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  • Writer's pictureTatiana Vekovishcheva

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

Updated: Apr 30, 2022

Produced by Tatiana Vekovishcheva

On Wednesday, April 20, 2022, a group of systems change practitioners gathered for the fifth peer learning session of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program to discuss their reflections on the work and teachings of Dave Snowden.

Participants’ reflections were recorded and processed according to the Collective Narrative Methodology to create a balanced summary of key ideas that showed up in group discussions using participants' own words and giving every participant an opportunity to ensure that their ideas are included.

Here is the recording of the group call with Dave Snowden based on this collective narrative:


In our conversations we praised Dave for being such a great guy, very straightforward, so we think we might get some very straightforward, honest answers from him on the hottest topics, agendas, and debates.

How to deal with emotions and overcome individual and collective biases in applying Cynefin?

As we talked about Cynefin, it was important for us to understand how to apply it in practice and one of the questions that we wanted to ask Dave was about how he applies it in his day-to-day life. In our discussions of the personal application of Cynefin, some of us were particularly curious about how we can correctly apply the model when it is hard to know all the different dimensions of life events that come with different emotional weights. As our emotions can change depending on what we are talking about, how can we address that when applying the model?

Moving beyond the level of an individual, how do we perceive things when what is at stake is something bigger than us? For example, some of us wondered how we could find a solution for humanity by dismantling Capitalism. How do we keep this in the model? How do we see this in a way that is workable? What some of us saw in such situations was specific patterns based on biases that people and communities have. This leads to specific trends that are operating at a very large scale. So some of us wanted to know how we can start making people see that there are these biases and how to change them and break these patterns.

How to work with groups on culture and change in an ethical way?

At the same time, those of us who watched the recording of Dave’s previous TLST session argued that, according to Dave, it is unethical to try to “make people” change their mindset or even talk about culture in organizations. Some of us were confused and wondered whether the idea of not telling people how they should be necessarily means that we cannot talk about culture in our organization. One suggestion was that there might be some confusion between prescriptive demands versus rules and values that the community agreed upon. Maybe the problem is that it is very easy to confuse the two?

Talking specifically about the Cynefin, some of us were curious about how to use it with groups to relax, to release the entrained thinking, and to recognize the complex and chaotic domains so that they could work in them. In this context, someone brought up the analogy of chrysalis: how a caterpillar dissolves in the chrysalis to release, to surrender the current ways so that it could grow into a butterfly.

How can Cynefin help us deal with the climate crisis and the dysfunctionality of so many of our social systems?

Talking about climate change and pollution, we wondered how Dave's theory can help us break through the current paralysis in climate issues. This question is based on the argument that after decades of talking about climate, we have not actually done anything real to mitigate what is basically a climate collapse. How can we survive in a world like that and will Dave's theory help us in any way to really use these last few years that we have, this window of opportunity, to actually do something about our collective future? If yes, then what is that going to look like?

In some of our discussions, the consensus was that our overarching systems no longer work: our capitalist world, financial systems, justice systems, even our food systems—so many things and none of them really work. How can we move forward from here? It seems so overwhelming and maybe such a massive problem is just too much for each of us as an individual to even hold given that we have almost nothing to stand on because all our overarching systems are no longer working. How do we move forward in this situation so that we could actually know that we are making a positive impact as opposed to making things worse?

How we can break the pattern of following strong leaders in times of crisis and instead embrace new values that are more humane and kind?

Discussing ethics, we talked about the unethical communications that happened around the war in Ukraine and all the surrounding events, dreadful and cruel. In this context, we explored our mental models, how we perform as human beings in terms of changing sides, choosing sides, trying to find a sense of community, a sense of belonging to a social group with particular values.

One of our conversations about Cynefin touched on the topic of values and the great complexity of how they correspond to each other, how they form and evolve over time, as well as what kind of leaders we choose to lead us into our future. As we talked about values that we associate ourselves with, some of us argued that throughout history, sometimes when people are in a crisis—psychological, financial, values crisis, etc.—there is a strong leader that leads by saying something very simple like “I know how to get better, follow me! Everything is going to be alright, this is what we should value now.”

So we talked about the definition of strength, leader, and leadership in such situations, about how we move through history with these definitions of conquering power and managing to maintain it, and how we ended up right now and right here. Comparing how things are going in Russia to how they are going in Europe, some of us were certain that more humane and kind values that include gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, addressing major financial inequalities, etc. helped evolve communities and societies to make them more peaceful and nourishing for their members.

So how do we come out of this pattern of following a strong leader with old values and are we capable of creating a new, better system that is more just and fair? How can we break the cycle so that we do not just end up in another round of it? Is the exit from the chaotic domain associated with dictatorial solutions or could there be other methods? And could one be trained to deal specifically with this type of situation in social contexts? What would be a specific skill set especially for this domain? What is Dave’s experience with that?

What can we do to avoid common mistakes in understanding Cynefin domains?

Some of us also noticed a potential misunderstanding of what chaos means. We had two different views in our group: one is that war and violence are chaos, and whenever we see big changes in the status quo such as what is currently happening with the war in Ukraine, we see some chaos. Another view is that chaos is when we have a situation where the cause and effect relationships are completely unknown and we cannot tell the consequences of any action, whereas in a war there are very simple cause and effect relationships and reactions, so it is not a chaotic situation. So we would appreciate it if Dave could clarify this for us.

We also talked about chaos versus disorder in Cynefin. One concern was that when we are silenced and do not raise our voices to call things out, do not make it visible when something is wrong, we are creating some sort of silence or void. Does this situation when we are losing our structural bonds fit into chaos or disorder in the Cynefin system?

Some of us shared an opinion that simple, complex, complicated, and chaotic domains are all potentially applicable perspectives when we are faced with a certain situation and wondered how we could hold them all and be able to discern as opposed to thinking that we are in one or the other. So how can we support people to be able to hold all perspectives, not just one or two?

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