Thriving in Complexity – Core Breakfast

Schools have often been forces of societal stability, preparing young people to take a defined and productive (and sometimes predetermined) role in society. Today’s schools, on the contrary, are being asked to prepare young people to enter a future world that we cannot even imagine. It’s hard enough for the adults in schools to cope with the uncertainty we face in the relatively near future; growing the school and societal leaders we need for the distant future is daunting indeed. In this session Jennifer Garvey Berger (Cultivating Leadership blog) offers a new way of thinking about uncertainty and some new tools to help us all grow more capable of coping with our complex world.

8a0d40377f3606f893c74d8a6074111bThis highly useful Core Breakfast set the scene by exploring the idea of complexity. Education is fast becoming more complex with digital technology a key driver. The quote from Mencken captures why this is important discussion. While the level of complexity for educators has grown dramatically, the landscape of schools hasn’t.

This is where Snowden’s Cynefin framework comes in – a ‘sense making device’. It is structured with four domains, over two sides: predictable and unpredictable. Schools are everywhere on the domain, so it can be used effective as an evaluation tool.


  • Obvious – known knowns – facts are known, cause and effect is visible, can rely on best practice
  • Complicated – known unknowns – need expertise, facts are contested but with analysis and research we can find an answer


  • Complex – unknown unknowns – cause and effect are in reverse. Cannot rely on what has happened before, need novelty, critical thinking and knowledge creation – leading people, culture change are complex. As Berger said “Good teaching is a complex endeavour that shifts and changes in the moment. It’s not something you can repeat.”
  • Chaos – cause and effect is unclear, the job is to stablize the system. “In this context, managers “act–sense–respond”: act to establish order; sense where stability lies; respond to turn the chaotic into the complex” – Snowden & Boone. Chaos creates innovation (i.e. Christchurch earthquakes)

Mind the gap (close the gap between current results and outcomes that you want), mind the system (nudge the system, watch its responses, be ready to respond). Three habits of mind to help us to thrive in complexity:

  • Ask different questions: increase curiosity. The future is not going to be like the past. Questions come from our general beliefs. Useful questions about what people are chatting about. Facts are way less important than what people believe.
  • Take multiple perspectives: taking other people’s perspectives to expand our own perspective. The truth we see is the truth – that is wrong. How can we listen to learn? Generally we listen to win, or listen to fix something, or listen to make something go away. In the unpredictable space, you don’t know the answer. Which people are you not listening to and learning from well enough? What might you learn if you listened harder?
  • See systems: notice the patterns and forces instead of the individual elements.

I’m left reflecting on the way this framework could be used. It might support teachers to understand change and to feel more comfortable with complexity. It certainly makes a useful tool for personal reflection and would support change management. Ultimately, the message I’m taking away is to be comfortable with complexity and how important it is to learn to live not in the predictable past, but instead in the unpredictable future.


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