These are my notes from the Cynefin Course I attended at Amsterdam in May 2016

Part II

The main point here is that Complex Adaptive Systems theory for human systems differs from that of animals or the physical world, because of the human ability to use metaphor to make sense of complexity.

Cynefin seeks to provide a human centric approach to understanding complexity,.but first it’s worth understanding why a human complex adaptive system is different.

Snowden chose to describe these differences using three “i” words that relate to individuals, however there is also collective identity that also must be considered.

*I note that this differs from the blog post from 2010, but is in line with the latest blog, I have linked each section to the cognitive edge blog in the title and mingled these blogs with my notes from the session.


Humans have the ability to think about complexity at high levels of abstraction, this makes thinking about hard things easier.

One possible evolutionary reason for this, according to Snowden, is in our use of aesthetics and that before the use of  human language came our use of art to express ourselves, for example cave paintings. Additionally the cerebellum, which was responsible for motor control exapted for use of grammar processing, the idea to draw from this is that human language originated in abstractions.

This allows humans to look into a possible futures, to innovate, to communicate complex abstract ideas and imagination to others.


We all have multiple roles that we play and sometimes all at the same time, but different roles will tend to dominate. However even when a particular role dominates the others are still there, still entwined with the others to make up what and who we are we.

Identities can be triggered, for example when I coach cricket I am the coach, I wear a coaches outfit and for that hour and a half that is the dominant role. My son is one of my charges and I am still the coach, although the little bugger makes it hard to stay in role at times.

However a few weeks ago my son hurt himself at practice and the parent “dad” role took over, my overriding concern was to make sure he was fine first, when it was clear that yet another trip to A&E was to be avoided, we have a loyalty card,  “dad” slipped away and “coach” came back.

The link here is between identity and role and where they align you get a crew, but I am assuming here that we are relating to situation where we have multiple individuals come together for a common purpose, so we are talking about collective identity.

A crew has capabilities different from the sum of the individuals, knowledge is contained in the linkages and relationships between individuals, the tools and the training as much as individuals themselves.

Snowden takes this further and out of this “sum of the whole” we begin to understand where ideologies come from, where stories told between individuals gain an almost independence of their own as a  trope, a significant reoccurring theme, just like in the Terry Pratchett novel witches abroad.

But out of all this we come to understand that the individual identity is changed or modified by these relationships, so in Snowden’s words ..

“Nature may deal the cards, but nurture plays them”

So identity comes to the heart of a human complex adaptive system in that the system is modified by the individual who are like wise being modified by the system.  The point of all this is that you cannot predict what will happen in a complex adaptive system, so don’t try to analyse it, its pointless.


This is very philosophical in nature, the general idea given over in the class and written verbatim in the blog is that human intentions are vague, they exist in terms of general ideas and a sense of direction rather than firm goals.

The point is that in a complex adaptive system you cannot think in terms of goals as we don’t 100% know where we are going,  we have an intent or a vision, but we don’t know what the final destination is.

It’s a bit like asking for an estimate for something that you have never done before, or why funding based on statements of work are such a bad idea. If I am only getting paid if I have delivered what is in the SoW then regardless of whether it makes sense right now I am going to build it, this can be the problem with an outsourcing model, except where we are very certain about what we are building, its obvious and can be completely defined.

He also links it back to identity in that dominant tropes can set direction, remember stories want to be told.