Estuarine framework

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Estuarine mapping is the third major framework in the Cynefin ecosystem. It is based on the idea of an estuary (but not a delta), with the metaphor emphasising the complex and multiple flows of possibility in the system; In an estuary the water flows in and flows out, so there might be things you can do only at the turn of the tide. Some elements might be stable, like a granite cliff, which only need to be checked rarely, while others, like sandbanks, could shift daily. As the water flows in and out, some elements might be covered or visible. The typology of estuaries can provide an associated typology of metaphors for the framework.


This was developed as a counter to traditional approaches to strategy that are fixed in nature and reflects the key principles of change in a complex environment.

  1. Understanding where we are, and starting journeys with a sense of direction rather than abstract goals
  2. Understanding, and working with propensities and dispositions, managing both so that the things you desire have a lower energy cost than the things you don’t
  3. Initiating and monitoring micro-nudges, lots of small projects rather than one big project so that success and failure are both (non-ironically) opportunities

It embodies the principles of Vector Theory of Change



The process has a number of steps:

  1. Map the constraints

The mapping of constraints begins with a brainstorming session, which can take place in a workshop environment, or be carried out in a distributed way through a SenseMaker capture. The typology of constraints used in constraint mapping, and especially the six sub-types of robust and resilient constraints are a helpful introduction and can help generate richer material. In the SenseMaker variant, this might not be necessary. In a workshop, groups can also be given time and space to create their own metaphors for different types of constraints that make sense in context. If SenseMaker is not used, the constraints should be written down on separate hexis, post-its, or similar material, to be used in the next step of the method. Constructors can be introduced and included in the brainstorm at the same time as the constraints to disturb the tendency of ascribing a negative meaning to the word "constraint". Constructors originate from Constructor theory and refer to constraints that produce consistent, replicable, reliable outcomes. In a workshop environment, emphasis should be paid on two elements during the brainstorming and mapping phase: a non-restrictive understanding of the word "constraint" and the use of the typology to facilitate brainstorming and the identification of constraints through perspective shift. The facilitator should be alert to long discussions around which type a particular constraint belongs to and disrupt them. A helpful device is the use of the three robust and the three resilient types of constraints as corners in a triangle, indicating that a constraint could fall anywhere in the triangle, combining multiple types. In addition to the constraints, additional typologies that are specific to the context can be introduced to assist brainstorming, e.g. Parent/Student/Teacher or Individual/Group/System. Physically placing the constraints that emerge in relation to multiple elements can help trigger recall, for example through the observation that there are too many constraints associated with one type or combination of types, while few or none associated with another.

  1. Energy cost of change and time to change

If in a workshop, any facilitation device previously used (such as triangles of constraint types) is removed, and only the constraints themselves remain and are shuffled. Depending on the nature and composition of the group, as well as the nature of the mapping, if working with multiple groups, the facilitator might choose to replicate the same constraints for all groups, or allow them to work separately up to a point. The group creates a grid with two axes, the energy it would take to change, and the time it would take. Typically time is the x axis, but the placement does not matter. Clarifications might be required on the meaning of "energy", which could represent (for example) effort, resources, or number of people involved. Constraints are then placed on this grid in relation to energy and time, and are clustered in the process – like can be placed with like, constraints that are deemed too similar can be merged, and clusters can be named, if desired.

  1. The counter-factual border

A line is drawn (a piece of ribbon or string can also be used) to separate the top right corner from the grid. Known as the counter-factual border, it indicates that everything above the line is currently considered, for practical purposes, unchangeable – we will have to work with it as it stands. Once the line is drawn, it is normal for negotiations to take place as to whether items should be moved out of that line, or whether items that are in that area can be further broken up, with some of their elements remaining within the counter-factual border and others moving out. At this stage, a liminal boundary can also be introduced. If debate around the placement of constraints and the drawing of the border is not progressing, a liminal boundary can indicate the area where constraints might be counterfactuals, but aren't quite immovable. Having drawn the line and agreed on the placement of constraints in relation to it, the group can then generate its first set of micro projects consisting of monitors and forward scouts (the language for those elements is still evolving and might change in the future). Monitor projects aim to provide indicators that the line as drawn might be shifting or changing, and can apply to the liminal boundary as well as the counter-factual one. Forward scouts are associated with specific constraints within the counter-factual border and they can indicate unexpected early signs of change that could provide opportunities or threats.

  1. Vulnerability border

A similar line, isolating one grid area, is drawn around the bottom left corner, indicating the area where constraints require the least amount of energy and time to change. Unlike in other frameworks, in the estuarine this does not indicate low-hanging fruit. Change that is too easy and too quick is instead taken as a sign of volatility and a possible warning. All constraints that fall within this area are then evaluated for possible impact, if impact ranking was not a part of the initial brainstorming of constraints (for example through SenseMaker). A second set of micro-projects is generated in association with the impactful constraints within the vulnerability border, aiming to stabilise them towards a more controllable pace of change or contain them.

  1. Acting on constraints and constructors

By isolating where change is in practice impossible, and where it cannot be controlled, we have effectively identified the zone where we can actually operate strategically. In transitioning to action from the existing clusters of constraints, we identify which should be maintained or strengthened, destroyed, or modified. We can then identify safe-to-fail experiments geared towards the desired outcome for each constraint or cluster, or associate specific methods with different stages of intervention within those experiments. If one or more physical hexi kits are being used, they can be especially useful in this stage of the process. A final set of micro-projects can be generated through targeting gaps in the grid, when new constraints or constructors might be introduced, or where existing ones could be shifted.

  1. Set a direction of travel
  1. Combine the micro-projects into portfolios