that predisposition before have it now. This led to the conversation on how the unfortunate event of COVID-19 is somehow a potential window of opportunity and how we can use that.

It seems that one of the ways the pandemic has been generative is in bringing wider awareness of complexity, perhaps deepening, at least for some people, a collective sense of urgency about the need to work skillfully with complex systems and wicked problems. Some of us brought up the degeneration of the 'science communication environment' as one area of urgency, as evidenced by the increasingly global challenge of political polarization around science (anti-vaxxers, mask resisters, climate denial).

We also touched upon the concept of constraints and specifically enabling constraints. How do we learn more? What might be some enabling constraints or Safe to Fail experiments that could be generative in this context? How do we work better with them? How do we establish constraints and work with them as a framework?

Exploring Trust, Fun, and Play in the Context of the Cynefin Framework

We also talked about trust, what it is and where it comes from. There was a comment about how important trust is, because if we do not have it, we cannot make a system function, the system would not function without it. But what is trust? Is it a thing? Is it something that we can store like water or is it an emergent quality that is always dynamically changing? How does trust-building fit into the framework? Can we use Cynefin to create or store trust? Are there any processes or practices around that?

One of the big topics that we touched upon was fun, play, and joy as a tangent in this work that some of us really appreciate and would like to see more of. We talked about play and joy as a sensemaking practice and how often sensemaking is thought of as a more intellectual process. How do we make it intriguing and interesting? Some of us would like to see sensemaking to be more playful and joyful and wonder how these things can potentially be sensemaking itself. How do we incorporate fun in this work?

Developing Individual Capacity

How does Cognitive Edge help us develop the intellectual skills, the intellectual capacity to recognize the patterns so that we could understand the domain that we are in without further conflict or fragmentation? How can we do it so that there is a mutual recognition of the situation that we find ourselves in and a sense of coherence that comes from that? How do we develop ways of seeing that the framework is technically trying to shape so that we could see through the same lens?

For some of us who are very familiar with Dave’s work, it was barely surprising to hear terms ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ being confused so many times in our conversations today. Does Dave experience this often? How can this be addressed? Would Dave suggest that everyone needs to go through a training before using the framework, should we develop our understanding through more conversations with experienced practitioners, or is it just about paying more attention to what Dave says and becoming more aware of our own biases, triggers, and automattic interpretations?

Working with Difficult Groups

When Dave is working with the Cynefin Framework with a group, does he teach it or does he use it without explaining it to the group for his own interventions? How does he do that? When he has a group that is reducing the complexity of the problem to the simple domain (for example, to money), how does he work with that? When people are not eager to engage in a conversation, when they just want to sit and yell at each other and are not very good at discussing, is there a way to bring the Cynefin Framework to facilitate that discussion and engage such a group that includes people who can be really difficult? What is the key element, if any, that could make it successful?

We talked about the liminal space as a concept that shows up in Dave's work, and we would love to learn more about that and how to work with that. Specifically, what to do in the situations when the liminal space is painful for groups and how we stay longer in it. The longer we stay in it, the more opportunities we see, but what to do when it is painful, how do you stay in this space?

Recognizing the Limitations of Any One Topology

Some of us wonder how Dave's model or topology is tied into the ‘VUCA world’ and the ‘hierarchical complexity’ and what the interactions with other models and topologies are, if any? There are processes for choosing tools, for decision-making, for adaptation, so is there another way to look at the world versus what seems to be that it is for those who adapt best? If it is a particular topology around adaptation, is that leaving something out?

While some of us felt like Dave’s model brings up basically everything about systems because “it's all in there”, others argued that if it is a topology for picking tools or processes, there is a danger of getting the wrong pick and therefore bad results. We discussed the idea that all topologies are present in any situation and so the divisiveness of having to pick one of them might be a weakness. In this context, some of us suggested that while Dave's smart, funny style is very attractive and keeps one's interest and attention for his many talks online, his narratives also have the tendency to dismiss other approaches and others' ideas, so there is the question of whether there are ideas or voices that are lost because of this, if there is a cost to that ‘intellectual arrogance’? Has Dave ever noticed a cost to 'potential' because of that?

Making the Topology More Accessible for Individuals

Some questions that we discussed were about individual versus community and how the two are kind of lumped together which seems to create some barriers to utilizing this particular topology. To some of us the frame seems to be looking at systems that are predisposed to change from Dave’s own history, a history of being a consultant who comes and uses the topology which leads to the question of what is there for the individual to do. How can this process be synthesized so that it is available on a daily basis for individuals? Can it be done? What is the design element around that, or what are the thoughts that Dave has around that?

It seems like a lot of expertise is needed to understand the model and that expertise is itself in the complicated domain which creates a sense of something that needs to be defended. One word that was mentioned is 'elite' and some of us wonder whether there is a more inclusive way of bringing people together to see these things, making sure that the sensemaking framework is actually making it easier to understand and not giving us a very complicated way to understand things.

Keying off the idea that we understand the system when we understand its joints, some of us reflected on Dave’s work as being about understanding complex systems with a lot of joints, with a lot of interconnections, with a lot of relationships and not just looking at systems from the organic point of view that we use to look at a bodily system. When that system gets really complex and when there are so many joints and so many things to look at, might we also not have a sense-making system that gets too complex to understand or gets too hard to learn? So we talked a bit about the idea that we need ways to do the work that the model wants us to accomplish but we need to make it simple enough that people do not have to become a subject matter expert in it or to be trained in it.

Dealing with the Other Side of Accessibility

The other side of that is that there is a cost to accessibility and if it is shifting to a higher level of abstraction, how do we do that? How would we put our hands around that? What would we do even if we are working within a system? How do we get in if it is hiring a consultancy to come in and utilize the topology versus us wishing to utilize it ourselves? Is it designed for that or does it have an historical context that creates a struggle around that?’

So while some of us suggested that one does not have to be classically trained and become a ballet dancer in order to just dance at the club, we also looked at short definitions of complexity such as “any system with 3+ interdependent feedback loops is complex” and some of us argued that such definitions often create more confusion and incorrect assessments than definitions that invite deep reflection and learning to be understood.

Ensuring Cultural Adaptability

As we experienced it today, there are people with various degrees of understanding and we could often feel the tension or almost that disassociation when some people clearly do not see it in the same way. How much of a dialogical space is there to create a shared understanding versus using a top down way of seeing when people need to understand this particular framework?

We also talked about the cultural applicability in different cultural settings. When working with diverse groups of people, the cultural influence—the ways of seeing or intellectual pattern recognition—is maybe going to play a role. How inclusive can we make it? What barriers is this type of framework creating? Another observation is that rewilding is a new favorite term so some of us wonder if it can be seen as the same as decolonization and what is emerging in that area.

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