Sense-Making 101 Knowledge Base

Complex Systems

The world is more complex than ever before. This whole talk track.

Causation is more difficult to prove. Dynamics are non-linear. Is the catalyst the cause or the effect?

Chaos abounds. Systems are nested and interdependent. Wicked problems make the depth of their complexity known when we try to solve them. 

The more we study and learn, the more we can begin to take into account how many variables, interactions, dynamics, and flows there are within systems. Our very human bodies, vastly complex systems, are but one example. 

Evolution and adaptation are occurring before our very eyes. We’re now in the anthropocene, an era where individuals have more power that our ancient ancestors may have attributed to gods. 

What’s complexity have to do with sensemaking? Sensemaking occurs within a tangible environment, whether it’s physical or non-physical. 

Our sensemaking requires us to understand our environments which are becoming more complex by the moment. 

Complex Systems Science

According to Wikipedia:

complex system is a system composed of many components which may interact with each other. Examples of complex systems are Earth’s global climate, organisms, the human brain, infrastructure such as power grid, transportation or communication systems, social and economic organizations (like cities), an ecosystem, a living cell, and ultimately the entire universe. Complex systems are systems whose behavior is intrinsically difficult to model due to the dependencies, competitions, relationships, or other types of interactions between their parts or between a given system and its environment. 


Complex systems are considered to have some common features:

  • nonlinearity or disproportional causation where small causes don’t always produce small effects
  • emergence of larger macro patterns that are the outcome of smaller micro patterns
  • spontaneity as stable states and equilibrium can rapidly change
  • nodes and agents 
  • adaption as actors in the system, and the system itself, evolves to its own conditions
  • feedback loops that enable internal communication, emergence, and adaptation
  • flow of value, or exchange, between agents in the system, which is also limited by constraints

The study of complexity now occurs across a wide variety of fields, originally starting in physics, computer science, cybernetics, and meteorology and now expanding to ecology, social science, and cognitive science. Complexity practitioners might study systems as diverse as financial markets, watersheds, social networks, a power grid, immune systems, the internet, and culture. 

Sensemaking deals with complex systems and creates new conjectures about how the world works that can be tested and measured. The Cynefin Framework is a great example of an applied sense-mkaing framework that organizes the environment into ordered and unordered, and into clear, complicated, complex, and chaotic domains in order to make sense the various elements of a situation. By engaging in a formal sense-making exercise, in this case the Cynefin framework, complex and uncertain reality is organized into a more coherent and certain view.

And as Dave Snowden says prominently, the purpose of Cynefin (and sense-making in general) is to make sense in order to take action. At we emerge into critical complexity, sensemaking is the skill that enables us to perceive and act more effectively in it.

The Sante Fe Institute has a nice list of resources on complexity science. And the New England Complex Sciences Institute has a bit more technical (and short) primer into complex systems science