Playing With Cognitive Complexity

By Bhavesh S Patel

Complexity is the new buzz word. There is an explosion of books exploring complexity in international development, business management, public policy, evaluation, organisational development, cognitive science and so on. The field is approached from many disciplines with no agreement yet on terms and definitions. Some link its beginnings to Warren Weaver in 1948 or Ilya Prigogine in the 1970s. Over the last five years, I have been exploring those who mix theory and practice such as Dave Snowden, Glenda Eoyang, and Ralph Stacy.

Systems or situations that have lots of visible and invisible elements interacting in visible and invisible ways that produce changes that are inherently unpredictable and emergent are considered complex. Culture is a good example. These systems cannot be modelled or analysed completely. Instead they can be engaged with using multiple perspectives to make sufficient sense to experiment in small safe-to-fail ways to understand more. Many of the situations we work in can be considered complex. Yet many of the tools and methods we use are designed for systems that can be understood. The complexity approach could lead to a major shift in the way that we understand and act in the world.

We can find complexity in the way that ants organise or flocks of birds fly. Complex processes in human systems have the added element of the way we think, feel, make sense, or choose to act. I would like to share a recent experience of applying cognitive complexity ideas to the Consensus Workshop method.

It involved a group of 48 cultural managers, 24 from the EU and 24 from Ukraine, part of an 18-month partnering programme developing arts-based projects to address social issues. The aim of my work was to support the group by helping it identify effective principles for partnering that could be used by each pair of partners.

STEP 01. I gave the group a general context and avoided asking a Focus Question. I did not want them to start consciously and unconsciously editing their thinking to look for “answers” to a question.

STEP 02.
I asked the group to sit around eight tables in groups of six. At tables, people shared specific stories of partnering with another person or organisation that went really well. If something one person shared triggered a memory for another then that person could start next rather than “wait for their turn” in the circle.

STEP 03. Everyone moved to a different table with a different set of people. This time they shared specific stories of partnering that went really badly.

STEP 04. Everyone moved again. This time they reflected on the last two rounds and silently brainstormed principles for effective partnering.

STEP 05. They shared their ideas and came up  with five principles. They wrote these up on cards and produced duplicates.

STEP 06. Half of each table went to one side of the room with a copy of the principles from their table, and the other half to the other side. The two groups worked independently with the same set of cards, clustering, and then naming.

STEP 07. The two groups came together to share their work. There were definite similarities which showed whole group consensus, as well as differences which together created a diverse set of principles for partnering which the group were happy with.

Let me explain why I made the above changes to the “traditional” Consensus Workshop method.

STEP 02 & STEP 03

  • When you ask a person a question, their answer is shaped by the way they perceive the context and the person asking. The design and directness of the question also influences the answer. A question invites the construction of an answer.
  • Knowledge management theory suggests that “we only know what we need to know when we need to know it”. Studies show that when people are asked what they did, their theory of what they did does not always match what they actually did.
  • We get closer to reality when we informally and naturally tell unrehearsed anecdotes in the corridor, café or at the school gate. When we tell stories we step back into the context and therefore trigger our contextual knowledge.


  • Moving to different tables after sharing what went well and after sharing what went badly, reduces premature convergence. Humans are pattern detectors not information processers. We look for and fall into patterns and biased positions in groups. Moving to different tables breaks the bias patterns, giving a greater opportunity to see more ideas, options and patterns instead of possibly being limited by one reinforcing group bias.
  • ICA:UK does the clustering process by only allowing the group to only cluster pairs. This controls our bias to see patterns and allows for more diversity and options to be noticed before the clusters become stronger in their meaning.

STEP 05 & 06

  • Clustering with the whole group can increase shared understanding through a single meaning-making process. However it also increases the group bias.
  • Dividing the group into two to cluster the same set of cards both reduces bias and allows for different meanings to emerge. Contradictions emerge which don’t need to be fully resolved because the right level of tension/conflict can be a good thing in a set of principles to increase their flexibility in practice.
  • The aim in the example was to develop partnering principles that could be used by a pair. It was not to create principles that the whole group needed to own and act on collectively. This could be achieved if more integration is done between groups at the end.
  • The underlying point is to reduce group bias and premature convergence in the early stages to increase the range of data and options explored, so that when the group moves to convergence the final product will be better.


The above is a taste of applying cognitive complexity ideas. The field offers theory to support the use of participatory methods which I have found very helpful for myself and my clients.

Bhavesh S Patel (bhav@peoplejazz.com) works with groups.

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