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Science is in the complexity business: what does that mean for your organizational governance?

Applying the Cynefin Framework to your governance.

Published onMay 16, 2022
Science is in the complexity business: what does that mean for your organizational governance?

The Cynefin Framework in 2014 By Snowden — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

“The framework sorts the issues facing leaders into five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect. Four of these — simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic — require leaders to diagnose situations and to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth — disorder — applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant” (Snowden and Boone, 2007).

Knowing and Infinite Play in Science and the Academy

“In science if you know what you are doing you should not be doing it.
In engineering if you do not know what you are doing you should not be doing it” (Hamming, 1997).

This is a clever way of noting that science faces unknowns (known and unknown unknowns). Once something becomes known (observed, explained, and verified) scientists move on to the next unknown. The question for science is: If you can’t know what you’re doing, how do you do anything at all? What do you do today, or next? And here, the Cynefin Framework offers explicit advice. To start off, you are not alone. Complex, emergent systems—societies and markets, biospheres and quantum effects, global climate and viral pandemics, etc.—challenge not only scientists, but also governments and corporations, and human society as a community and a species. These systems, silent and recalcitrant, offer mainly wicked problems to solve, which helps keep scientists employed and busy.

Science in a complex domain

Not “knowing what you are doing” means the scientist plays with unknowns inside a zone of uncertainty and doubt, of ambiguity, of non-linearity, and outside of direct causation. What is the zone? Where do you find it? How can you manage scientific work inside this zone? What happens when you leave it? What kinds of “knowing” are only available in this zone?

The concept of “knowing” as a part of business knowledge management was picked up by David Snowden and others (Kurtz and Snowden, 2003), who mapped the different contexts of knowing and “sense-making” into what they called the Cynefin Framework (, Retrieved May 20, 2019). This framework is largely about identifying types of knowing — and ways of deciding — in corporations. The framework outlines a corrective mindset to prior knowledge management systems that described only tacit and discursive knowledge objects (Wenger et al, 2002). When your management and governance extends only to knowledge objects—reports, white papers, articles, monographs—it misses the primary creative intellectual work held in the minds of individuals and shared through their conversations.

The Cynefin Framework describes multiple domains of knowing; the core qualities of knowing are different in each of these. This means that these core qualities require different support methods. This essay will explore these methods, and how they fit together in a science organization. Let’s start with the “Complex Domain.”

Inside the “Complex Domain” of doing science, knowing is an activity, an action, not a commodity, not a thing to be catalogued. In this domain, knowing is shared through conversations and discussions by teams and groups. Knowing is why a scientist might learn more in a 10 minute conversation than she can from a thousand-page book. Here, knowing happens when scientists do infinite play with one another and with nature (see: The Infinite Play of Science; Retrieved January 22, 2022).

Infinite play is how scientists tackle the wicked problems of today’s grand science challenges, which require exploring emergent complex systems. Curiously, while today’s universities have imported neo-liberal logics of scarcity and the monetizeable metrics of business management, business management experts are telling major corporations they need to foster infinite play, on the model of how basic science is—or at least should be—done. Infinite play requires a corresponding mindset, which can either be empowered or disabled by the organizational culture.

Infinite play means you cannot navigate, make sense of, or try to describe a complex system—such as a natural ecology or a global marketplace—the way you would, say, the driving rules in a town, or even the strategies for playing a sport. Infinite play means that the complicated solutions to highly technical or highly skilled endeavors are always competing, open-ended “good practices,” and are liable to further innovation and disruption.

“As we discover, unknown unknowns become known unknowns (we become aware of new things we didn’t even know we were unaware about before) faster than known unknowns become known. So this process doesn’t even converge towards knowledge with a capital “K”. The ten thousand things simply become the ten trillion things” (Daniel Schmachtenberger 2021: “The dance of the Tao and the ten thousand things <>; Retrieved April 15, 2021).

Cynefin for the Academy

For now, the main take-aways from using the Cynefin Framework for the academy are the following:

First: the framework shows administrators and funders the intrinsic merit of infinite science play. It maps out the landscape, the terrain where science finds its true value and purpose. Applying this framework (or similar systems theory) is central to building academy governance to support infinite science play, and to guard against invasive finite games that can disrupt this.

Second: the framework helps to explain the difference between doing science, and talking/writing about science. Doing science is infinite play in direct contact with complex emergent systems in the Complex Domain. Here, conversation and narrative —serendipity and stories—are essential activities. Here is where, as Louis Pasteur noted, luck favors the prepared mind.

Talking/writing about science to other scientists transliterates narratives into research outcomes: datasets, methodologies, journal articles, etc., inside the Complicated Domain. These explanations maintain the provisional qualities of their results: they include descriptions of error and doubt, of incompleteness and the need for more work.

Talking/writing about science to non-scientists translates the internal shared narratives into explanations, which can only capture a fraction of the original object of study’s complexity. The best science writing for non-scientists attempts to recapture the stories of discovery and the conversations that sparked this. However, mostly, this genre fails to convey the complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainly of the actual science. It’s really not easy at all to do, and most outlets for this writing are much happier with “explanations”.

Third: the Cynefin Framework is a map for organizational cultures and governance in the academy. These need to support the necessary mindset to work within complex, complicated, simple, and chaotic arenas. Below, we will explore these.

The domains of decision-making for open-science organizations. Which domains do your organization currently use to make its decisions?

Your university needs festival spaces/events to succeed

The Handbook proposes a version of the Cynefin Framework that uses three modal types of cultural activity to represent three of the framework’s logics (complex, complicated, simple).

These modes are: festival, game, and pageant. The terms are, of course, analogues for the types of activities included in each sector. You can learn their lessons and use other words that suit your needs.

You will need to ask this question a lot: upon which logic is best for the decision at hand? Which logic offers optimal sense-making? Starting with the wrong logic will lead to bad, sometimes very bad, decisions. A lot of toxic culture in the academy is based on decisions arrived at in the wrong domain. For example, most of the metrics used for professional advancement in universities quantify activities in games and pageants, and fail to capture activities where science actually happens: the festival spaces of research activities where unknown unknowns are sought and captured. All the best learning moments in the classroom are mini-festival events. The more festival spaces a university can foster, the closer it comes to finding its actual potential as a place of learning and knowing.

Complex, Complicated, Simple: Festival, Game, Pageant

For academy organizations, the three types of knowing—these three fundamentally different mindsets—should be matched to the type of complexity integral to the domain of problem being managed. Knowing the problem space is the first step. The problem spaces of science include highly complex, self-organizing, and emergent systems: the universe, the natural world, biological organisms, the mind, and human consciousness (to name a few). For this reason, a festival mindset is required to do science. Let’s explore this reasoning.

Three domains for science and its governance

A) Festivals signify an emergent organization’s response to complexity.

Applying a Festival Logic to your organization

Complex problems require a requisite variety—and complexity—of knowledge to solve (See: Ashby’s Law). The organizations that assemble this variety of knowledge need to be what Joi Ito and Jeff Howe (2016) of the MIT Media Lab called “emergent” organizations. How can you improve your organization’s ability to embrace emergence?

Science has long been “emergent,” as it works at the slippery boundary between knowledge and ignorance. There are whole books that talk about scientific serendipity. What’s more emergent than serendipity? And how do you lead an organization that is looking to sustain serendipity? The role of creativity and innovation in science needs to be further explored and understood.

One of the main advantages of an emergent organization is its ability to take more risk, and to benefit from risk, to surf the edges of the possible, and to fail and recover rapidly.

Emergent organizations are learning organizations. They present a lot of problems for their leaders. The tendency is to fall back into command and control, to build that five year plan and stick to it. The best leaders build the organization that expresses the desires and enables the potentials of its members/employees/volunteers. Leaders do not draw the map… they distribute the compasses and build the orienteering course to get their teams up to speed.

Let’s start with the festival

Build a festival space inside your organization

Festivals come in lots of forms and levels of risk. Some events we call “festivals” are just public parades with bands in uniforms, while others are death-defying sprints ahead of racing bulls, or naked throngs carrying fiery torches. The latter types are more “festive” in their emotional releases and opportunities for expression. These are available to watch and join in many parts of the planet, but rare in the US.

The logic of the festival is to encourage risky behavior, but to do so in an envelope of safety, a zone of trust. The purpose of a safe boundary is to enable risky behavior within. Inside that boundary, everything can happen in the open because, while everyone is looking… nobody is watching. The logic of the festival is to create an open space where everything is visible, but nobody takes notes. What is public can also be private, even intimate. Vulnerability is on display. And open, shared vulnerability is where trust is born. What does this have to do with open science?

“I have defined psychological safety as the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. The concept refers to the experience of feeling able to speak up with relevant ideas, questions, or concerns. Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able–even obligated–to be candid” (Edmonson 2019).

In Whiplash, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe note the following: “Organizations that allow their employees to pursue risk also encourage greater creativity.” This is essentially where the emergent organization becomes a launching pad for new science. Simon Sinek (2014; < > Accessed April 16, 2019) says that a successful leadership creates a safety boundary around the entire organization (no hierarchy allowed internally for safety) in order to promote the full expression of each member/employee as a complete individual person. The leader’s job then is to help set the stage for risky behavior in two ways, first by also participating, and second, by rewarding this behavior when it happens.

The organization builds a safe zone around this activity, freeing up the player to explore to the limits of her passion. There is danger here. Risk and rewards. This is where science discovery happens. This is the ground of infinite play. Teams of scientists enter into this emergent arena and pull new insights from their work here. Once the festival starts, anything can happen, and often does. Festival play is a high trust event. This is where learning is shared, and where science conversations happen. The residue of this play is an increase in interpersonal trust across the community. The more time scientists can spend here, the faster science learns.

Festivals embrace complexity: rather like the natural world, they are dangerous, open-ended, with unknowable bits and spaces of intense sharing and learning. You enter and leave as a different person. The best conversations in your life belong here too, as does poetry and great fiction. Myths of the hero’s quest would belong here, except that festivals are radically inclusive: everyone in the space is a hero.

Actual physical combat is said to be like this, and so too, those moments of introspection where creativity is quickened. All flow states live here: the moments where challenge matches competence and the present becomes complete. Here lies infinite science play, and those conversations where knowing blossoms.

Knowledge forms that best capture this complexity:

shared improvisation and design patterns;

embodied knowing;

trustful conversations among colleagues;

probes into complex systems;

flow-induced learning.

Moments inside authentic celebrations, some as quick as a smile, are here too. Episodes of ecstasy, or, at least, of psychological flow, available even in the workplace, offer autotelic rewards. You come here, into the festival circle, for such experiences. The key questions for you here are, “How long can I stay here, and how can I get others to join me?” The longer you stay, the more you change. The more people who join you, the faster you all change. Nature is here, evolving, unfolding; as is the cosmos, always uncertain and ambiguous at its core.

“[A] flow state,… is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one's sense of time” (Wikipedia “flow”).

“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake” (Csikszentmihalyi 2004 TED talk).

A bit about flow

Flow creating actions commonly include sequences of events that: a) engender immediate challenges (risks); b) demand a level of mental and/or physical participation; and c) reward this participation with a corresponding level of flow. Thus the effort to meet the challenges provided by the flow event is matched with an immediate sense of pleasure/satisfaction. Such actions are performed and repeated in order to achieve and renew this experience. Participation is its own reward, and performance is the requirement.

The greater the perceived risk, the wider the symbolic arena of activity — up to the point where the individual feels preempted from entering the activity because her personal skills cannot possibly meet the challenges involved — the more profound the flow experience will be. Furthermore, flow is apparently not entirely a quantitatively measurable experience: one experience of an extremely “deep” flow nature is thus not equitable to several “shallow” flow experiences. Deep flow, once experienced, is apparently extremely psychologically addictive (Csikszentmihalyi 2000). Deep flow is the core, shared, festival experience.

Games can be useful and important

B) Games fall in between festivals and pageants.

Games are often gateways to different levels of flow, with simple games offering shallow flow, and more complicated, difficult, and risky games deeper flow. The steeper the learning curve, it seems, the deeper the flow. Koster (2013) outlines how learning (usually in a flow state) powers fun in games. Csikszentmihalyi adds that happiness is learning’s bonus outcome: “[H]appiness also depends on something else: the feeling that one is growing, improving, changing to approximate a barely intuited ideal state. That process is by definition a process of learning broadly defined. One might conclude that learning is necessary for happiness, that learning is the pursuit of happiness (Csikszentmihalyi 2014).”

There is great news here; as a scientist, you are in the learning business. While you might not be happy at this time, you work in the neighborhood where happiness dwells. The moment you stop learning is the minute you stop being a scientist.

Game spaces are rule governed, but still open-ended. Games create their own game timing, with a start and an end time. Players use their learning to explore good-practice solutions to complicated problems. They gain in skill as they play, and learn to improvise. They are required to coordinate their efforts with others.

In the game zone, play combines skill and trust, shared insights become new questions and knowing emerges in the sharing. The best science meetings start here. Games run from easy to complicated, from marginal to integral: they wield rules to corral the complexity of knowing and acting, to inform open-ended play and roles for players. They promote skilling internally, and reward virtuoso attainments and teamwork.

Good writing about science and real life lives here. Myths of inventors and cleverness. War, and war games and plans, hop-scotch on the sidewalk: there is quite a range of available games. Game-play here is structured by the conventions of the game, and then set free through improvisation. Here we find the learning methods for swordplay, wordplay, and other forms of play, including science play.

These games are all finite; you need to learn the rules to break them, and know the rules to win. Scientists may be lured into finite games of prestige-building and competition for glory. This path is actually a race to the bottom, where the academy loses. Governance lives here: people figuring out how to work together.

Knowledge forms that best capture the complicated potential for games:

Rule-guided learning over time;

skilling in the devices and practices of the game;

attention to the skills of others;

Innovation around methods and “good practices”;

risk-taking, failure, and perseverance.

The key question for you in this space is, “Am I a player, or just a spectator?” Are your skills involved in moving the game to its end, or are you simply holding the coat of someone else? The question of winning and losing occupies the mindset of that player who does not see that these are, after all, simply games. The scientist who understands the larger framework, and the organization that supports such an understanding, these will limit the time spent on finite games.

Pagents are designed to resemble games and festivals

C) Pageants are simple, finite non-games

Pageants borrow the forms of festivals and games, but they close off the play with rule-managed behaviors. They may be purposefully elaborate and attempt to excite an emotional response as a form of spectacle entertainment (Debord 2010). The Disneyland mainstreet parade happens every day at the same time, with the same ingredients. Employees are trained to look like they are having fun. They can be fired for not looking happy enough.

Pageants may appear complicated, but they are pre-planned to start and go and stop exactly as programmed. Pageants include old-time organizational managed corporations, cycling through limited new editions of their same technology using “best practices” that rarely change. Players here are just going through the steps. Your factory floor is a pageant of efficiency. Throw a wooden shoe in the works, though, and you have chaos. This is the realm also of bullshit jobs. Pageants promote repeatable actions.

Knowledge forms that best capture their simplicity include:

user manuals;

religious doctrines;

GANTT charts;

patriotic displays;

prison routines;

360 personnel evaluations.

Pageants are easily broken unless they can enforce a collective emotional commitment, and a faith that history is known and its ending is fixed: fascism is modal attempt to weaponize simple rules (through ideology) with emotional force. The key questions here are: “Why don’t other people see what I’m seeing? This is all phony. How can I get back into a better game?”

The two faces of chaos

D) It is perhaps only fitting that chaos has two faces

Useful chaos is that moment when thought is unleashed from its own history. Useful chaos is the clutch pedal that unhooks the past from the emergent future. This moment is unavoidable should you want to perform radical change for your organization, or your person. Useful chaos opens the door to engaging directly with complexity.

“In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar–ajar only. We are only at the beginning of the development of the human race; of the development of the human mind, of intelligent life–we have years and years in the future. It is our responsibility not to give the answer today as to what it is all about, to drive everybody down in that direction and to say: ‘This is a solution to it all’” (Feynman et al, 2005).

Useful chaos is the day-to-day condition of scientists playing the infinite game where they lack the requisite variety of information to construct their next hypothesis against the emergent complexity of nature.

Harmful chaos is what happens when clever people use counter-practices to subvert simple rules: con-games and kickbacks, obscure financial instruments that externalize risk, patent trolls, employee non-disclosure agreements, pedophile priests, failed states that feed their leaders’ offshore accounts. Satire, cynicism, sarcasm: all the frames of language that avoid open honesty. The list is interminable. Chaos can be comedy—when it happens to others—or tragedy (when it happens to you).

Disorder is where you do not yet know which domain you are in.

E) There is another condition, a type of mindset, that of disorder

Disorder is the in-between space that shows up when you don’t know which condition you are in. At least in chaos you know you are surrounded by chaos; and chaos may be real. Disorder is the lack of anything real. In finite games where decisions are plays that can win or lose the game, this condition is fatal. Finite gamers flee this condition, usually back to pageants where the illusion of control is maximized. In the infinite game, disorder is the universal irritant that propels curiosity. For science, disorder is a call to learn more about the silence of nature.

Help your organization jump into the festival mode of science

The simple corrective to a science organization that has avoided or denied the unmanageable necessity of festival spaces, is to embrace the infinite play of science and build in the time, space, and budget to let their scientists play together. The Handbook offers a variety of governance practices that science organizations can learn to become open, productive, creative gardens that will nourish their science endeavors.

Cynefin framework by Edwin Stoop: Wikipedia, CC by 4.0

Bibliography (for the whole Handbook)

Postscript about Festivals for the festival-impaired:

For those who grew up in the parts of the planet—such as most of North America—without festivals that involve actual danger (nudity, running with fire, social exposure, complex body skills, radical comedy) — the various ingredients of festivity that make these events complex, emergent activities — the meaning of the term “festival” will need to be expanded. We are not talking about the annual petunia parade here. Also note that the best intellectual conversations you might encounter at your learned society’s annual meeting may be similar to running with fire. In conversation, remember that your best ideas are always naked.

Festivals here refer to the type of events available in many countries: events where there is actual risk (sexuality, social embarrassment, injury, or death). The English word “juggernaut,” for example, is from an annual festival of the Shree Jagannath Temple in India where a very large, extremely heavy wooden cart carrying the image of a god is manually pulled through a crowd, using only logs as brakes or steering, and with a momentum that is tricky to manage. European visitors were astounded by the dangers inherent in the event. However, as it has been performed every year for several centuries, one would suspect that the locals know what they are doing, even though accidents might occur. Similar accidents occasionally happen during various matsuri festival events in Japan. In North America we are mostly aware of the risks inherent in competitive events—you can search the web for a count of the number of participants who have died while play your favorite sport. We are mostly unaccustomed to cooperative, collaborative, community events that are inherently risky.

A festival is fundamentally different from a sport. When the festival is over, each participant is expected to be intrinsically different from whom they were upon entering the event. This change of state might include religious status, social status, or personal growth, or all of these. The community may also agree that their festival accomplishes wider changes, such as reasserting the cultural values upon which the festival rests, reestablishing the community’s sense of purpose, or providing a “coming of age” experience for young adults.

The main point of festival play (along with intense enjoyment: festivals are great fun) is to accomplish these changes. In science play, every discovery changes the field and boundaries of what and how science knows, even if this change is small. Every new knowing also changes the mental map that the scientist carries in her mind about her object of study. Science play is a festival that changes the science as it changes the scientist.

Japan’s Kurama Himatsuri…. Playing with fire in a mountain village.

The Kurama Fire Festival: a Japanese mountain village where fire is a major environmental hazard, holds a fire festival every year where hundreds of torches are paraded down mountain paths to the shrine in the middle of the night. Here’s my video, and a better one from the news.

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