Creating aporia

Jump to navigation Jump to search

List of methods / Generic sense-making

Name and history

Aporia is a concept rooted in the work of Derrida who famously said 'a question to which you can know the answer is not a question, it is a process.' The essence of a question is that you don't know the answer - you have to think differently to resolve it. This is the essence of aporia. Art, literature and physical exercise can be used to create a juxtaposition which forces you to examine something differently. It is a state of forcing you to stop and think again.

The 'aporetic turn' describes how in a crisis you shift things into aporia then you decide where you move them. It's purpose is not diagnostic but rather to change the dispositional state of the system so that you cannot go down traditional pathways. Complexity based work often involves changing the dispositional state thus making aporia a central concept.

Prior knowledge

No knowledge of additional concepts is required.

Preparation and requirements to use this method

Faciliatation skills required

Creating aporia requires comfort with ambiguity on the part of the facilitator and a willingness to give time and space without relying on process too much. This and the fact that it is up to the faciltator to create the details of the task (see 'workflow' section below) means that it requires a high level of skill in complex facilitation.


Preparation of materials which depend on the type of aporia selected for the intervention. Please see the table below for suggested basis for creating aporia. In the blog section there a links to blog posts on each type of aporia.

Type of Aporia Suggested Basis
Linguistic Neologisms, foreign words, paradox, metaphor, counterfactuals, poetry, zen koans.
Physical Physical exercise, physical craft skills, woodwork, cooking, sailing, meditation type practices, creating space for contemplation, an evening class in any subject NB unrelated to problem subject, fasting - use with caution, night navigation - use with caution.
Aesthetic Cartoons or illustrations; fine art; photographs; the use of satire real; time performance; learning through art

Please note possible material could be almost anything that creates the necessary juxtapositions to ensure a cognitive dissonance in the participants that demands of them new ways of thinking.

Examples of neologisms are Gould’s creation of Exaptation to contrast with Adaptation along with Weick’s creation of sensemaking (no hyphen). Potential choices of foreign words include anything with no direct equivalent or where the direct translation cannot capture the full meaning. A popular paradoxical statement is the liar’s paradox - also known as Zeno - the statement ‘I always lie which means I just lied so I am telling the truth’ and so on. Counterfactuals could include a situation that everyone knows and suggests an alternative for example: if Lee had not had to reorganise his battle command structure following the death of Jackson and had won Gettysburg. It also works for within organisation examples. Quotations are probably one of the most popular approaches for example Lincoln’s 'As the times are anew, so we must think anew, act anew.' Please see the blog posts under 'references' below for further discussion of ways of creating aporia.

Poetry Links:

Zen koans:

Cartoons and illustrations:

Cost will vary depending on the resources used and whether further staff, for example cartoonists, are hired to take part in the activity. Generally this is a low cost activity.

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.

Key elements and artefacts


Task Comment
Introduce activity Remember not to identify the purpose of the exercise. Instructions will vary depending on method chosen. See previous section and blogs below for examples.
Participants take part in activity. During the activity participants behaviour or comments should not be 'corrected' by the facilitator as this will prevent the necessary dissonance emerging. Observing and monitoring without intervention is fine.
Conclusion of activity. At this stage, the facilitator may offer concluding remarks and observations to participants if appropriate.

Do's and Don'ts


  • Feel free to take notes and observe the participants.


  • Do not explain the purpose of the activity.
  • Do not directly explain the Cynefin® Framework beforehand.
  • Do not interfere with participants work or discussions - this includes prompting behaviours.
  • Do not give feedback until the activity is concluded.

Virtual Running

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



Blog Posts


Related methods and approaches

Method card material

Possible symbols or illustrations

Front page description

Creating aporia is the means of inducing a form of cognitive dissonance so that people's defences are not engaged. It is used as an intervention to change the disposition of a system.

Back of card summary

Aporia is based on the observation of Derrida that 'a question to which you can know the answer is not a question, it is a process.' The essence of a question is that you will have to think differently to resolve it. The activity must be chosen to create a 'cognitive dissonance' through juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory ideas. Precise instructions will vary depending on method chosen. The intervention and resulting aporia may be linguistic, physical or aesthetic. The purpose is to create a change in the dispositional state. It is very lightly facilitated group work that may be observing and monitored without intervention.

How can it be used?

for diagnosis

Aporia is not a diagnostic tool but rather a means of creating multiple interventions to change the dispositional state of the system and then respond as patterns emerge.

for analysis/understanding

By generating cognitive dissonance that lowers people's intellectual defences - aporia gives the opportunity for people to see things differently. Thus is it is a key way to bring about the conditions for a change in understanding and opening up new analytic approaches.

for intervention

Creating aporia is in itself a intervention to change the dispositional state of a system. By doing so it opens up opportunities for further interventions that differ from traditional problem solving pathways.

Method Properties - Ratings

COST & RESOURCES: Will vary depending on method chosen. Usually 3. Requires some inexpensive but specific tools and materials

COMPLEX FACILITATION SKILL: 4.Requires Mentoring until proven, familiarity with theory critical

ENGAGEMENT GRADIENT: 5.Challenging method – may incur resistance if people expect a more traditional approach