Context-space mapping: a bit of history
History seems to be all in vogue in Cynefin circles at present. On one side, for example, there’s Cynthia Kurtz – the too-often-unacknowledged co-creator of Cynefin, and originator of some of its key concepts such as the crucial distinctions between ‘order’ and ‘unorder’ – who’s recently written some truly excellent posts on her past involvement with Cynefin and her subsequent development of those ideas into her current Confluence model. Very strongly recommended.
On another side, Dave Snowden has been busily documenting his own ‘history of Cynefin’, in a series of blog-posts with that title. In Part 4, for example, I’m very glad to see that he does indeed describe Cynthia’s crucial role in the development of Cynefin. And in Part 5, bizarrely, he uses my own work on context-space mapping – uncredited, unacknowledged, and, of course, completely out of context – as his sole example of an ‘illegitimate approach’ to usage of Cynefin concepts. I suppose I ought to be flattered at this singular censure, though to use Dave’s own words, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry” at this, because all it really demonstrates is his continuing inability to get the point. Oh well…
(Unlike Dave, I’ve never laid claim to the mantle of ‘scientist’. I’m a toolmaker, a creator of conceptual tools: my real field is metamethodology, the methodologies for creating methodologies to create context-specific methods like those in Cynefin – and although there’s always a large theoretical component to that work, the core focus is always on practice, not theory. In a classic Two Cultures sense, might the real problem here be that we’re operating in different metaphoric ‘worlds’? No matter: it is what it is (or isn’t), and that’s that.)
The point that Dave seems to be missing is that he’s still using entirely the wrong criteria to assess what context-space mapping is all about. None of it is about ‘truth’ in the formal scientific sense: it’s much more about ‘mashups’, about the quest for something useful, that has value in a given context – which is a fundamentally different concern. To use one example he so pointedly dismisses in his ‘History’, if we were to merge the Cynefin categorisation with the classic ‘data, information, knowledge, wisdom’ stack, and claim that it was somehow ‘true’, that would make indeed no sense at all: if I’d actually done that, Dave’s critique about ‘illegitimacy’ would indeed be valid. But the whole point here is that in context-space mapping and many other related techniques – such as the venerable SWOT – we intentionally create crossmaps with nominal-‘mismatches’ of that type, and use the resultant cognitive-dissonance to trigger new ways of looking at a context. Mistaken notions of ‘truth’ or ‘legitimacy’ simply get in the way of this process: the legitimacy is determined from the discipline and precision of process, not from an ultimately-arbitrary ‘scientific lineage’.
It’s possible to argue that I continued to associate what’s now context-space mapping with Cynefin for a little while too long – a month or two, perhaps – beyond the point where it had become probable that their paths had diverged too much to make sense. It’s a common enough mistake, though, and perhaps a less reprehensible one than simply renaming someone else’s work as one’s own, without any actual difference in model. (Is acknowledging influence a greater ‘scientific crime’ than denying it? – I honestly don’t know.)
There’s also the blunt reality that every ‘new’ model is sort-of ‘illegitimate’ – Cynefin included, as Dave makes clear in his history – in the sense that it’s a kind of ‘bastard child’ of many different ideas coming together in unexpected ways. For context-space mapping, I’ll freely admit that the overall method and model each have many different ‘parents’, some of which I’ve long since forgotten and some I may never even have known. Yet that’s true for the work of most of us, I’m sure.
So in the current spirit of exploring the history of our respective models, I’ll point to a key influence behind context-space mapping, which came up in several different forms, most of them predating my involvement in Cynefin by several decades.
The ultimate origin of context-space mapping would have been a variant of one of Carl Jung’s models, a simple two-axis matrix of ‘truth’ versus ‘value’, and ‘inner’ versus ‘outer’, and which I used as the core for a typical over-reaching postgrad-student ‘Life, The Universe, Everything’-style book-project that I presented to the ever-patient Alick Bartholomew of Turnstone Books way back in the early 1970s. (Alick, bless him, quietened down my excess of ambition to a single example from my formal research on skills-development, applying the principles to the somewhat arcane practice of dowsing [US: ‘water-witching’]. He first published that book for me in 1976 and it’s been continuously in print ever since – more than a third of a century! 🙂 ) I’ve found myself coming back to that Jungian base-categorisation time and time again over the decades.
For me the real breakthrough, though, was the ‘swamp metaphor’ in the anonymous book SSOTBME, which I first came across somewhen in the late-1970s. With the author’s permission, I included my own version of the metaphor in my 1986 book ‘Inventing Reality‘. [The quotes below are from the 1990 edition.] I’ll quote first from the lead-in section, in the chapter ‘Can’t we explain this scientifically?‘:
In the last chapter [‘Isn’t it all coincidence?’] we saw that coincidence and meaning are quite separate – we can’t really say that any thing or any co-incidence can be said to be caused by any other event, point of view or whatever. Anything goes.
The trouble with that concept is that if anything goes, we are left with nothing with which to make sense of the world. Without some way of handling it, we have no way of predicting anything at all, and everything and nothing happens at the same time – a certain recipe for instant insanity. So we need some kind of model which allows us the flexibility to allow anything to happen, yet still operate in something resembling a controlled manner.
One approach which is useful is to separate the information we experience from its interpretation, and describe this content and context each as an axis in a simple two-dimensional diagram. In one direction, we have a spectrum of information, ranging from outer tangible or sensory data, to information we derive from within ourselves, as feelings and intuitions. The other axis describes a range of methods of interpretation, from indefinable value judgements through to the strict true/false analyses of logic: a spectrum of interpretation between value and truth – whatever either of those might mean. The model looks something like this:
This gives us four quadrants, or modes, in which we both collect information and interpret it: inner value, inner truth, outer truth, outer value. Each of these quadrants is only a way of working on the world, a mode to describe reality as we experience it through using that way of interpreting the world. Reality is, if you like, the sum of everything that could be experienced through these four very different ways of working on the world.
Although I didn’t come across Cynefin until many years later, the apparent parallels here should no doubt be obvious already. (One key point, though, is that it’s only a parallel: the two models come from very different lineages. Apparently, anyway.) To continue the quote from the Inventing Reality:
This kind of model of reality can be found in Jung’s work, for example; but there is a particularly interesting variant on the theme in SSOTBME, a bizarre book on ‘thinking about thinking’. The book was published anonymously, so, for convenience, I shall refer to its author as Leo (a simpler name than his fictitious character Lemuel Johnstone).
Leo builds this model by describing the whole of reality as a swamp. Not a featureless swamp – every point of view, every experience, every possible coincidence of events is included. There are also endless opportunities to wallow in the mires of confusion, and to disappear beneath the surface without trace… It sometimes seems that the safest move would be not to move at all, to stay still. But even that isn’t certain: the surface seems to quake with the tide of events, so that even the safest-seeming point of view will seem doubtful after a while. Nothing stays the same for long: indeed, the only real constant is change itself.
As Leo puts it, there are four main ways in which to exist within this kind of reality. Each one coincides with a quadrant of the model above: inner value, inner truth, outer truth, outer value. Each is best described as a mode of operation, in which certain possibilities – such as movement, in this sense of moving from one point of view or one experience to another – exist solely because others – such as stasis, developing one particular point of view – do not occur.
The four modes are structurally different: they have different definitions of success, of value, of proof and so on. In most cultures one of these modes will tend to dominate over the others, often for long periods, but that dominance does tend to drift over time: one of the key points discussed in SSOTBME was the ‘Enlightenment’-period transition from dominance of the simple religion-based ‘inner truths’ to the more complicated ‘outer-truths’ of science. The description of the four modes or domains in the swamp-metaphor starts with the chaotic world of the Artist:
The first way of working on this world is to skim the surface of the swamp, travelling in a hydroplane at high speed. The whole point is the speed, and the variety of ideas and experiences that come from just travelling about with no particular place to go. This is a mode of inner value, which we could call the artistic mode.
Playing with this description a little further, we can see that this is hardly a safe way of operating within a swamp: it’s all too easy to crash into some unexpected experience, to run out of fuel (inspiration?), or to decide to settle down in some uncharted spot with no hope of future supplies or common experience shared with anyone else. But it’s certainly the quickest way of scanning a wide range of experiences and points of view – although, at that speed, it’s not going to be too easy to make sense of anything other than that they were, indeed, experiences and points of view.
We don’t always need a hydroplane, of course: sometimes – like that lizard that can run over water – the Artist can sort-of keep afloat by running really fast… 🙂 I’d have to admit that of all the modes, this is the one to which I would naturally tend to return, not least because it aligns well with my eclectic, always future-oriented, and yes, somewhat scatterbrained approach to life and work: for example, I keep coming across articles that I wrote even only a month or two back that I have no recollection of ever having written at all. 🙁 But it does work well, as long as we can link it to the other modes enough to get something actually done with all of those ideas.
Another modus operandi seems quite the opposite of the artistic one: to develop one point of view as far as it will go, right out into another dimension. You state that that point of view is true – inviolably and absolutely true – and build on it, like a pole in the swamp.This is a mode of conviction, of faith, of inner truth – the mystical or religious mode.
Again, playing with this image a little further, the higher you climb up the pole, the more of the swamp will come within your view: the more you climb, the more true will seem the point of view. In the distance you can see other poles, other points of view – some of them way out in the distance indeed – but you can hear that experiences from those poles, especially from further up each pole, seems much the same as your own. The mystics, those people who are well and truly up the pole and with their heads in the clouds, can see and share a vast range of vision – even though most of it seems like cloudy thinking to us.
The only trouble with this mode is that you can’t actually experience anything else, since, by its definition, you have to stay with that one point of view; and it seems a sad fact that each pole has to be counterbalanced by a vast morass of struggling bodies, each of whom has grasped the pole and disappeared beneath the surface, screaming “I have the truth” as they did so.
There are actually several variants of this mode. For example, as above, there’s the Mystic – the only one here who actually does get a high-level overview from that position.
Another variant, as also above, is the Believer, who – to be somewhat unkind – is often the kind of dead-weight that’s used to prop the whole thing up. (Remember that the ‘One Truth’ here need not be an explicit ‘religion’ as such: for example, many self-styled Skeptics are ‘Believers’ relative to some often very-scrambled notions of what science actually is.)
Another is the Priest, who stands at the foot of the mystics’ pole, without any of the mystic’s broad overview, but who sets out the interpret to mystics’ visions from this ‘One Truth’ into simple rules to be upheld by ‘the masses’ (the Believers). Think of someone like a would-be Jesuit priest, for example: often highly charismatic, a real commitment to ‘those of the faith’, a genuine commitment to do ‘good works’, yet beneath the surface there can be a dangerous fanaticism, a screaming hatred of ‘heresy’, perhaps all ultimately driven by a deep fear that the chosen ‘One Truth’ is actually nothing more than an arbitrary choice – that the ‘One Truth’ might not, in fact, be the Truth at all.
And there’s also the Miner, the opposite of the Mystic, who digs deep into the ground beneath this ‘one true place’ to find the riches hidden beneath the surface – but who may well do serious damage to the place itself in the process of that quest.
The other point, perhaps, is that – somewhat like the Artist, but often in more covert fashion – there’s often a deep intensity of emotion here. It’s one of the key ways, in fact, to distinguish between science and the pseudo-scientific religion of ‘scientism’: as soon as emotion enters the picture, it ain’t science any more – which is something we need to watch when we get excited about ideas in science! 🙂
The third mode in this model is to build a solid platform, a safe predictable area in which everything is true and inter-related in logic. Everything is patently obvious, there are no surprises on the platform itself – although around the edges things may not be quite so predictable as they seem. This is a world of outer truth, a scientific world.
To many people on the platform, the platform itself defines reality, and encompasses the whole of truth. To this point of view, which we could call public-science or ‘scientism’, anything beyond the platform is unreal; their duty is to build higher and higher walls around the platform, to protect the good citizens from the ignorance and superstition beyond. In fact this has very little to do with science as practised – we could suggest that these are same people who would have screamed “I have the truth” around the poles of religion, except that the solidity of the platform prevents them from decently disappearing beneath the surface as would have happened elsewhere.
The platform is woven between a group of poles, more often called the ivory towers of academia; their mystics are the ‘pure scientists’ whose breadth of vision is matched only by the impenetrability of their thought. And at the edge of the platform are practical scientists, researchers working at the limits of the known world – having discovered, by some means or other, some unintended hole in the fortress walls of scientism.
Scientists, says Leo, are like people in wheelchairs – they need firm level ground to move about on. To move, they must extend the platform, extending the boundaries of science, cutting down shady dogmas and filling in soggy hypotheses (to use Leo’s graphic image). But when they arrive at some new place, it is just as boring and predictable as anywhere else on the platform – hobgoblins and foul fiends having rushed away at the sound of the first myth being exploded. For the problem with this mode of working is that, by the time it has finished, what it seeks has ceased to be the swamp, has ceased to be reality as it is (or was) – it is just an artificial platform, an ‘objective’ world with no room for personal experience at all.
One important point to note here is that the world of the Scientist is an abstraction, an often over-simplified, levelled-out overlay on top of the messy complexities and uncertainties of the swamp. The apparent certainty of science is actually a sham: very few scientific ‘laws’ apply with absolute precision in the contexts within which they purport to apply. For example, Leo, the original author of the swamp-metaphor, said that one of his most serious problems as a mathematician working in aircraft-design was to find ways to make his mathematics sufficiently imprecise to be useful. But that comforting sense of certainty is beguiling: we do need to beware of the tendency to think that the real world is somehow ‘wrong’ if it fails to conform to the expectations of theory… Safe though that platform may seem, there are real dangers here which are easily missed by the unwary.
But working away at the edges of the platform are another group, commonly but quite wrongly called ‘applied scientists’. At one edge you’ll find the psychiatrists, not bothering too much about which theory is absolutely true, but using ideas from Jung, Adler, Freud, Laing and anyone else’s work they can lay their hands on. And at another edge there’ll be electrical engineers switching between wave and particle theories of light and energy, blithely unconcerned about their mutual incompatibility in logic.
At first this does look like science, but only because of the safety-line of ‘if it doesn’t work, go back to theory’ – in other words go back to ‘outer truth’. But in fact this is a quite different mode, in which you carry the platform with you, spreading your weight on swampshoes to allow you to move with relative freedom from place to place, idea to idea, to find a point of view which is useful at that time, rather than supposedly ‘true’ in any absolute sense.
This is a mode in which truth is defined in terms of whether it has practical value, outer value. We could describe this as a technological mode. But it has a shorter and easier label – a magical mode. Whilst there is a real structural difference between technology and science, there is no structural difference between technology and magic.
It’s entirely true that, as Arthur C. Clarke put it, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. But it’s also true that “any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology”. They may seem different – sometimes very different – but the underlying approach to reality is exactly the same. The only difference between technology and magic, in practice, is that magicians tend to be a little way out in the distance – they may be seen wandering to astrology, alchemy and other forgotten, part-ruined areas of the old platforms of science, to rest by some religious pole, or travel as fools where angels fear to tread.
This mode is hardly safe, as the platform of science may be, but at least it works on the swamp as it is; and the point of the exploring is not to find out how true a belief, a point of view, may be, but to put it to practical use.
This linkage between the Technologist and the Magician does seem to upset some people – particularly those who like to think of themselves as ‘scientists’ – but in practice it is real: the differences between technology and science are fundamental, whereas there is no such fundamental difference between technology and ‘magic’.
The whole set, interestingly, also links well with the the ‘traditional’ concept of scientific development, from idea to hypothesis to theory to scientific ‘law’:
There’s a certain amount of back-and-forth between the domains, but the overall progress of the cycle is clear. The catch, as can be seen from the diagram, is that it should be a continuous cycle, returning from ‘law’ to new ideas: yet all too often the metaphoric Priests cling to the new-found ‘law’ as a source of certainty, and build what they hope are impregnable walls against any return to the uncertainties of the Artist. The word ‘heresy’ literally means ‘to think differently’: in the larger scheme of things, the notion that ‘to think different’ should be considered a problem is almost laughably absurd – and yet no-one should doubt the intensity of emotion that fears of ‘heresy’ can invoke… Strange indeed.
The other key point – one that is absolutely essential here – is that none of these modes is considered inherently ‘better’ or ‘truer’ than any of the others. The modes each have their own role to play, their own advantages and disadvantages, contexts where they work well, other contexts where they don’t. Hence this immediately introduces the notion of recursive layering, where the model becomes both a model of reality and a model of itself looking at ways to make sense of reality. To get the best results in any context, for example, we might need to be able to move around within the conceptual space, use the different modes, like a Technologist; we might choose to stick with the Scientist’s platform for a while, or dig deeper into an idea as a Miner would, or brainstorm for new ideas like an Artist.
Layers within layers: the swamp metaphor.
The Cynefin period
The above was probably where I’d gotten to with the models by the late 1980s, when I finally gave up hope that my work would go anywhere in Britain. After a brief sojourn in the Bay Area in California, I moved on to Australia, and by the mid-1990s most of my work was with the aeronautical-research group at Defence Science and Technology Organisation in Melbourne. My records suggest that that was where the ideas for the tetradian finally started to gel, and certainly the material on Five Elements, on effectiveness and on SEMPER, because I know I tested all of those with the engineers and the process-improvement teams there.
In 2002 I studied for an MSc with the then Australian Foresight Institute at Swinburne University. We were seemingly required to admire the work of Ken Wilber – which in some ways is similar to the Jungian base, but with a really unpleasant, oddly-arrogant overlay of ‘historical-determinism’ that I still loathe to this day – and its linkage to Spiral Dynamics – which made sense in the Gravesian original from the 1950s, but suffered from the same faults as Ken Wilber’s work in its 1990s ‘update’, and made even worse when the two models were merged into Wilber’s overweening ‘AQAL‘ (all quadrants, all levels) ‘master-plan’. I gave up on that degree-course after a year, when I couldn’t take the near-religious proselytising of Wilber-as-god any more; a pity, but some of it was useful, I’ll have to admit. The point here is that the swamp-metaphor and, later, context-space mapping are not derived from either Wilber or Spiral Dynamics.
Somewhen around then I met up with Shawn Callahan at one of the KM Forum knowledge-management gatherings in Melbourne. Back then he was one of IBM’s knowledge-management leads for Asia-Pacific, and closely linked to Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Center for Organizational Development. We compared notes on models, in my case describing the swamp-metaphor and the Five Elements/effectiveness models, and on his side introducing me to Cynefin. I was immediately struck by the obvious parallels: the two maps made much more sense when placed together. The Artist aligned with the Chaotic domain, the Mystic or Priest with the Simple (or Known, as it was labelled then), the Scientist with the Complicated (or Knowable), the Technologist with the Complex. To me, what Cynefin added was the important distinctions between ‘order’ (Simple / Complicated) and ‘unorder’ (Complex / Chaotic) and the key sort-of-domain of ‘disorder’, which is where we start (and sometimes return to) before any sensemaking takes place. The fluidity of boundaries mattered, too: it was not a simple two-axis matrix – and neither, in reality, was the swamp-metaphor. And since I was using the swamp-metaphor as a dynamic, multi-layered structure, Cynefin fitted right in there as another valuable overlay.
Perhaps because of that sense of similarity between the models, Shawn invited me to join in with the Cynefin training that Dave Snowden was due to run for IBM in Sydney later that year. (From what Shawn once said, I gather that my then-colleague Elizabeth Hagiefremidis and I were the first non-IBMers to be trained in Cynefin: I may be wrong in that, but we were certainly amongst the first, anyway.) It was a good training: Dave was and still is very good at what he does, and I learnt a lot. Yet to me, as usual, it was just another model, just another set of items to add to the toolkit.
To be honest, I’ve never found a practical use for most of the Cynefin techniques: I don’t do that kind of work. But there were several items or ideas that I found immensely useful: the Cynefin categorisation, the 4/5-domain layout, the dynamics of movements between domains (which to me were essentially a confirmation and reclarification of what I already knew from the swamp-metaphor), the order/unorder/disorder structure, and the relationship-mappings (the little tetrahedrons that appear only in early Cynefin diagrams, and that relatively few people seem to know about). Those were valuable indeed, both for my own work and for clients – and, for what it’s worth, I’ve always been careful to describe it as ‘the Cynefin model’, and always credited to Dave Snowden.
[It’s been kind of ironic, though, to discover in the past month that just about all of those items that I found most useful in Cynefin actually turn out to have come from Cynthia Kurtz; the items in Cynefin that I found least useful in practice, or in some cases just plain wrong, most often turn out to have come from Dave. I have, of course, apologised to Cynthia for this oversight…]
As most people know, Dave Snowden left IBM somewhen in the mid-2000s, and set up Cognitive Edge to continue his work with Cynefin. In my case, I moved back to Britain some four years ago on the assumption that there would be a more mature market here for my work on enterprise-architectures. A mistaken assumption, unfortunately: like many of the other ‘small countries’ Australia is still far more advanced in its architectures than Britain or the US. So I set out to document all of my work from the past twenty years or so, attending and speaking at a swathe of TOGAF enterprise-architectures conferences (the results of which you can see on Slideshare), and writing a series of books on enterprise-architectures and other fields. Most of those would have included a reference to Cynefin in some form – again, always credited to Cognitive Edge and/or to Dave Snowden himself.
The catch, of course, was that most of it wasn’t actually Dave’s work. Much more, it was a conventional multi-layered ‘mashup’ from all of the sources I’ve described above, designed and used in exactly the same polymorphic, context-dependent way that most tools are used in enterprise-architectures. Probably every enterprise-architect I knew who claimed to be using Cynefin was using it in much the same way as I was: a very useful categorisation and concept-map, crosslinked to all manner of other tools and techniques. But it had long since ceased to be ‘pure’ Cynefin (though in fact Cynefin itself had moved on a long way in another direction entirely) – and it became clear that Dave was far from happy about what he saw, and the potential ‘dilution’ of the Cynefin brand. After a series of increasingly-acrimonious debates that become unpleasant in the extreme in the earlier part of this year, I acceded to Dave’s demands to disassociate myself from any connection with Cynefin, and re-labelled that part of my work as context-space mapping.
The main insight that arose from this for me was a belated recognition that ‘Cynefin’ as such is nothing special. Dave still seems to promote it as being ‘the answer to everything’, but in reality it’s just a model, just a framework, just another bunch of possibly-useful tools. Stripped down to the bare essentials, there are just two key parts to Cynefin: a categorisation, which is very useful in enterprise-architectures if used in a multi-layered way, but almost useless if applied in the ‘official’ way as a single-layer map; and a collection of related techniques, which in practice have only limited application in enterprise-architectures – mainly in narrative-enquiry for stakeholder-engagement, to be precise. That’s it. A whole lot of pain and argument about something that isn’t that important anyway. Ouch… 🙁
What is important is the idea of moving around within a ‘context-space’, contrasting a wide variety of views of the context, to make sense of the ‘problem-domain’ – hence ‘sensemaking’ – and cross-mapping these with potentially-matching options for solutions (or more accurately ‘re-solutions’, since most of the real concerns we deal with in enterprise-architectures are actually ‘wicked-problems‘ that can never be ‘solved’ as such). To do this, we need a recursive, multi-layered approach to sensemaking that can switch between multiple views and multiple frames: the Cynefin categorisation is one such frame, but there are many, many others, such as the Five Elements set, the modified-Zachman set and, now, the Enterprise Canvas set. [Update: Other examples of recursive, multi-layered approaches to sensemaking include Nigel Green and Carl Bate’s VPEC-T, Richard Veryard’s Lenscraft, and Sohail Inayatullah’s Causal Layered Analysis – the latter being one of the most valuable tools I gained from the Swinburne ‘Strategic Foresight’ course, back in the pre-Cynefin days.]
My opinion about the ‘official’ Cynefin remains the same as before, namely that it is not good for this purpose: all its emphasis is in the Complex domain, with Snowden still publicly deriding any Complicated- or Simple-domain techniques (Six Sigma dismissed as ‘Sick Stigma‘, for example), and seemingly shying away from anything to do with the Chaotic-domain. (The latter is better-served elsewhere, such as the increasing awareness in business of the value of design-thinking and techniques such as improv-theatre.) If I were to choose between them, for my own field of enterprise-architectures and the like, I would see far more value in the longer-term from Cynthia Kurtz’s work on Confluence, for example, than from the current direction of Cynefin.
But again, that’s just my opinion, and it’s not particularly relevant anyway. I’ll probably continue to use the Cynefin categorisation as a base-map where appropriate – it’s officially in the public-domain, after all. I’ll probably reference the Cynefin-dynamics as examples of movement between domains – and continue to point out the paucity of its descriptions of dynamics relative to the Chaotic domain. But beyond that, I am very glad to say, my work is now firmly and explicitly in a post-Cynefin phase.