Children's Party story

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The Children's Party Story is told by Dave Snowden on YouTube Children's Party Story. It is an introduction to the three types of systems (ordered, unordered and complex) and the Cynefin framework using a children's party as the parable.

"The story has proved an excellent way of getting working managers to understand the difference between ontologies, and also to assist them in realizing that unorder is in fact a familiar space - they already know how to manage, we just need to apply some science to make it consistent and scalable." - Snowden & Stanbridge (2004).

Hearing this story is better than reading the transcript.

The Transcript

Let's imagine if you can, that you've got to organize a party for a bunch of eleven-year-old boys and you want to apply the three different types of systems that apply in nature.

Organising a children's party in the chaotic domain

Well if you assume the party is chaotic, the children are acting at random you might as well buy the drugs and alcohol for the children and they can go on a personal experience of self-discovery. Your house may burn down in the process, but what does that matter all property is theft and it was socially constructed in the first place. I have friends in California who've tried this I don't recommend it, the recovery cost is high but it's a legitimate approach.

Organising a children's party in the ordered domain

The one that you will be more familiar with is the ordered systems approach, here it's of critical importance to construct clearly articulated learning objectives in advance of the party itself. The learning objective should of course be aligned with the mission statement for education in a society to which you belong. Ideally, you should print the learning objectives off on motivational posters, with pictures of eagles soaring over valleys and water-dropping into ponds, and place those around the room where you can hold the party. You then produce a project plan for the party, the project plan should have clear milestones throughout the party against which you can measure progress against the ideal party outcome. Once you've done that, you know the senior adult can start the party with the motivational videotape, after all you don't want the children wasting time in play which isn't aligned with the learning objectives of the party itself. Then they should use PowerPoint to demonstrate their personal commitment to the objectives of the party and to show the children how pocket money is linked to the achievement of the milestone targets.

Organising a children's party in the complex domain

Of course, the third approach, the complexity approach, is even simpler. Here we draw a line in the sand known as a boundary in complexity theory and we turn to the children and say, “Cross this you little bastards and you die.” One of the things you learn pretty fast is the value of flexible and negotiable boundaries because rigid boundaries have a habit of becoming brittle and breaking catastrophically. We then use catalytic probes, and I'm deliberately using the jargon of complexity theory now, we throw in a football, put on a videotape, have a barbecue, have a computer game, anything which could stimulate a pattern of activity. This is called an attractor and if it's a beneficial attractor, we quickly stabilize and amplify it. If it's a negative attractor, we dampen it or destroy it very quickly. So what we do is manage the emergence of beneficial coherence, within attractors, within boundaries. In that simple phrase, we see the promise of complexity theory for organizations and government alike.

A written version

From Snowden & Stanbridge (2004) -

Paradoxically, executive behavior in the home does not follow the dictates of order, but instead conforms to good practice in the management of unordered systems. One imagines the business leader returning home after the completion of typical piece of business planning to manage the party for a teenage daughter. Imagine the scene - learning objectives are set for the party, a project plan is produced based on a series of scenarios of possible outcomes. Milestones are established with empirically validated measurements of success to check that the party is progressing against management objectives. The party starts with a motivation video and incentive packs are handed out to the teenagers to make sure that their personal preferences are subsumed in the wider learning goals of the organization. At the end of the party, an after action review is held, processes are updated and new practices mandated. It’s a nonsense, no self respecting parent would even attempt such a process. Instead boundaries or barriers of acceptable and unacceptable behavior are set and negotiated, attractor mechanisms (location of the disco, parental purchase of certain types of alcohol, parental presence) are determined and monitoring systems set would be in advance, but several ‘bad party’ options are considered and planned for. At the end of the party we know if it has been good or bad, but we could not predict the goodness in advance.


Snowden, David, and Peter Stanbridge. "The landscape of management: Creating the context for understanding social complexity." EMERGENCE-MAHWAH-LAWRENCE ERLBAUM- 6, no. 1/2 (2004): 140-148 (Children's Party story on page 146)