Dave Snowden and Mike Jackson

I saw the excellent Dave Snowden speaking at the Annual Mike Jackson lecture at Hull University yesterday evening.

[Post Note: The recording now available here.]

[Post Note: This post is the start of a conversation in that continues here and again here, in 2024]

Excellent in every way – Dave’s presentation and his conversation with Mike. All, that is, except for the absence of audience questions and discussion which meant I came away frustrated with my ‘bated list of questions and observations 🙂


Firstly I have too many notes to write them all up here. Suffice to say – as I already did above – both the talk and the conversation were excellent and packed with content across many practical and theoretical levels. Whatever language we’re using about Complexity, Cybernetics and/or Systems Thinking, Dave is already famous in this space for his consulting advice provided through the vehicle of his “Cynefin” Sensemaking framework.

Dave’s style is very in-the-moment, talking freely from his immense experience, with presentation material hand-drawn in real-time and very few pre-prepared slides and graphics. Free and therefore also very dense, with aside references that might have been tough for an audience to pick-up without pre-existing familiarity with Dave and Cynefin. For those with existing familiarity, we were treated to an update to the latest incarnation of the Cynefin framework (more on which later, below) and updated versions of the anecdotal narratives and metaphors Dave uses to illustrate the range of contexts that drive our choices of approach.

So, to some specific observations and questions:

    • Doubting Science?
    • The “Superconducting” Phase?
    • Constructor Theory & Counterfactuals?
    • Distributions and Fat-Tails?
    • The “Estuary” Metaphor?

Doubting “Science”?

The deepest topic first. Many practitioners and academics have taken systems thinking down to the most fundamental areas of physics and up into cognitive science. Dave is not alone in promoting latest thinking on these topics into systems practice and Mike is not alone in doubting the idea that such science can really be applied to the psychological context of human and social, organisational and political activities. Certainly doubting that law-like science can be applied any more than metaphorically.

Indeed even now, I find myself using “scientism” to critique those that overstretch scientific objectivity into humanity. But in fact my earliest encounter with Dave at the 2003 European Knowledge Management Conference was his quoting:

“Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go.”

by Robert M Pirsig
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

So, we’ve all been there. The distinction to be made is between the traditional orthodoxy of objective science and more enlightened “relational” views (of systems thinking).

Question: In terms of 21st Century Cognitive Science understanding of individual and collective psychology and the application of systems thinking, what do Dave and Mike make of the work of Iain McGilchrist, Mark Solms, Karl Friston and Chris Fields (ie Markov Blankets / Free Energy / Active Inference / Brain Architecture and more)?

The “Superconducting” Phase?

The Cynefin Framework is essentially categorising different human organisational situations, where different contexts imply different methodologies and strategies for managing and improving them. In it’s simplest form there are three categories or phases of evolving activity – Ordered, Complex and Chaotic, where Ordered lies on a scale from Simple to Complicated. Complex is the main focus of systems thinking and Chaotic is a different “attractor-driven” beast entirely. The function being not so much pigeon-holing and definitive aims within each as it is the speed and direction of vectors of moving within and between these categories. Think phase changes – and specific heats and triple-points.

There is some debate over 3, 4, 5 or more such phases and Dave suggested a “Superconducting” phase – and a physically-metaphorical “Plasma” phase. In fact even the 3 basic phases can map metaphorically to Solid, Liquid and Gas – though metaphors can only take us so far.

Question: does Dave see “superconducting” as associated with the “virality” of a memetic view of communication of ideas and decisions?

(Digression / Aside – for the fluid cases, there is a lot of interest in Navier-Stokes and compressible flow analogies at all scales of the physical world.)

Constructor Theory & Counterfactuals?

Fascinating to hear that Dave / Cynefin has taken on board David Deutsch on “Constructor Theory” and, by implication in the conversation, Chiara Marletto on “Counterfactuals”. [Aside – methinks IAI’s “How the Light Gets In” festivals are a common link between us all.] An interesting extension to the Dave / Mike dialogue on the applicability of science to humanity. Gives us a different view of science as “laws” that can somehow be imposed on humans. Instead of laws, we have a framework of counterfactuals (possibilities and impossibilities) that far from restricting human freedoms, enables our creativity and ingenuity. Hence the engineering metaphor “constructor”. A scientific update on the old adage “Freedom runs on rails”?

Question: Has Dave seen any real organisation case-studies that have appreciated and explicitly taken up Constructor Theory? (Or is it really just a refinement to methodology thinking with the Cynefin framework?)

Distributions & Fat-Tails

There is a tendency – naturally in all of us – to analyse options and predictions in terms of statistical probability distributions, and test significance of what to care about and what to ignore implicitly in terms of 3 or 5-Sigma (or equivalent) limits of normal Gaussian distributions. Dave showed how superimposing Pareto and Power Law distributions exposed “Fat-Tails” that could be dangerously overlooked or misunderstood with normal tests of significance.

Question: Does Dave see Nassim Taleb’s “Black Swan” work on “Fooled by Randomness” as valuable in this area?

The “Estuary” Metaphor?

Dave used an Estuary metaphor as an example of the 4D range of situations that might affect choices to act within in it. Rising and falling tidal flows, different ground conditions, different possibilities of access. Different types of project or operation might require quite different methods and organisation of resources, depending on scoping in time and location, within essentially the same context. Obviously very topical for our Humberside audience and for me too in a Teesside redevelopment context 🙂

Question: Is there anywhere use of this metaphor is documented, beyond Dave’s very brief mention of it on the night?

[Post Note: Dave subsequently did an interview with “Red Team” elaborating his Estuarine Mapping metaphor, incorporating the creative constraints ideas of constructor-theory and counter-factuals, above, about identifying the right course, not achieving specific end goals.
Slide deck here: CynefinEstuarineMapping.

ALSO July 2023 – Dave is compiling an up to date Key Materials page as a blog post.

ALSO March 2024 – In preparation for the 2024 Mike Jackson lecture, prompted by the pingback from Dave’s own blog below, I pulled this collection  – The Holistic Mob – of later Dave Snowden links and words together.]


PS – An image of me alongside the Blue Plaque to Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski, an original hero of mine who taught at Hull Uni and lived just round the corner for a while.

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