Why culture matters


Analyse this...!

Yesterday I had a chance to grab lunch with Dave Pollard in our local coffee shop on Bowen Island. One of the things we talked about was the supremacy of analysis in the world and why that is a problem when it comes to operating in complex domains.

I have been intentionally working a lot lately with Dave Snowdon et. al.’s Cynefin framework to support decision making in various domains. It is immensely helpful in making sense of the messy reality of context and exercises like anecdote circles and butterfly stamping are very powerful, portable and low tech processes.

Cynefin is also useful in that it warns us against a number of fatal category errors people make when trying to design solutions to problems. The most serious of these is remaining complacent in a simple context which has the effect of tipping the system to chaos. Nearly as infuriating and problematic to me is the applicability of analysis to complex domains.

Analysis has a dominant place in organizational and community life. It provides a sense of security that we can figure things out and operate in the space of the known. If we just analyse a situation enough we can identify all if the aspects if the problem and choose a solution. Of course in the complicated domain, where causes and effects can be known even though they are separated in time and space, analysis works beautifully. But in complex domains, characterized by emerged phenomenon, analysis tends to externalize and ignore that which it cannot account for with the result that solutions often remain dangerously blind to surprise and “black swan” events.

The Cyenfin framework advocates working with stories and social constructed meaning to sense and act in complex spaces. Where as analysis relies on objective data and meaning making models to create rules and tools, action in complex spaces uses stories and patterns to create principles and practices which help us to create small actions – probes in the system – that work in a nuanced way with emergence.

In this respect culture matters. The stories that are told and the practices thy are used to make sense of those stories is the method for acting in complex space. This distinction us helpful for me working with indigenous communities where program management may rely on analytical tools (and culture is stamped out in the process) but practices need to be grounded in culturally based responses. Using stories and social meaning making restores culture to its traditional role of helping groups of humans move together in complex domains while using analysis more appropriately.


  1. A lot of what you’re describing is connected to the next big thing in software development, which is “agile”. It acknowledges the futility of fully planning and analyzing everything up front. It is also connected to Domain Driven Development, where the first task is to come up with common naming and language that everyone can then use to discuss issues.

    I think more large organizations/governments/etc. need to take an iterative approach, with feedback loops at various stages to course correct.

  2. Yup. A lot if tge processes I work with, like open space tech, helped birth and sustain agile work. And now it’s all leaking out into the wiser world. For the better.

  3. Hi, came here via Viv McWaters.

    There’s a lyric of a song by Paul Kelly (“To Her Door”) that I’ve never been able to shake since I heard it 25 years ago. It’s about a guy whose life fell apart from alcohol and is on his way to a possible reconciliation with his former wife and their kids.
    “Could he make a picture, and get them all to fit?”

    I love the sense that HE has agency to make a picture, but that it will only work if it’s a picture they can accept/thrive in too (OK, I may have gone beyond the text a bit!).

    Anyway, thanks for your writings, which I admire.

  4. There is a similar Franz Kafka aphorism I love: “A cage went in search of a bird.”