Dave Snowden has a new post up this week in which he gives us a situational snapshot about a big chunk of his body of work he has been developing for a number of years now. I love these posts because every so often Dave publishes them to consolidate teaching he has done and methods he has been working on in practice. They have the energy of “okay…I think I’ve got something here. Check it out.”
I alos love these posts becasue they always offer me something to dive further into and ways to improve my own practice.
So first go and read his post, “Estuarine mapping first edition.“
The metaphor of an estuary is powerful in many ways and round where I live, I get to hang out in estuaries. These are geographic features which are critical habitats and essential incubators for life in near-shore marine coastal ecosystems. The Estuary pictured above is at the end of Mannion Bay below where I live. At one end Killarney Creek flows through a lagoon and over a weir into a tidal estuary that experience 4.5 meter tidal ranges. Sometimes the water flows upstream into the lagoon, making the water there brackish and changing the kinds of life that lives and thrives there. At other times of the water rushing down the river pushes fresh water far out into the bay, delivering debris and food to the marine creatures that only live in the salt water of the bay. As Dave points out in his post “In an estuary (but not a delta) the water flows in and flows out. There are things you can do only at the turn of the tide. There may be granite cliffs which you only have to check every decade or so, sandbanks that are checked daily and so on.” And so the context determines what is possible, and the context changes, so cadence and rhythm and timing are important.
A couple of things stand out for me in Dave’s post, and I want to explore these in my practice in the next ittle while. First Dave has been talking about his typology of constraints for quite a while now, and that’s been massively influential in my own work. Dave’s typology currently is:
- Rigid or fixed, like a sea wall or dyke
- Elastic or Flexible
- Tethers – like a climbing rope they snap into place when you need them
- Permeable – some things can get through
- Phase shift – like Roe v Wade, there is a process in the system which can produce a sudden significant change
- Dark constraints – a reference to dark matter, we can see an effect but not what is creating the said effect
These are helpful and they help me think HOW to change the constraints in a system. When I introduce people to constraints I talk about first of all connecting and containing constraints (a distinction I also learned from Dave). I then break these down a bit further using material I learned from Dave and Glenda Eoyang in their works on containers, work I developed into a book chapter and a paper (original in English, updated in Japanese ) a number years ago. Connecting constraints influence the actions of agents as they relate to each other. and then we explore different kinds of constraints. Connecting constraints are connections and exchanges between agents in a system. Containing constraints are the attractors and boundaries in a system. And human systems have a special kind of constraint called identity that other complex system don’t have and that makes the field of anthro-complexity a distinct branch.
I teach these in a kind of scaffolded way (thanks Ann Pendelton and Dave for yet ANOTHER useful metaphor) by first having people look for patterns and then ask what constraints are keeping those patterns in place. Helpful patterns can be stabilized by tightening constraints, and unhelpful patterns can be broken by loosening constraints. We then start to find connections, exchanges, attractors, boundaries and identities and look for ways to shift them.
The problem with a simple scheme like that is that makes it seem like constraints are obvious and easy to spot and work with. So the scaffolding I use invites people to look for them specifically, but as Dave points out in the post, “The purpose of a typology is to see things from different perspectives not to allocate things to types – always a difficult thing to get across.” So what I’m taking from Dave’s work here is to move people quickly from the idea that “there are five kids of constraints” into a much more subtle and less easily defined and delineated set of constraints, because sometimes a connection is an attractor and a boundary is indistinguishable from an exchange and is also an identity, etc. You see the problem. We use a form to help people find these five, but in strategic work, we abandon that form after the first iteration of working with constraints. Complexity workers need to be good at finding subtle, context-specific constraints and TYPES of constraints. Dave’s post opens up possibilities for finding lots of different ways to name, think about and work with these things.
So I’m excited by the post and the links and thinking and it’s timely as we have a third iteration of the Complexity from the Inside Out course starting this week (do register if interested) and so I’ll have a chance to drop some of this thinking into my own practice imminently.
This weekend is Thanksgiving in Canada, and with that in mind, I want to once again lift my hands and gratitude to Dave for being so generous and uncompromising in his thinking and mentorship. I’ve learned an immense amount from him and continue to do so.
Chris – thanks for sharing this. I’ve long been a disciple of Snowden, but nonetheless, it’s easy to miss an important link when so much is going across our desks and through our minds.
It’s an important link for me – on my desk right now, I’ve got three top-level documents – Donella Meadows “places to intervene in a system”, Boyd’s IOHAI framework ( https://iohai.com/ ) and now Estuarine Mapping. All linked, just trying to settle myself into working with them.
Many thanks – will post here as I find links/ideas that interest me.
Fantastic Richard. I look forward to what you learn.
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