ArticlePDF Available

The use of narrative to understand and respond to complexity: A comparative analysis of the Cynefin and Weickian models



This article compares two prominent manage- rial models - those of Snowden and Weick - that use narrative as a sensemaking response to com- plexity. After presenting an overview to their approach to narrative and complexity, we then analyze their stylistic differences as a precursor to identifying eight features of the more sub- stantial likeness of their models. In the conclu- sion we distill the essential features of narrative and complexity that their concepts entail and show that individual behavior, interpersonal communication, participation, and management by exception are their hallmarks.
E:CO Vol. 7 Nos. 3-4 2005 pp. 32-39
The use of narrative to understand and respond to
complexity: A comparative analysis of the Cynefin
and Weickian models
Larry Browning & Thierry Boudès
Department of Business, University of Illinois, USA
Graduate School of Business, ESCP-EAP, FR
This article compares two prominent manage-
rial models - Snowden and Weick’s - that use
narrative as a sensemaking response to com-
plexity. After presenting an overview to their
approach to narrative and complexity, we then
analyze their stylistic differences as a precursor
to identifying eight features of the more sub-
stantial likeness of their models. In the conclu-
sion we distill the essential features of narrative
and complexity that their concepts entail and
show that individual behavior, interpersonal
communication, participation, and manage-
ment by exception are their hallmarks.
his special issue is based on the premises that
a good narrative is a complex one and that
complexity is best understood with a narra-
tive. Consistent with these premises, we define “nar-
rativesas a type of communication that happens in
conversation, is composed of discourse, appears in
a sequence, and is interpreted retrospectively (Boje,
2002; Putnam and Fairhurst, 2001; Czarniawska,
1998; Weick, 1979; Barthes, 1977). “Complexity
can be defined as non-linear relations, driven by
small forces that result in the emergence of sudden
changes that produce unexpected outcomes (Mo-
rowitz, 2002; Taylor, 2001). Our question is: How
do these two ideas come together? The subject of
this article is the work of the two authors, Snowden
and Weick (and their research teams), that addresses
the communicative implications of complexity and
The differences between Snowden and
he two most well-known and comprehen-
sively developed models using narrative
analysis for responding to complexity in
organizations are that of Weick and his associates,
at the University of Michigan (Weick et al., 2005;
Weick and Sutcliffe, 2001), and that of Snowden
and his work with Kurtz at the Cynefin Centre for
Organizational Complexity. Remarkably, these two
authors virtually ignore each other’s work despite the
The use of narrative to understand and respond to complexity
E:CO Issue Vol. 7 Nos. 3-4 2005 pp. 32-39
major overlap between their premises and practices.
The sole written cross-reference between the two
is Snowden’s criticism of Weick’s use of High Reli-
ability Organizations (HROs), that is, organizations
such as aircraft carriers and nuclear power plants that
require acute mindfulness if they are to avoid situa-
tions in which small errors build upon one another
to precipitate a catastrophic breakdown. Snowden
believes that HROs are too anomalous to be useful as
a comparison for mainstream organizational practice
(Snowden, 2003).
These two authors also differ in that whereas
Weick, a university scholar, developed his theory
before focusing on its applications, Snowden, who
originally developed his work within IBM, con-
structed applied methods including tools and prac-
tices for analyzing narrative complexity - e.g., Story
Circles” and “Knowledge Disclosure Points” (KDPs)
- in concert with his research program.
These authorsideas also differ in origins.
Snowden’s Cynefin group anchors its program in
literary and science-fiction references (Snowden,
2000a), as seen in its very name, “Cynefin” (pro-
nounced cyn-ev-in), a Welsh term that, as noun,
roughly means habitat” and as an adjective roughly
means “acquainted” or “familiar.” The term more
specifically means one’s environment, or place of
comfort or birth (Snowden, 2003a). The theme of
the Cynefin model is that the ability to respond to
complexity requires a sense of place, which enables
one to advance diverse views and to imagine narra-
tives about what happened, what could have hap-
pened, and how to act differently in the future.
Weick’s theories, on the other hand, reflect
his education as a social psychologist and include
such topics as threat-rigidity, commitment-de-
commitment, doubt-self-fulfilling prophecies, and
dissonance-assurance. In his recent works (1995,
2001) Weick uses these ideas to develop the concept
of “sensemaking.
Browning & Boudès
Weick and Snowden also differ on the
grammar of the central theme of both their ideas
about sensemaking. Sensemaking, as Weick fuses
the term, is a neologism (invented word) meant to
convey the idea that the term is so all-encompassing
that it deserves being distinguished as a new usage
about a new concept. Snowden, meanwhile, uses
the compound term “sense-makingto represent the
same family of ideas. Snowden’s term, more conven-
tional, aims to describe a whole set of processes that
have brand names such as the previously mentioned
Story Circles and KDPs and to use narrative theory
to understand the complexity of organizational en-
Another significant difference is the type
of evidence they use for their respective programs.
Snowden presents his ideas to workshop partici-
pants, and then uses an interpretation of their re-
sponses as evidence for his concepts in his articles
about narrative and complexity. Weick’s evidence
comes from his field studies of jazz orchestras,
firefighters, and the aforementioned aircraft carri-
ers and power plants. This work is amplified, in an
applied version, in his co-authored 2001 book with
Katherine Sutcliffe on managing the unexpected in
an age of complexity.
These differences between Weick and
Snowden’s ideas are differences in style - that is, they
differ in their historical, cultural, and pedagogical
approaches to complexity. Yet our reading of Weick
and Snowden’s treatment of complexity and narra-
tive shows that there is considerable overlap on the
substance of their thinking. The purpose of this
article is to list and interpret these points of likeness.
To set up this listing, we will review their common
approach to narrative and complexity.
The similarities between Snowden and
eick and Snowden commonly assert
that the complexity and ambiguity
of the environments that individuals
face are best understood when language, including
the richness of metaphor and the flexibility of the
story, is invoked as a sensemaking device (Weick
and Browning, 1986; Snowden, 1999). For Weick,
“sensemakingdefines organizational action as an
ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts
to create order and make retrospective sense of what
occurs (Weick et al., 2005; Weick, 1993). Accord-
ingly, organizations become interpretation systems
of participants who, through the back and forth of
their own understandings, provide meanings for
each other via their everyday interactions.
The exercises Snowden uses in the Cynefin
project emphasize contextualizing to generate col-
lective sense-making as a consequence of discourse.
These workshop discussions emphasize diversity
and concreteness by using narrative methods that
allow specific patterns to emerge in understanding
the story of a project or event. A consistent theme
of Weick’s theory development from the very begin-
ning is that complex environments must be matched
with equally complex processing mechanisms. The
capacity of the narrative to vary in punctuation
(when they begin and end), pace (what is the speed
and variation between sequences), and participant
composition (casts can range from one person, to
few, to ensembles) means the narrative is a com-
municative form that is frequently consistent with
organizational complexity (Luhman & Boje, 2001;
Polster, 1987).
Snowden’s strategy for sense-making is to
lay out an understanding of language depending on
the specificity of the environment. Snowden, like the
narratologist Walter Fisher before him (1984), wor-
ries that experts’ language is so restricted and abstract
that it too easily remains about the problem, but far
above it. Weick and Snowden jointly emphasize
the role of language in sensemaking about complex-
ity and especially the role of the communicator to
create meaningful messages that are informative,
comprehensive, and not oversimplified (Snowden,
1999). Stories can complexify meanings in a way
that linguistic statements cannot (Snowden, 1999).
For Weick, interpersonal processes play out as actors
know who they are by what they say to others and
how others respond to them. He observes, “People
verbalize their interpretations and the processes they
use to generate them” (Weick 1995: 8). A distinctive
feature of sensemaking, and one that also distin-
guishes it from interpretation, is the way action and
organization collaborate to make up the structure.
Weick sees communication as a type of action be-
cause generating discourse is an act of performance
and production. Sensemaking is about “authoring
as well as reading” (Weick 1995: 7).
This view of narrative as a special answer
to complexity is further laid out in the writings by
Snowden, Weick, and associates. In common, they
propose a set of conditions, a set of useful practices,
including the kinds of structures necessary to adapt
to complexity successfully. We have identified eight
major statements that capture these commonali-
E:CO Vol. 7 Nos. 3-4 2005 pp. 32-39
1. Acknowledging and accepting complexity is better
than placating it with planning models. Snowden
contends that the physics on which Fredrick Taylor
based the rational theory of scientific management is
no match for the contemporary environment. There
are simply too many situations where the standard
tools and techniques of policy-making and decision-
making do not apply (Kurtz and Snowden, 2003).
This position is consistent with Snowden’s general
emphasis on learning. Because most environments
are turbulent, individuals experience considerable
change; hence, the best thing we can do is to learn
from it. Weick parallels this idea with the concept
of “threat rigidity,” which refers to the tightening
of categories that occur when people’s understand-
ings are threatened. In their book on managing the
unexpected (2001), Weick and Sutcliffe promote a
mix of action and stability - a mix of structure and
change - that is akin to the complexity concept of
“far from equilibrium.” They contend that the best
response to complexity is diversity and an informa-
tion consciousness that enables a person to become
a mindful observer and actor, a vigilant and attentive
actor, rather than one dependent on mindless control
Snowden reaches much the same conclusion
from a different route. He believes that the tradi-
tional organization, with its emphasis on planning,
policy, procedures, and controls, leads to a training
culture of obedience rather than a learning culture
of understanding and action. Weick and Sutcliffe
(2001) share the preference for moving away from
planning recipes toward a focus on individual mind-
fulness and anticipation.
2. It is important to acknowledge failure and learn
from instances of it. While this concept has been
most extensively developed by Sitkin (1994), it exists
both directly and indirectly in Weick and Snowden’s
work, and it appears in several different forms. In
his workshops, Snowden has his participants review
past projects to identify a fateful moment when their
project might have failed, which enables them to see
how close they came to failure and how they might
avoid it in the future.
Both Snowden and Weick tie failure to
learning - seeing things in a new way - such that the
surprise becomes a communicable story, even if it is
“near miss. Narrators are able to say, This might
have happened.Snowden sometimes asks the fol-
lowing question in his seminars: What spreads fast-
est in your organization - stories of failure or stories
of success?” He says the usual answer is “failure
because we realize that stories of failure are more
valuable than success stories (Snowden, 2003). Be-
cause people tend agree more on what is going wrong
than what is going right, what are called “best prac-
tice” efforts in fact rely on the ability to identify both
past successes and past failures (Snowden, 2003).
Given Weick and Sutcliffes (2001) premise that
HROs must focus on potential catastrophic failure,
such organizations constantly complete reviews and
exercises that gauge their preparedness - without a
fear of punishment from reporting a failure. Focus-
ing on failure is so important because its opposite,
success, is such an emotional and fulfilling rush that
it leads to hubris (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001). A major
component of sensemaking for Weick and Sutcliffe
is a “preoccupation with failures rather than suc-
cesses” (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001, in their executive
3. Self-organization is an order that has no hier-
archical designer or director. Snowden contends,
“there is a fascinating kind of order in which no
director or designer is in control but which emerges
through the interaction of many entities” (Kurtz &
Snowden, 2003: 464). In his approach to self-orga-
nization he reaffirms Peter Drucker’s idea that “in
the Knowledge Economy everyone is a volunteer”
(Snowden, 2000c: 3). A key feature of narrative is
that characters are most interesting when they make,
or struggle with, independent choices. Snowden says
that organizing business on the Web creates a com-
munity of volunteers who operate in an open and
free system. This change shifts organizations away
from hierarchical forms to ones where they become
networks of communities directed toward a purpose
(Snowden, 2000b).
For Snowden, when an environment is
ambiguous, the proper scope for interpretation and
action is at the individual rather than the hierarchical
level (Snowden, 2000a). This view is commensurate
with Weick and Sutcliffes fostering individually
distinctive interpretations of what is going on and
accepting diverse inputs in responding to complex-
ity. They encourage managers to act with an antici-
pation that counteracts oversimplification and easy
confirmation by structuring differences in personal
background and experience into the organization.
Weick and Sutcliffe also reflect the move away from
hierarchy toward self-organization in this recom-
mendation: Create a set of operating dynamics
that shifts leadership to the person who currently
has the answer to the problem at hand. This means
people put a premium on expertise over and decisions
migrate both downward and upward as conditions
Browning & Boudès
warrant (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2001: 49, italics
4. Narratives are valuable for showing role differen-
tiation and polyvocality. Weick’s most prominent
example of problem-recognition resulting from role
difference appears in his story on how child abuse
came to be a medical diagnosis in American medi-
cine. The story of the development of the battered
child syndrome (BCS) in Weick’s (1995) sensemak-
ing book beautifully illustrates the features of label-
ing and institutional resistance. Weick’s analysis also
illustrates how individual reputation becomes im-
plicated in “seeinga problem. Before BCS became
well-enough known to become an institutional label,
child injuries that appeared in X-rays or other parts
of a medical report were treated as anomalies. The
first report of BCS appeared in a radiology journal
rather than a pediatric journal, which illustrates how
an outsider, a distant voice, became a key participant
in developing the medical diagnosis for BCS. As
a result of that radiology journal’s report, a mix of
participants overcame the fallacy of centrality
- which is reflected in the egocentric argument “If I
don’t know about this event, it must not be going on
(Weick 1995: 2). In that story, it is the radiologists,
not the pediatricians, who, from a distance and from
different data, come to perceive childhood injury
as something other than an accident. The delay in
recognizing the battered-child syndrome is ironic;
the truth was right in front of the doctors, but they
did not recognize abuse because of the social and
political setting of the examination.
Diverse information causes a person not only
to see different information but also to see informa-
tion differently. In the last quarter of the 20
the complexity of the story allows for many voices,
from marginal to central, to register as a response to
complexity because it matches the local, fragmented,
emergent story so well (Boje, 2002; Luhman & Boje,
2001). Boje’s idea that a fragmented and ambigu-
ous narrative makes any single event transient and
multivocal is consistent with Snowden and Weick’s
positions. Snowden has a section in his most com-
prehensive statement on this topic called humans
are not limited to one identity” (Kurtz & Snowden,
2003). He develops exercises in his workshops that
are designed to develop narrative databases without
particular attention to their truthfulness. Instead,
the purpose is to generate ingredients that might be
raw material for story-based interventions. They
suspend truth to generate provocative content. Such
diversity is part of how Snowden defines complexity,
which is “how patterns emerge through the interac-
tions of many agents(Kurtz & Snowden, 2003:
469). Both Snowden and Weick see a non-egoistic,
diverse, probing, interacting style of communication
as a response to complexity.
5. Conformity carries risks, and thus we need diverse
inputs when responding to complexity. Much of
Snowden’s thinking about this is captured in his con-
ception of learning, which he sees as a replacement
for order and structure. A difficulty with systems
built on technology is that people are seduced by
order often at the cost of usability and adaptability.
Snowden’s use of the term “Cynefin” is counter to
the idea of conformity because it represents “the
place of our multiple affiliations, the sense that we
all, individually and collectively, have many roots,
cultural, religious, geographic, tribal, and so forth”
(Kurtz & Snowden, 2003: 467).
Narratives are dominant in organizations
because conformity often reflects local power and
circumstances. Narrative is a democratic concept
(anyone can tell a story and anyone can criticize and
analyze a story) rather than a privileged one (rational-
ity requires special technical skills). When people
tell a story, they are invoking a personal “philosophy
of reason, value, and action” (Weick & Browning,
1986: 249). Weicks emphasis is on interaction
that involves both speaker and receiver to achieve
understanding, and on the role of story-telling to
capture the nuance and uncertainty present in a given
situation (Weick et al., 2005). To combat confor-
mity they urge looking for evidence that disconfirms
“cherished expectations” (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001:
155). Finally, Weick and Sutcliffe urge developing
a mindfulness that encourages variety in people’s
analysis and integrating the information people have
that is not held in common and to “train people to
manage these differences” (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001:
6. Action is valuable under conditions of complexity.
Weick returns to the importance of action repeatedly
and identifies it as a process that is ongoing, instru-
mental, subtle, swift, and social: When action is the
central focus interpretation, not choice, is the core
phenomenon,” which means that communication
is a type of action (Weick, et al., 2005: 409). One of
Snowden’s categories of the environment is the “un-
ordered and chaotic domain” (Kurtz and Snowden,
2003: 469) in which there are no perceivable cause-
and-effect relations. He sees the proper response to
this environment is “to act, quickly and decisively,
to reduce the turbulence; and then to sense imme-
diately the reaction to that intervention so that we
E:CO Vol. 7 Nos. 3-4 2005 pp. 32-39
can respond accordingly” (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003:
469). Snowden’s writing on action is developed,
in part, in his writing on virtual communities and
the value of these structures for allowing people to
express understandings they might feel too radical
for face-to-face communication. Individuals can act
to “experiment with ideas and experience” (Kurtz &
Snowden, 2003: 469) when they are confident that
the ideas will not be attributed to them.
For Snowden, the most useful informa-
tion is contextual and need-driven. Thus, there is
a mismatch between mechanistic models and or-
ganic human decision-making (Snowden, 2000a).
His goal is to enable organizations to identify what
knowledge they have in a contextual, detailed, de-
scription that leads them directly to action. A good
example is his thinking on anthropological observa-
tion. His general sense of action allows Snowden to
contend, provocatively but accurately, that a single
day of learning observational techniques is enough
to make researchers successful in the field, especially
when they are imbued with a deep curiosity for their
subject (Snowden, 2000a).
For Weick, action leads to identity because
the nature of a person is constructed out of the
processes of interaction” (Weick, 1995: 20). Since
interpersonal communication and conversation
constitute the organization, those very interactions
are part of the structure. As Weick says, Actions
and structures of organizations are determined in
part by micro-momentary actions of their mem-
bers(Weick, 1995: 8). Action is also showcased in
Weick’s example of KLM Airlines’ communication
that shows when individuals communicate about
concrete matters that clarify their understanding,
they are acting to create meaning (Weick, 2001).
7. The focus is properly on small forces and how they
affect complex systems. One of Weick’s most popular
concepts is his idea of “small wins,” which are essen-
tially small steps that have the potential of affecting
the direction and understanding of larger systems.
He defines a small win” as “a concrete, complete,
implemented outcome of moderate importance
(Weick, 2001: 431). His examples of small wins are
frequently symbolic and communicative - whether
it is the Task Force on Gay Liberation succeeding
in getting the U.S. Library of Congress to change
its cataloging system by re-labeling its codes and
taking the term “deviance” out of the definition of
“gay,or the Administrator of the Environmental
Protection Agency’s locating an obscure law on the
books that allowed him to legally challenge pollution
practices in several large American cities and in doing
so demonstrate how serious he was about increasing
the safety and quality of water. His strategy was to
take small visible steps that drew the notice of others
and enlisted their “small” actions on a larger project
(Weick, 2001: 429-431).
Snowden inserts as a topic head in one of
his articles the phrase the small guy wins out
(Snowden, 1999: 34). The phrase refers to the
tendency of experts to use too much of their deep
knowledge of a task and minimize its practical
requirements. Snowden relates a story of two soft-
ware development groups - one expert, the other a
lesser group - whose experience in programming was
limited to the fairly routine requirements of payroll
systems. In a competitive exercise between these
two groups for learning purposes, the experts created
a plan for an elegant piece of code that would take
two months to develop. The payroll programmers,
meanwhile, downloaded a “good enough” list from
the Internet that cost five dollars (Snowden, 1999).
Thus one feature for smallness for Snowden is the
decisions that can be made that allow the group to
move on - to accept “good enough,” implement it,
and then see what that action means.
In their work on HROs, Weick and Sutcliffe
observe that the risk of not attending to small mo-
ments increases the possibility of escalating toward
much more serious and unfavorable events. One
indicator of mindfulness is the ability to perceive
“clues had been accumulating for some time that
small, unexpected things were happening(Weick
& Sutcliffe, 2001: 49).
8. It is important to understand the irony of bureau-
cratic control. The irony here is that the attempt to
control something often produces results opposite
of what was intended. Charles Perrow’s Normal
Accidents (1984) is a collection of stories chroni-
cling what goes wrong when the fix is worse than
the original problem. One irony is that organiza-
tions produce volumes of information that, instead
of comforting individuals, result in insecurity and
overload. When an organization does happen onto an
organic and innovative achievement, it often swamps
it with measurement and control (Snowden, 2000c).
A classic example is that of Jack Kilby from Texas
Instruments, an electronics firm in the United States.
Dr. Kilby, co-inventor of the integrated circuit and,
for his effort, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics
in 2000, attributes his invention of the chip to his
having arrived at Texas Instruments as a new hire in
the summer of 1958. Since most of his colleagues
Browning & Boudès
were off on vacation, he enjoyed two weeks to tinker
and play in the lab completely alone, which resulted
in his world-changing invention. Ironically, Texas
Instruments responded to this miraculous and inde-
pendent achievement by cancelling all vacations for
inventor employees for several summers thereafter
so that they, too, might invent something brilliant
(Turner Hasty interview, 1992). In organizations,
the higher one sits, the more difficult it is to resist
the tendency to transform the effective into the
Snowden frames his work in this area by crit-
icizing the influence of the Newtonian metaphor on
management science’s focus on linear development.
As he sees it, management science aims to “develop
algorithms that would predict human behavior in
the same way as the movement of heavenly spheres
could be predicted” (Snowden, 2000c: 3). Snowden
represents this point with the following story: A
group of West Point cadets were assigned the task
of managing the playtime of some kindergartners.
Given some time to plan, the cadets identified objec-
tives and backup plans so as to order the children’s
play rationally. What they achieved instead was
chaos. Experienced teachers, on the other hand,
given the same task, allowed the children degrees of
freedom from the start and tweaked their behavior
by stabilizing desirable patterns and destabilizing
undesirable ones (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003).
With this example, Snowden shows that
efforts to reorganize and reduce authority can ironi-
cally often have the opposite effect: A familiar ex-
ample in organization life is the cyclic reorganization
of authority by industry, then by function, then by
industry, and so on in an endless cycle; or the fact
that well-intentioned revolutionaries sometimes put
into place bureaucracies even more stifling than those
they overthrew(Kurtz & Snowden, 2003: 476).
Surprise - that of expecting one thing and being
shocked by the appearance of another - is consistent
with narrative theory because a “catch” or a “hook”
in a narrative frequently takes the form of a surprise,
and in the language of sensemaking, such an irony
suggests the need to understand the story (Weick,
et al., 2005).
In the conclusion, we summarize these eight
points and examine what their likeness means for
understanding narratives and complexity.
n this final section we will distill and elaborate
on these eight comparisons and show how the
programs of Snowden and Weick - originating
with two separate research teams on two separate
continents - reach much the same conclusion about
the nature of complexity and the value of narrative
as a response to it. Freud was fond of saying that it is
more efficient to analyze two cases than just one, just
as it is easier to crack two walnuts in your hand than
one alone (Gay, 1988). The study of organizations
has built on this notion by using the geographical
survey term “triangulation,” which refers to using
two points to identify an unknown third. These
eight points suggest the following conclusions.
First, complex narratives are about individ-
ual behavior. While the organizations Snowden and
Weick describe are complex systems, they see local
behavior - self-organization - as the key response to
non-linear conditions. Whether it is Weick’s X-ray
technicians arriving at a diagnosis for the Battered
Child Syndrome or Snowden’s kindergarten teach-
ers shaping chaotic behavior, they place the person
at the center of the interpretation. The advantage of
focusing on the person is this: the more self-organiz-
ing, rather than controlled, the behavior, the more
likely that the right solution has a life somewhere in
the system. If the communication practices among
self-organizers are in fact vulnerable and attentive
to the margins, their use will result in the best self-
organized solution evolving to a dominant position,
which is how individual action becomes a role model
for others to emulate. Those influenced by the role-
modeling, in turn, may become a force for an idea or
a project, and so on.
Second, narratives focus on “who said what
to whom with what effect.” One thing that adds to
the complexity of “who said what to whom with
what effect” is point of view. Who is making the
interpretation of the complexity of the environment?
The ability to interpret complex environments rises
and falls on such things as subtle cues, the ability to
pick up human and technical details, fantasies, and
alternative histories. It rises and falls on who showed
up ten minutes early or ten minutes late. Commu-
nication under conditions of complexity takes the
form of facts, ideas, theories, and ideologies that
amalgamate into a narrative.
Third, participation and management by
exception are concepts that provide an alternative to
the dominant model of managerial control. While
they do not use these terms directly, Weick and
E:CO Vol. 7 Nos. 3-4 2005 pp. 32-39
Snowden affirm the concepts of participation and
management by exception as managerial approaches
to complexity. Those in charge of hierarchies are
obligated to take control of the sudden change that
complexity stimulates because that is what West-
ern cultures expect. The idea of management is, in
fact, usually understood as the engineering of social
control (Tsoukas, 1994). Yet Snowden and Weick’s
models direct us toward developing enough trust
that we can empower people to participate in local
complex conditions, including the right to respond
instantly. If complex change can begin with small,
local forces, then having the ears and eyes of observ-
ers acting on these forces follows as a strategy. The
paradox of letting go” and remaining involved is one
of the hardest complexity responses for a manager
to learn. In French, lâcher prise means “letting go,”
which is contrary to control, but it is a purposeful
absence of control. Weick and Snowden provide an
original approach to management as control because
they equalize control and letting go in impor-
tance. In this vein they embrace a classic axiom of
management, namely, J. D. Thompson’s notion, in
his book Organizations in Action, that contends that
management is best when it limits itself to managing
exceptions. The normal state of affairs is to let go;
the exception is to manage.
In conclusion, these diverse approaches to
the same topic amplify their power and increase the
credibility of both ideas. Weick and Snowden’s style
differences are no small matter; one might do quite
different things as a result of studying and knowing
only one or the other of them, yet their common
attention to how one diagnoses and responds to
complexity advances the larger idea of complexity
and narrative. Complexity, as an intellectual force,
is in its understanding phase. Its larger aim is
to answer the question, What are the managerial
consequences for viewing the world as an adaptive,
dissipative, and, most importantly, a non-linear sys-
tem?” Narratives are useful for complexity because
there are no hypotheses in complexity research;
instead there are historical, technical, and simula-
tion analyses of processes over time that result in
unexpected outcomes.
Barthes, R. (1977). “Introduction to the structural analysis
of narratives,in R. Barthes (ed.), S. Heath (trans.),
Image, music, text, Glasgow, Scotland: William Collins,
original work published in 1966, ISBN 0809057409,
pp. 79-124.
Boje, D. (2002). Narrative methods for organization
and communication research, London, UK: Sage
Publications, ISBN 0761965866.
Czarniawska, B. (1998). A narrative approach to
organization studies, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
Publications, ISBN 0761906622.
Gay, P. (1988). Freud: a life for our time, New York, NY:
W. W. Norton, ISBN 0393025179.
Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday
life, New York, NY: Basic Books, ISBN 0385094027.
Hasty, T. (1992). Unpublished interview for the
SEMATECH semiconductor manufacturing project,
Austin, TX.
Kurtz, C. F. and Snowden, D. J. (2003). The new dynamics
of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated
world,” IBM Systems Journal, ISSN 0018-8670, 42(3):
Luhman, J. T. and Boje, D. M. (2001). What is complexity
science? A possible answer from narrative research,
Emergence, ISSN 1521-3250, 3(1): 158-168.
Morowitz, H. J. (2002). The emergence of everything:
How the world became complex, Oxford, UK: Oxford
University Press, ISBN 0195135513X.
Perrow, C. (1984). Normal accidents: Living with high
risk technologies, New York, NY: Basic Book, ISBN
Polster, E. (1987). Every person’s life is worth a novel, New
York, NY: W. W. Norton, ISBN 1903458080.
Putnam, L. L. and Fairhurst, G. T. (2001). Discourse
analysis in organizations: Issues and concerns,in F.
M. Jablin and L. Putnam (eds.), The new handbook of
organizational communication, Sage Publications, ISBN
Sitkin, S. B. (1992). Learning through failure: The strategy
of small losses, Research in Organizational Behavior,
ISSN 0191-3085, 14: 231-266.
Snowden, D. J. (2003a). Managing for serendipity or why
we should lay off best practicesin KM,Knowledge
Management, 6(8),
Snowden, D. J. (2000a). “The ASHEN model: an enabler
of action: Part one of basics of organic knowledge
management,” Knowledge Management, 3 (4), http://
Snowden, D. J. (2000b). “Cynefin, a sense of time and
place: An ecological approach to sense making and
learning in formal organizations,” Proceedings of KMAC,
Snowden, D. J. (2000c). “Story circles and heuristic based
interventions: Part three of basics of organic knowledge
management,” Knowledge Management, 3 (10), http://
Snowden, D. J. (1999). Story telling: An old skill in a new
context,” Business Information Review, 16 (1): 30-37.
Taylor, M. C. (2001). The moment of complexity: Emerging
network culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
ISBN 0226791173.
Tsoukas, H. (1994). “Introduction: From social engineering
to reflective action in organizational behavior, in
H. Tsoukas (ed.), New thinking in organizational
behavior, Oxford, UK: Butterworth Heinemann, ISBN
0750617632, pp. 1-22.
Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. and Obstfeld, D. (2005).
Organizing and the process of sensemaking,
Browning & Boudès
Organizational Science, ISSN 1047-7039, 16(4):
Weick, K. E. (2001). Making sense of the organization,
Oxford, UK: Blackwell, ISBN 0631223177.
Weick, K. E. (1987). Substitutes for strategy,” in D. J.
Teece (ed.), The competitive challenge, Cambridge, MA:
Ballinger, ISBN 0887301789, pp. 221-233.
Weick, K. E. (1983). “Organizational communication:
Toward a research agenda, in L . Putnam and M.
Pacanowsky (eds.), Communication and organizations:
An interpretative approach, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage,
pp. 13-29.
Weick, K. E. and Sutcliffe, K. M. (2001). Managing the
unexpected: Assuring high performance in an age of
complexity, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, ISBN
Weick, K. E. and Browning, L. D. (1986). Argument and
narration in organizational communication,” Journal of
Management, ISSN 0149-2063, 12: 243-59.
Larry Browning is a professor of organizational
communication in the Department of Communica-
tion Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He
holds a PhD in Communication from the Ohio State
University. His research areas include the role of lists
and stories in organizations, information-communi-
cation technology and narratives, cooperation and
competition in organizations, and grounded theory
as a research strategy. His most recent work, along
with his co-authors, is: Browning, L. D., Sætre, A. S.,
Stephens, K., and Sørnes, J. O. (2004), Information
and communication technologies in action: Linking
theory and narratives of practice, Copenhagen: Co-
penhagen Business School Press.
Thierry Boudès is an associate professor of strate-
gic management at ESCP-EAP in Paris, France. He
holds a PhD from École Polytechnique, France. His
research areas focus on storytelling in organizations
and strategy process. His latest research deals with
the narrative representation of crises: Boudès, T.
and Laroche, H. (2005), Narrative constraints and
resources for understanding crisis representation in
official reports: The case of the 2003 heat wave in
France,” 21
Egos Colloquium, Berlin, Germany,
... Scholars in communication use many different terms for personal narratives, including ethnography and autoethnography, representing the interplay of social, cultural, and personal experience, each with its own expectations, practices, and procedures. Moreover, narratives are particularly useful in organizational studies, as means of capturing the complexity of lived experience (Browning, & Boudès, 2005). As Emerson, et al. (2011) notes: "the task of the ethnographer is not to determine "the truth" but to reveal the multiple truths apparent in others' ...
Full-text available
Impermanence is an essential yet understudied aspect of organizational communication. This study addresses the research question: How do people communicate about (or avoid communicating about) impermanence in the workplace? Taking impermanence—defined simply as the fact that reality is constantly in flux, transient, and effervescent—as a fundamental condition of life, this dissertation explores to what extent impermanence can be identified through organizational communication. Building upon 10 particular actions Weick (2012) used to describe organizational impermanence—believing, discarding, doubting, enacting, interrupting, labeling, reasoning, repeating, seeing, and substantiating— observations were taken on how members accepted and avoided the pandemic through everyday communication. These 10 actions have been further arranged through existing models of temporal structuring (Orlikowski & Yates, 2002; Ballard & Seibold, 2003, 2004) along five multidirectional feedback cycles—processes of confidence, awareness, influence, continuity, and affirmation. Further analysis explores how these cycles identify and express the lived experience of impermanence. I aim to further the paradigm of "the impermanent organization" (Weick, 2012), as well as temporal structuring and feedback cycles, so that researchers have more tools to describe and identify how impermanence is (or is not) communicated in the workplace. Some practical recommendations are offered for leadership and members of organizations on how to adapt to and cope with impermanence in daily life.
... Hablando de sistemas complejos, vale la pena tener en cuenta además algunos conceptos clave (Browning & Boudès, 2005): ...
Full-text available
En entornos complejos e interdependientes donde el individuo se ve sobrepasado, o depende de otros para conseguir sus objetivos, es el equipo el que toma el relevo. Un nuevo enfoque de management se hace necesario para gestionar este contexto, permitiendo a la organización reaccionar con agilidad para superar posibles riesgos y aprovechar oportunidades potenciales. Hacer frente a la crisis, al cambio permanente, a la incertidumbre, es algo que las organizaciones deben de hacer de forma colectiva desde una óptica de equipo y con liderazgo distribuido. Cooplexity presenta un modelo de colaboración en complejidad que abarca rigurosamente tres niveles de trabajo, individual, grupal y organizacional. Toda la investigación se ha realizado basándose en los comportamientos observados en equipos de alta dirección, interactuando en Synergy, un curso de formación que, estructurado en torno a un simulador comportamental, coloca a los participantes en situaciones que van desde la incertidumbre hasta la complejidad. El lector encontrará en este libro las pautas para facilitar la emergencia de comportamientos colaborativos. Además, encontrará una serie de conclusiones que retan los conceptos clásicos del trabajo en equipo y del liderazgo tal y como se han entendido hasta la actualidad.
... Čuječnost namreč ni uporabna le na nivoju zaposlenih kot posameznikov, temveč tudi na ravni organizacije, in sicer tako znotraj nje kakor pri njenem delovanju navzven. Organizacija, ki deluje čuječno, oblikuje kulturo učenja, razumevanja in delovanja namesto kulture treninga, ki se osredotoča na načrtovanje, kontrolo, procese in postopke (Browning in Boudès, 2005). ...
Full-text available
Čuječnost (nepresojajoče, sprejemajoče zavedanje doživljanja v sedanjem trenutku) je tudi v poslovnem in delovnem okolju čedalje bolj uveljavljen psihološki pristop, ki se ga poslužuje vse več organizacij tako v tujini kot pri nas. Na ravni posameznika, organizacije kakor tudi širše družbe lahko prinese čuječnost številne pozitivne učinke. Denimo zmanjšanje stresa zaposlenih; njihovo okrepljeno duševno in telesno blagostanje; povečanje produktivnosti, kreativnosti in kvalitete dela; boljše odnose v kolektivu, v delovnih timih in s strankami; zmanjšanje absentizma in fluktuacije; večjo varnost pri delu. Pričujoče poglavje predstavi, kaj čuječnost je in kako deluje v kontekstu dela in organizacije. Podrobneje opisuje zlasti vpliv čuječnosti na zmanjšanje stresa in povečanje psihičnega blagostanja zaposlenih, pomen psihološke prisotnosti v tukaj-in-zdaj ter vlogo čuječnosti pri delovni kreativnosti, komunikaciji in medosebnih odnosih. Posebni podpoglavji sta posvečeni dvema ključnima čuječnostnima strategijama, tako imenovanemu nepristranskemu opazovalcu ter sprejemanju doživljanja. Vključuje tudi razmišljanje o možnih stranpoteh korporativne čuječnosti v smislu njene napačne uporabe. Prispevek je praktično naravnan. Prinaša tudi navodila za izvedbo nekaterih priročnih čuječnostnih tehnik, napotke za neformalno prakso čuječnosti tekom delovnega dne, primere konkretnih pozitivnih učinkov čuječnosti pri slovenskih posameznikih ter predstavitev dveh specializiranih čuječnostnih programov za podjetja in organizacije, ki sta bila razvita v Sloveniji kot plod domačega znanja.
... What happened?". Sensemaker software was used to collect this data, which is an exploratory tool that uses narratives to try and understand complex systems within organizations (Browning & Boudès, 2005). ...
Objectives Mutual-aid groups are a central part of many individuals’ recovery journeys from substance addiction, and this research aimed to identify the key ingredients of a diverse range of recovery groups. Methods Individuals from 30 different substance addiction recovery groups across the UK (N = 151, 66% male, M age = 42.5 years) completed a survey, which asked participants to provide a narrative about their recovery group experiences. Participants were also asked to rate the extent to which theorized ingredients of addiction recovery groups were offered by their group, and how important each was to them. Both qualitative and quantitative data were collected and analyzed. Results The results indicated that the recovery group components suggested in previous literature were both present and rated as important. Component ratings did not differ depending on the type of group, the length of time the person had been in recovery, nor the length of time they had been involved in the group. The qualitative results identified other important components of recovery groups that had not been identified in the previous literature: presence of like-minded individuals and developing self-awareness and reflection skills. An updated list of recovery group components was thereby created. Conclusions Overall, the findings provide an in-depth, person-focused perspective on what makes an addiction recovery group successful. Asking group members directly about their experiences allowed us to refine and expand on previously theorized components. The updated components can be used as a template for developing future mutual-aid groups.
... Some key concepts of complex systems are worth considering as well (Browning & Boudès, 2005): 1. Accepting complexity is always better than trying to flatten it with planning models. ...
Full-text available
In complex and interdependent environments where the individual is overwhelmed or is dependent on others for achieving their goals, it is the team that takes the relay. A new management approach is necessary to manage this context, allowing the organisation to confront potential risks and take advantage of potential opportunities and synergies. Confront, the permanent change and uncertainty is something that organisations should do collectively from a team perspective with distributed leadership. Cooplexity presents a collaboration model in complexity that rigorously embrace three levels of working, individual, group and organisational. All research has been conducted based on the behaviours observed in high management teams, interacting in Synergy, a training course that, structured around a behavioural simulation, set participants against situations ranging from uncertainty to complexity. The reader will find in this book the guidelines to facilitate the emergence of collaborative behaviours. Besides, will find a series of conclusions that challenge the classics concepts of teamwork and leadership as have understood to this day.
... Others (e.g. Browning & Boudes, 2005;Currie, Finn, & Martin, 2010) used narratives to illustrate the interaction between macro and micro level practices on role transition and work-related emotions. Czarniawska (2004) defined a narrative as an account of events and actions in chronological order. ...
Full-text available
Globally and in developing countries (like South Africa) there is an increase in expatriate workers. Empirical research concerning the career development processes of expatriate workers (mostly quantitative) has assisted in identifying links between psychological variables covering individual and organizational aspects related to expatriate workers. Notable gaps still exist within the literature around understanding the career development processes and career wellbeing of expatriate workers. This chapter illustrates the value of a qualitative inquiry using a sample of about 30 expatriate employees in information technology positions within the South African work context. The data was collected over a two-year period. Three main contributions emerged from the narrative analysis. First, the study shows the role of satisfiers and how these affect expatriate career wellbeing. Second, the study shows the role of inhibitors and the ensuing complexity they make on the expatriate’s identity. Finally, in view of these satisfiers and inhibitors, a give and take negotiation process emerged based on the data analysis, called negotiation, re-negotiation, and no-compromise. Implications for theory, including a theoretical framework emanating around the career wellbeing of expatriates are presented based on the findings of this research.
... Narratives focus on what someone said to whom and what came out. The ability to interpret complex environments rises and falls as subtle cues, human and technical details, fantasies, and alternative stories are perceived (Browning and Boudès, 2005). ...
Full-text available
Conference Paper
Enterprise social media (ESM), such as wikis, blogs, or social networks, have rapidly spread across organisations. They offer unique means to support knowledge management, knowledge creation, or internal communication, especially in distributed work environments. Researchers and practitioners alike argue that the selection, introduction, and optimisation of ESM need to be based on use cases. Various frameworks exist that support the underlying process. However, one main characteristic of ESM is that they are highly undefined and recombinant, that is, they can be employed for many different use cases, which may also change over time. This makes it hard to define use cases of ESM in advance. In this paper, we argue that in addition to potential use cases decision makers should have a proper understanding of the context ESM are going to be employed in. By context we mean a possibly unlimited, personal and situated set of relevant knowledge involved in employing ESM. Context can be considered as a sensitising device that makes us more aware of the potential situational and temporal boundary conditions. Sense-making is used to understand ESM and to provide guidance to a decision maker by eliminating ambiguity which occurs during selecting, introducing, and optimising ESM. The basic idea of sense-making is that reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective sense of what occurs. The current paper discusses how the Cynefin sense-making framework can be used in deciding what to use ESM for and in subsequently evaluating ESM. Cynefin consists of five domains, that is, simple, complex, chaotic, complicated, and disorder. For two domains, complex and chaotic, the respective impact on employing and evaluating ESM is discussed. The next step is to request input from decision makers and users of ESM alike regarding the context they are in, perceived changes in context, and how context influences ESM usage.
A cosmology event—a severe disruption where people no longer understand the universe to be rational—is the best way to describe the COVID-19 Pandemic. The struggles of being quarantined during a pandemic helped me create new structures to cope. Going outdoors became a highly treasured break, and since my office had no doors, I created a façade that helped me feel more privacy as I fashioned an acceptable background for my new way of meeting: Zoom. I turned my illusion of control into reality by focusing on research and teaching and beginning five new research studies. Yet I also overworked incessantly and dealt with family health issues that had me question whether I could be a good mother. I existed in a zone of emergent complexity; the space between the edge of chaos and the edge of stability, a sweet spot where innovation occurs. Living in this zone forced me to bounce back and forth between these edges of chaos and stability, sometimes slipping, even if briefly, into full chaos. I’m exhausted from this constant motion, but I also know I must keep moving forward.
Full-text available
In this paper, it is shown how knowledge theories and knowledge acquisition techniques are integrated by contextualisation to lead to the drawing of concept maps that can be used in civil engineering design, and to analyse and record specific experience. The concept maps form part of concept-based ontologies that are analysed to identify problems and constraints. Solutions to these problems and constraints create new knowledge and can be reported and linked to the world-wide-web. This linkage is made possible by utilising the Top-Level-Ontologies or Upper-Level-Ontologies to link to existing or new ontologies on the world-wide-web. The logic base acts as a procedure to lead and integrate all the above-mentioned aspects into three modules. These modules of the logic base are described and simple examples are given of how the logic base functions. The logic base is a technique to bring knowledge closer to the practising engineer, and facilitates thinking processes that will greatly assist in systematising knowledge, the analysis thereof and making it accessible on the word-wide-web.
Full-text available
This paper outlines one of several sense making models developed by the author based on fieldwork across a range of organizations. These models are designed to pass the ‘paper napkin ’ test: they can be drawn from memory on the back of a paper napkin and used to make sense of a situation in normal conversation. All such models are designed to force communities of practitioners to recognize the need to introduce requisite levels of variety into their thinking, and avoid single models of practice and strategy. The Cynefin model focuses on the location of knowledge in an organization using cultural and sense making aspects of four different forms of community, both formal and informal. Three of these communities are a part of the day-to-day life of any large organization, the forth is domain of innovation and strategies for forcing innovation are discussed. Allowing self-organization of knowledge within an organization, utilizing but not being used by the informal or shadow organization is seen as key to effective knowledge management. The paper distinguished between mechanical, Newtonian models of management science and the emerging organic approach, which draws on concepts from complexity theory. This paper is a much-abbreviated version of a chapter in the forthcoming book Knowledge Horizons: The present and promise of Knowledge Management edited by Charles Despres & Daniele Chauvel due for publication in September 2000.