Butterfly stamping

From Cynefin.io
Jump to navigation Jump to search

List of methods / Cynefin® specific methods

Name and history

Butterfly stamping was created at a Toronto conference as a way to aid participants to create the Cynefin® Framework, it was developed as a way encourage people to focus on descriptions rather than pre-emptively jumping to problem-solving.

This is thus used to familiarise the organisation and/or participants with concepts of complexity and the Cynefin® Framework. It is a group or workshop based lightly facilitated exercise that creates awareness and understanding of the Cynefin® Framework, in a hands on practical way. It uses a set of data points (in Contextualisation methods, these are typically narrative fragments from the actual culture of the host organization or target group) and groups interactively discuss the placement of these onto each Cynefin® domain. Many of these data points may be ambiguous or similar. This promotes discussion and group sensemaking. Typically this Method is used as an introductory exercise and a learning and awareness approach, before working with real narrative fragments. Historically one of the data items in the original workshop, ‘butterfly migration’, reminded one of the Kipling short story ‘The Butterfly that Stamped’. The story itself is interesting because it illustrates the reality of the existence of multiple perspectives and the strategic advantage that can be gained if one manages those perspectives well. This exercise is essentially the same as Cynefin® categorisation, except that the items being placed have been carefully chosen by the facilitator.

Prior knowledge

No knowledge of additional methods is required.

Preparation and requirements to use this method

Faciliatation skills required

As a pre-process activity dealing with relatively familiar forms of categorisation, butterfly stamping does not require a high level of complex facilitation skill.

It is important that participants are not consciously aware of what they are doing - arranging stamps into simple, chaotic, complex and complicated and liminal domains.

This is a lightly facilitated exercise. The facilitator's role is observational - you may take notes but do not interfere and only speak at the end of the activity.


The main decision is what set of data to use. Depending on how much time you can spend on this (and how much help you think people need with grasping the concepts underlying Cynefin®) you can include anywhere from 20 to 60 items. It’s a good idea to include more items than you think people can place in the time you give them, to put a little pressure on. Also, if there are lots of items, slower-moving groups don’t need to place all the items in the time given, but faster-moving groups will have more to work with.

There are three choices when it comes to procuring a list of items:

Alternative sets:

Finally, determine what groups will conduct the exercise. If you are using this as a preliminary to the four tables method then it makes sense to start with four groups of at least four people each to allow for easier follow-through.

Things You'll Need:

  • A dataset printed on sticky labels
  • Butcher paper
  • Hexagonal post-it notepads - sufficient for the datasets and a different colour per group
  • Tables or walls on which the butcher paper can be placed and people can work
  • Introduction to the Cynefin® framework; this video may be used.

As you can see this is a low cost exercise.

Participant onboarding

The participants should not need earlier preparation or prior knowledge to take part in the activity. It is of course important the chosen subject matter for the activity does not require highly specialist knowledge unless that is guaranteed within that particular audience. The activity will not be unduly challenging to engage in and as it will typically take place in person in groups there is typically less need for incentives for the task to be completed. One may notice some push back or discomfort from those who prefer clear instructions and a strong sense of why they are completing an activity, such as repeated requests for further clarification, but this can be dealt with by the facilitator by emphasising that the purpose will later become clear.

Key elements and artefacts


Task Comment
Explain the Cynefin® framework and ensure that you make the point that Cynefin® is a sense-making framework, in which the data precedes the framework. Contrast this with a categorisation framework in which the framework precedes the data. You don’t need to worry about over emphasising the data precedes framework point, most people will simply draw the framework any way. Its a good illustration of pattern entrainment. The introduction can be supported by the example of the magic roundabout against traffic lights; the children’s party story or the outline linked in the overview.
Now give people the list of items by handing out the pages of sticky labels and also a pack of hexes (use a different colour for each table). Tell them to put each sticky label onto a hexi and then tell them to recreate the framework using the butcher paper and the labels. They should do this as a group, so get the size of the group right before you start the exercise. Resist the temptation to give them any more help or to remove the ambiguity from the instruction. Under no circumstances encourage them the draw the framework and distribute the items. State that people should feel free to disagree and resolve issues in whatever way they think is best. Remember it is not your place to decide if they were right or wrong, or to form conclusions based on what they do or do not do. Stay out of it, let them get on with it.
When finished tell each group to appoint a spokesperson who stays with their work product, then rotate the rest of the group around the different tables asking them to identify:
  • What is the same
  • What is different
  • What most surprised them

Then engage all the groups in a conversation

Once this is complete you may find it useful to explain how the list was constructed. You should also point out that if the group started by drawing the framework then they failed to pay attention to the earlier description of a sense-making framework. One of the points of this exercise is that there is a pattern, but because people start with the model they have, and assume its a categorisation one, they fail to see the more basic pattern of five items in each subject group.

Do's and Don'ts

  • It's helpful to mention that the items were specifically chosen to be difficult to place because of the existence of multiple perspectives, and that people should feel free to disagree and resolve issues in whatever way they think is best.
  • You may need to mention that there are no "correct" answers and that the exercise is not a test.
  • You might want to give a few examples of ordered and unordered systems behavior in other domains (termites building a mound, magnets aligning, traffic jams) and show how they are similar to examples in domains the people are familiar with.
  • You may observe at this stage some dominant or highly opinionated people. You may need to pull them out of the groups for a concurrent exercise later on to avoid a top down approach to group work.


  • Do not tell them how to resolve issues; that is not the purpose of this activity, because there are many possible ways one could do that (split items, copy items, draw shapes, draw connections, etc etc), and you want people to think on their own about how placing items in Cynefin® space works.

Some behaviours to be aware of:

  • You might notice that people are rarely placing any items in the space of disorder. This might mean that people are too focused on nailing down answers and not open enough to uncertainty. Or it just might mean that you didn't explain that part of the framework well enough.
  • Conversely, you might notice that people are placing too many items in the disorder space. This may indicate a reluctance to engage in debate about the nature of items and/or a lack of energy and enthusiasm for the task (and thus possibly for the tasks ahead as well).
  • You might notice that people are avoiding placing items in certain (non-disorder) domains - the usual pattern is to avoid the chaotic domain. This is often for lack of understanding of what that domain means; for example, a belief that chaos only means absolute mayhem.
  • You might notice that people are resolving all disagreements about the placement of items by caveat, perhaps by the most opinionated or highest-ranking person. That will tell you that you need to make a special effort to get people to debate and discuss in the remainder of the workshop. You may also need to pull some people out of the groups for a concurrent exercise later on.
  • You might notice that people are rarely if ever taking any steps to resolve conflicts about placement of items by doing anything to the items - for example, by splitting them into multiple items describing different aspects of the original items. Like placing too many items in disorder, this may indicate a willingness to accept a quick answer and a lack of interest in or enthusiasm for the process. It may also indicate that people have difficultly accepting that there can be more than one "answer".
  • You might notice that people have placed anything outside of their main area of focus in complex or chaotic space: the biological items, for example, or the societal ones. (This is why it's best to have items from several domains including unfamiliar ones in the list.) When you see this happening it means that people are not considering the similarities between different types of things acting in complex ways, which is an abstraction they need to be able to perform later when they do more work with Cynefin®.

Virtual Running

This will not be possible until we have developed and tested practice.



Blog Posts

Butterfly stamping is a pre-process, and whilst it is not the main subject, it is referred to in the below blogs:

The origins of Cynefin - Part 1- Dave Snowden[1]

The Origins of Cynefin - Part 5 - Dave Snowden[2]


Related methods and approaches

The 3-points method is building on the success of Butterfly Stamping.[3]

Method card material

Possible symbols or illustrations

Front page description

A pre-process activity used to familiarise participants with the Cynefin® Framework. Designed to avoid them jumping pre-emptively to problem-solving.

Back of card summary

Butterly stamping is a lightly facilitated, low cost pre-process activity designed to facilitate the introduction of the Cynefin® Framework to participants. It involves designating scenarios on a non-specialist (unless appropriate) subject into complex, complicated, chaotic, simple or liminal domains. However the participants will not be aware that this is what they are doing. It will be explained to them once the activity is completed.

How can it be used?

for diagnosis

This a pre-process activity to introduce the framework and does not have a diagnostic role

for analysis/understanding

It's role in analysis and understanding is through preparation for work with the framework. It is an activity that paves the way for later deeper analytical activity.

for intervention

It is not an intervention and is to encourage allocation of 'stamps' into domains without jumping ahead to problem-solving.

Method Properties - Ratings

COST & RESOURCES: 3. Requires some inexpensive but specific tools and materials

COMPLEX FACILITATION SKILL: 2.Some complex facilitation experience needed - practice in a safe space

ENGAGEMENT GRADIENT: 1. Ad hoc technique - can be used in multiple contexts with relative ease