The Unforgiving60

S2E16 – Understanding Complexity with Dave Snowden (Comfort in Chaos and Uncertainty)

July 23, 2020

Tim and Ben have previously drawn extensively on Dave Snowden’s material as a means of sense-making in complex environments. And here he is in person (virtually). In particular, Snowden’s Cynefin (pronounced ‘kin-ev-in’) framework has proven consistently to be an incredibly useful and intuitive sense-making tool for leaders in all contexts. 


In the period of heightened COVID-19 risk it has been highly instructional to the management teams that Tim and Ben work with.


In this episode, Dave joins us from the UK and speaks to not only Cynefin, but also complexity.


BYO notebook for the knowledge from this one!


Intelligence Summary (INTSUM)

03:20   Dave and Ben’s first meeting at the SAS Regiment back

04:00   Dave provides an overview of his Cynefin framework

04:50   The domains – simple, complicated, complex and chaotic

09:20   Leading in complex environments – parallel probes

11:25   Every intervention into a complex system fundamentally changes it

12:00   ‘Nudges’ towards ‘adjacent possibles’ – stepping stones towards better results.  An alternative to trying to predict the future

13:45   The key to operating in complexity – know where you are and the rough direction you want to head

14:20   What can you control in a complex system?

17:00   Negative boundaries – teaching through failure, not success

18:20   Commander’s Intent – ‘metaphorical examples with counter-factuals’ – Dave’s Gettysburg example, taken from his time at DARPA

22:25   Are contemporary Western militaries doing ‘mission command’ well?

23:25   The Black Lives Matter protests through a Cynefin lens

27:00   Using ‘trios’ to validate decision-making in complexity

28:45   Neuroplasticity and its impacts in various stages in life

32:20   Why Dave got thrown out of the Pentagon

34:50   Human-mediated wargames: ‘far more malicious’

36:30   Ben on the benefits of Dave’s visit to the Australian SAS in 2009

39:00   Dave’s work with Peter Drucker

40:00   COVID-19 as a ‘Black Elephant’ – a cross between a Black Swan and the elephant in the room

43:15   The importance of narrative and storytelling

48:10   Using anecdotes to increase resilience

50:20   The importance of experience in training

51:30   COVID-19 – who got it right: the economists or the doctors?

52:30   Dave’s prognosis for contemporary political leadership


External Links



The Externals … Available on Spotify (plus a bit of Ben’s guitar work, recorded in the bathroom of one of Saddam’s palaces in Tikrit, Iraq!)


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