The three-domain version of Cynefin, originally published on Dave Snowden’s blog.
I’m trying to organize my thoughts on containers, complexity and constraints that span a couple of decades of work and grounded theory. In this post, I want to lay out how I see these phenomena in the context of anthro-complexity, largely articulated by Dave Snowden, with implications for complex facilitation, or what we in the Art of Hosting community call “hosting.”
I’ll lay out some theory first that I’m working on, link it to facilitation and then share a case study of a recent meeting I hosted to demonstrate how this plays out. You can let me know if you think there is a good basis for a paper here, and please feel free to ask questions and to poke and prod at these ideas.
- “Constraints”: Constraints in complex systems limit the behaviours of system components but also enable certain patterns or paths to emerge.
- “Containers”: In the context of complexity, a container is often considered as an environment or space (conceptual, physical, or social) that influences the interactions and dynamics of system components.
- “Enabling constraints” and “Governing constraints” are part of Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework. Enabling constraints allow certain patterns to emerge and adapt in a complex system while governing constraints are applied to assure specific outcomes in more ordered systems.
- “Emergence”: Refers to the idea that new properties, behaviours, or patterns can arise from the interactions among system components, which aren’t predictable from the properties of individual components.
- “Chaos”: In complexity science, chaos refers to a state of a system where it’s difficult to predict the system’s behaviour even in the short term.
Some basic theory
Constraints form the foundation of what we call “containers” in dialogue and facilitation practice. A container is a stable environment in which actions and thought processes occur. In a complex situation, enabling constraints yield containers which exhibit dynamic stability, such as a dissipative structure, where the emergence of thoughts and actions takes place. The container shapes these thoughts and actions.
Containers that endure over time solidify into stable contexts and ultimately evolve into cultures.
Much of the existing literature on containers merely identifies this phenomenon without comprehending how these containers come into being and therefore, how they can be disrupted, stabilized or managed. However, the literature on constraints and complexity science provides useful insights for understanding and working with containers.
When operating in the realm of complexity, you need at least one effective constraint in place. Without any effective constraints, you’re dealing with chaos – an unbounded, essentially random state. Seen through the lens of Cynefin, Chaos is a state that is approached either from the liminal space of Complexity or from the catastrophic failure of highly ordered systems.
With the establishment of a manageable constraint, you can start creating a stable container with affordances to pursue a preferred outcome or direction. The more stable the container, the more predictable the outcome. When we cross through the liminal space between Complex and Ordered states, we move into governing constraints, and we employ constraints to ensure a specific outcome. Maintaining governing constraints requires power, resources, and control to suppress the emergence typically characteristic of living systems. Even ordered containers can be vulnerable to the emergence and unexpected events. Thus, they are often strictly bound, and the agents within the system are heavily constrained. The connections in these systems are controlled, managed, and monitored for any deviations. In situations where certainty is crucial, maintaining a governing container can be costly, but the benefits are significant, leading to safety, order, and control – key aspects of an ordered system.
Using anthro-complexity to understand containers in complexity
Containers can materialize in a multitude of ways. It may be beneficial to interpret containers through the prism of the three principal Cynefin domains: Chaos, Complexity, and Order.
In an ordered system, or an ordered container, the container can be pre-designed, often drawing upon good or best practices and demonstrating robust stability that actively resists change. Such containers may take physical forms, like buildings, pots, cars, and furnaces. However, they can also be social containers where interactions among individuals must be rigorously regulated and controlled. These could pertain to situations necessitating safety or for regulatory purposes, such as in accounting or law.
In Chaos, facilitation, such as it is, is all about applying constraints – sometimes draconian constraints – in an effort to create some stability or safety and buy some time to find options for action. In this domain, the container can be experienced as being strapped to a stretcher, ordered to remain in place, or, in trauma responses, held in a way that enables self-regulation.
The development of containers within the complex domain progresses through a process of probing, sensing, and responding. In the complex domain, containers, often experienced as a combination of phenomena rather than strictly physical tangible objects, are shaped by the constraints at play. They emerge as phenomena due to these constraints. Constraints at play can stimulate the emergence of this type of container, fostering patterns of behaviour and establishing a felt sense of stability. Within this stability, connections, exchanges, attractors, and boundaries will seem to have a more or less consistent presence over time. and give rise to the feeling or experience of being “in a container.”
When working with patterns in a container we can map or examine the container’s constraints that enable certain patterns to emerge over others. Until a constraint stabilizes in a complex system, it serves merely as a catalyst, as described by Dave Snowden, stimulating a specific pattern of behaviour. If this pattern of behaviour is coherent with a “preferred direction of travel”, it will aid in establishing the felt sense of a container in a complex system that contributes towards useful dialogue, activity and other beneficial activities.
If however, the stability of the container produces emergent patterns of behaviour that are not desired, we can attempt to change the container by shifting constraints in order to stimulate different interactions. While the facilitator plays a particular role in this situation, but the shift in the nature of a container can come from anywhere.
Complex facilitation, therefore, is the craft of catalyzing the emergence of patterns within a container which aligns beneficially with the preferred direction of travel shared by a group or a leader. In this craft, one employs constraints as catalysts and closely observe the nature of the emerging container through the system’s pattern stability. If unproductive patterns emerge, one can attempt to disrupt the container by modifying a constraint. If useful patterns appear, one can aim to stabilize that container to ensure continuity. Thus, the facilitator’s role primarily involves monitoring the situation, assessing the quality of the container, and occasionally using their influence to help stabilize and manage the emerging container in the service of the preferred direction. This is largely achieved by “creating space” for the group to engage in beneficial activities.
In a complex situation, the ideal is generally to utilize enabling constraints to facilitate emergence rather than governing constraints to control it. This requires awareness of the inclination to control interactions, possibly to reduce unhelpful conflict or balance power disparities. It should be obvious that the practice of doing this is fraught with ethical traps (more on this in later posts), and so undertaking this work without considering the values that underlie the ethical use of situational power is perilous. Rather than controlling interpersonal interactions, the focus should be on adjusting the conditions and constraints of the entire container to enable the emergence of different behavioural patterns.
A case study
Recently, I facilitated a meeting with a small group from an organization confronting an existential question. Should the organization continue in its current form, should it be wrapped up, or was there something in between?
Through interviews with board members and staff prior to the meeting, it was evident that the current situation was untenable. The organization had weathered turbulent times, with new board members and supporters who endorsed the founder’s vision. This vision, however, had been pared down significantly, resulting in an unclear purpose and direction for the organization.
On the day of the meeting, two critical conversations needed to occur. First, because many were new to the organization, we needed to discuss the organization’s current state and its projects, with a particular focus on the founder’s intentions. The second conversation had to address the next steps for the organization, providing clarity on a potential partnership that would determine their level of commitment.
I prepared an agenda featuring different ways to facilitate these conversations. The most facilitator-intensive way was to host a scenario-based process, where a small group of eight people would consider three different scenarios based on my interviews with almost all the attendees. The aim was to answer practical questions about implementation and examine implications for the organization, its projects, and its partners.
We began the meeting informally, with a light breakfast and casual conversations. After settling in, I introduced the meeting’s intentions. My decision was to guide us through a check-in part of the meeting, hear from the founder, then take a break and assess where we stood.
Building a relational container was a critical move since the group had never been together before. A well-designed check-in, with a question that elicited stories, was a good way to begin and allowed everyone to understand why they were part of this meeting and this work.
After the check-in, which took about an hour, the group had a more profound understanding of each other. It was clear to us the range of skills, talents, and interests present in the room.
The second part of the meeting involved the founder’s future intentions. It became apparent during the pre-meeting interviews that he had a significant influence on the organization’s course. His connections, desires, and investments were the organization’s driving force. As such, it was crucial to accommodate his interests, needs, and commitments.
Perhaps entrained on the pattern of the check-in, the meeting evolved into a rich storytelling session, where the founder recounted his career and the organization’s lifespan. This story-sharing segment was especially beneficial for new board members with questions about their roles and the organization’s work. This was a helpful direction for the day and kept the work and the inquiry open.
Once the founder finished his tale, a conversation unfolded, touching on the core mission and purpose of the organization and bringing forth existential questions about its future. Again this “natural” flow was likely partially entrained by the pre-meeting interviews, which gave participants a chance to think openly about the existential questions facing the organization.
After lunch, the group reconvened and began discussing different questions about the projects in which the organization was involved. It was evident that everyone had varying levels of information about these projects, which resulted in different levels of participation in addressing the organization’s existential issues. This is not a bad thing at all, as diverse experience meant that naive expertise – the ability to ask “dumb” questions – had a role in pushing the group to consider proposals that were outside of what was possible or desirable. In so doing, boundaries for the organization’s future work came into view.
This was an important moment because a well-defined boundary elicits authentic and informed commitment. Toward the end of the meeting, we discussed practical steps aligned with people’s commitments. It became clear that the next steps were focused on the sustainability of an essential project of the organization, not the organization itself.
The final discussion involved everyone indicating their level of commitment and role over the next 18 months and committing to spend some time formulating a plan and organizing work with simple project management tools.
In sum, this case illustrates how a facilitator can work with constraints to help an emergent container evolve for group work. The essence lies in understanding the connections, exchanges, attractors, and boundaries within the group and using these elements to guide the conversation constructively. The facilitator must negotiate the boundaries and the flow of power, work with strong attractors, and manage the dynamics of exchanges to achieve the desired outcomes.
Constraints at play
It should be noted that it is impossible to fully map all of the constraints that are working together to create a container, nor is it always clear which kind of constraint something is. An exchange can become an attractor, and a connection can become a boundary. The important thing is to carry an easily portable framework into a dynamic situation in order to better see and respond to emerging and changing constraints,
While there are many ways to analyze the constraints at play in the container of this meeting, In my own work, I use Snowden’s typology of Connecting Constraints (Connections and Exchanges) and Containing Constraints (Attractors and Boundaries) and here are examples of my observations and reflections. Dave uses “connecting and containing” as a spectrum. In my practice, these four types of constraints serve as heuristics to help guide my observation and decision-making while facilitating complex situations.
- Each board member shared a strong connection with the founder and had different connections with everyone else. The depth of their connection to the organization’s work varied greatly. For some, it constituted a significant portion of their focus, while others had little knowledge of the projects. For the founder, the organization’s work was all-encompassing.
- Board members brought various connections with the stakeholders and the organization’s implementers to the meeting. These connections became crucial when participants realized they could leverage their networks to explore alternative ways to sustain the organization’s work.
- A critical exchange involved the transfer of information and power between the founder and the board. Over the years, this exchange had turned toxic. The board, in both its and the founder’s view, was focused on the wrong objective: the organization’s sustainability rather than its work.
- After a wave of resignations during the pandemic, a new board was assembled. This board consisted of people the founder knew and trusted to prioritize the organization’s work, helping avoid the toxic relationships that had developed previously.
- During the meeting, the exchanges were mostly linked to the founder’s vision and his commitment to the organization. The remaining participants related their commitments to his. This scenario can be described as a “broadcast flow” of exchanges: from one central person to many, with weak exchanges among the many. However, as we delved into the scenario planning exercise, stronger exchanges developed between participants. Still, the organization was not ready for people to work independently of the founder.
- It became clear during the meeting that more power was being transferred from the founder to the board, along with greater responsibility for outcomes. By the meeting’s end, the participants had a strong sense of personal commitment to the work at hand, which was absent at the meeting’s beginning.
- The founder was the key attractor around which the container emerged. From pre-meeting interviews with the staff and founder, it was evident that the founder’s thoughts and intentions would significantly influence the organization’s future. Sometimes a powerful attractor can distort the container’s work, making it impossible to explore possibilities or escape entrenched responses to the founder’s vision. We acknowledged the founder’s influence and occasionally disrupted this pattern using a lightly facilitated circle process, allowing other ideas and questions to surface and clarity to arise.
- The room’s physical setup emphasized the two key attractors: the founder at one end of a long table and me at the other. The founder, being the closest to the work, naturally dominated past meetings. My role was to provide a counterbalance, interrupting when necessary to check the group’s clarity and occasionally asking naive questions.
- Another strong attractor was the dual focus on the organization’s sustainability and the work’s sustainability. The board’s past focus on the organization’s sustainability had led to numerous conflicts and a toxic environment as the founder and board clashed over differing intentions. The crucial task for this meeting was to shift the focus onto the organization’s work and the potential for its sustainability without the core organizational structure.
- There were clear boundaries at play in the meeting. We had a six-hour time limit. We had a small group around a long table with the option to use breakout rooms if needed. As a facilitator, my responsibility was to enforce time boundaries, especially around the meeting’s end. With an event scheduled for the evening, I had to shift the group’s attention from open, free-flowing conversation to more concrete matters during the meeting’s final hour.
- Initially, I requested the founder to give a “state of the union” type address based on several board members’ pre-interview requests. They needed to understand what they were contributing to. Setting some boundaries or enabling constraints around the work was essential to creating an invitation barrier, which Peter Block suggests, is key to eliciting authentic commitment to the work at hand. Clear statements from the founder about his willingness and unwillingness provided a framework for the board members to develop a plan that was both focused on the organization’s current needs and compatible with their commitments. It remains to be seen whether one or two of the members present will commit to continuing. However, the clarity evoked should aid their decision-making process.
I hope this gives a good overview of my current thinking and process around working with constraints, containers and complexity. I am continuing to unpack the ideas in this post in more detail and put them into both practical and theoretical contexts. Responses, questions and curiosities are welcome.