Powerful day yesterday in our Art of Learning Together training in Asheville.
One of the ways I teach the Cynefin framework these days is by using a series of exercise to illustrate what it is like to be in each of the five domains. The exercise I use for the disorder domain is to ask people to organize themselves according to a word that is both a verb and a noun. This causes a bit of confusion especially if people start moving to organize themselves according to what they think I told them. This is exactly the way the disorder domain functions in Cynefin – as the domain of problems one hasn’t thought about, resulting in addressing them with strategies one also hasn’t thought about. That is what makes it different from chaos. Usually it is a short exercise that easily drives home the point.
I forgot the word I was going to use to prompt the exercise. Instead the word that came to mind was “economically.” Okay it’s an adverb, but it has multiple meanings and I thought it would serve. “Organize yourselves economically,” I said. I mostly thought that people would just get stuck in trying to define the word and then have their insights about what “disorder” means.
Instead the conversation got real. Fast.
You have to understand that this is a very mixed group of people, and economics is one of the ways in which this group exhibits tremendous diversity, and especially diversity that is hidden to the eye. Economics, money and wealth has a very sharp edge.
The group began feeling it’s way around the topic. All the domains came to life. One person offered the SIMPLE suggestion that we just stay in a circle as this is the most economical and efficient way to organize ourselves. Someone else saw this as COMPLICATED but solvable and began to offer insights on the nature of an economy, concluding that we could organize ourselves according to our net worth (and later, feelings of abundance, access to cash, actually cash in our pockets and other criteria). Soon we discovered the COMPLEX features of the problem. People had different relative wealths, they participated in all kinds of different economies and there was no static way to organize themselves. One person suggested that the little dynamic systems exercise we had done earlier was in fact the was to organize ourselves like an economy and still someone else suggested we break into groups and try and come up with a bunch of different solutions.
All this time the conversation became more and more fraught with emotion, with issues of visibility and invisibility, with privilege and possibility. There was a full range of emotions expressed including anger sadness, joy, frustration, impatience, relief, curiosity and indifference. This eventually became a chaotic conversation with everyone offering perspectives without any organizing scheme and several people offering solutions which were undermined by perspectives that made them unworkable (yes we could just throw a number into the middle to see how much wealth we collectively had access too, but there is no way I will betray my partner’s financial situation that way).
Eventually, after a couple of proposals made with half formed decision making processes, we passed a piece and had one round of circle that allowed for people to share their perspectives. and feel complete with the exercise.
It was powerful because the conversation exposed the differences in the group in a spontaneous way. We had lots of time built into our agenda so the hour or so we spent on the exercise could actually be accommodated and in the end it generated a lot of learning. It was an incredible illustration of how fraught the disorder domain is and why it is absolutely an essential element of the Cynefin framework. Here lie dragons. And it was a perfect illustration of the need to skillfully identify and deal with the ontological nature of the problems we face, because just addressing problems with knowledge can be undermined all the time with who and how people actually are, how they see the world and how they are oriented to their contexts.