Estuarine framework

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Estuarine framework is the third major framework in the Cynefin ecosystem, arising out of the process of estuarine mapping. Estuarine framework specifically refers to the energy/time grid and encompasses the elements that are mapped onto it. 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. Alternative metaphors illustrating similar dynamic and non-linear processes may be used, especially in environments where there is no familiarity with estuaries.


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
  4. Decomposing to the lowest coherent lever of granularity and creating novelty through new connections
  5. Identifying what we can change, where we can monitor the impact of that change, and how we can amplify or dampen it

It also embodies the principles of Vector Theory of Change.

Estuarine mapping also allows us to reduce conflict around decision-making in environments with multiple, strong viewpoints on what should be done.

Estuarine mapping explores the "thick" nature of the present - it approaches the present moment not as something fleeting, but as full of dispositions that also contain connections to what the future is going to be, and have been shaped (but not determined) by the past.



The process has a number of steps:

  1. Pre-process

Before the brainstorming session begins, it is usually necessary to do some pre-work. This could be centred on the question definition, or the collection of relevant material to use in the brainstorming, or both. Broadly speaking, work around the question or theme to be addressed involves defining its aspects, scope, or discussing it with the main stakeholders in the area.

Pre-work can also centre on collecting material such as anecdotes, observations, or the identification of issues and effects around the question being addressed. Such collection can take place in workshop environments (for example through Anecdote circles), virtually through SenseMaker, often in its MassSense application, or virtually through other digital tools. Material collected during this pre-process can be used for the identification of effects, actants, constrains, and constructors as part of the following steps.

There are a couple of other framings and frameworks that are especially useful as pre-processes that feed into Estuarine Mapping. Prominent among them are the ASHEN framework, standing for Artifacts, Skills, Habits, Experience, and Natural talent, and stimulating questions, the most typical of which is "what keeps you awake at night?" These additional frameworks can be used to identify elements that can be managed from various perspectives, elements that are essentially actants (defined in the following section), enriching and diversifying the input.

  1. Identify and map actants: constraints, constructors, and actors

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 brainstorming session can be prompted around a theme or question, or can be based on a pre-existing body of material, such as micro-narratives collected through some of the methods described above. Based on that material or in response to prompting participants can identify actants. In some cases, actants may be pre-determined based on the material and offered to the participants to expand. Actants are anyone or anything who is acting in the system. The word actant is used to emphasise action and influence beyond human agency, and beyond intention and to broaden the scope. Actants encompass constraints, constructors, and actors.

  • Constraints are anything that shapes and influences a system, affecting patterns and possibilities in it. They do not refer to exclusively barriers or limitations and should not be confused with that use of the term.
  • Constructors originate from Constructor theory and refer to elements that produce consistent, replicable, reliable transformations through various mechanisms. Their introduction can disturb the tendency of ascribing a negative meaning to the word "constraint".
  • Actors are anyone or anything who can act with intelligence and intention: this can refer to individuals, aspects of individuals (such as roles and identities), but also to collectives (such as a team or an organisation).

In terms of the sequence, sometimes the identification of "manageable items" might precede that of actants to unlock the process.

Facilitators are advised to always start the brainstorming at the simplest level they can, starting at a simple explanation of actants, moving on to constraints, constructors, and actors, and (if needed) transitioning to a simplified typology for constraints (connecting or containing) and constructors (transforming through passage, contagion, or presence). Although additional elements to the typology can stimulate creativity and diversity, those should only be introduced if needed (for example if the brainstorming stalls) and not as a default - as a general heuristic, if the simpler typology works well, we should stick to it.

The typology of constraints used in constraint mapping, and especially the six sub-types of robust and resilient constraints is the next level to stimulate material generation if needed. 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. Similarly to constraints, several examples of constructors exist, outlined in this post)

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.

In a workshop environment, emphasis should be paid to 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 actant belongs to and disrupt them. A helpful device can be the use of constraints, constructors, and actors as corners in a triangle, indicating that an actant could fall anywhere in the triangle, combining multiple types. In addition to actants, 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 actants that emerge in relation to multiple elements can help trigger recall, for example through the observation that there are too many actants associated with one type or combination of types, while few or none associated with another.

1b: The unattributed phenomena process

Although not an essential part of the flow, this process can take place in parallel with estuarine mapping to aid in the identification of "dark" actants: the ones who are primarily visible in their effects but are themselves hard to perceive. The process can be triggered after stages 1 or 2.

The basis of the process is identifying phenomena in the environment we are mapping that cannot be attributed, or sufficiently linked with, the actants identified. Any such phenomena identified during step 1 can be placed in a separate parking lot, joined by any actant that generates excessive disagreement on placement in stage 2 (see below) even after decomposition.

These items can then be investigated separately, possibly in a side process. The process can be assigned to the most active participants from the main thrust of the workshop, with the added benefit of minimising any dominant voices in the process. The investigation can involve looking at the risk associated with the uncertainty through tools such as Cynefin and the Uncertainty Matrix. Higher impact items can then be further investigated, including other tools such MassSense.

  1. Energy cost of change and time to change

If in a workshop, any facilitation device previously used (such as constraint types) is removed, and the resulting actants 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 actants 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 the constraint or constructor, 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. Only actants (of all types) are mapped onto the grid. Actants are then placed on this grid in relation to the energy and time potentially required to change them, and can also be clustered in the process – like can be placed with like, actants that are deemed too similar can be merged, and clusters can be named, if desired. The opposite process can also take place, with actants being broken down into smaller-scale elements; this decomposition is recommended as the ideal response to disagreement as to where an actant should be placed. This lower level of granularity is often achieved by considering the different aspects of an actant, or how it might manifest in different contexts. Typically, these more granular actants are also a more useful starting point.

A common question at this stage is the perspective adopted when evaluating energy and time required for change, and the standard response is that this is the group's own perspective - this means that comparison between different, internally similar, groups can also reveal differing perceptions of circumstances and capacity to affect change. It is also important to note that participants at this stage are mapping what is, and not what we would like to see - so actants are placed on the framework in relation to the energy and time it would take to change them regardless of whether change is actually desired or not.

  1. The counter-factual line

A line is drawn (a piece of ribbon or string can also be used, and it is usually preferable, since it can be moved) 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 line can also be introduced. Constraints between the liminal and the counterfactual boundary are typically changeable, but not by the people doing the mapping. This area can be especially important in communication and connection with additional resources and support.

  1. Volatile line

A similar line, isolating one area of the map, is drawn around the bottom left corner, indicating the area where actants 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 should be evaluated for possible impact, if impact ranking was not a part of the initial brainstorming of constraints (for example through SenseMaker). Impactful constraints within the vulnerability border are particularly productive targets for actions aiming to increase the energy and time of change around them before stabilising them, in effect containing them.

  1. Acting on actants

By identifying 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 actants, 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. Any prioritisation focus or exercise should not take place before this stage in the process, but can now be introduced. In the hexi kits, prioritisation is effectively achieved through the use of markers to identify high-impact items on the framework. 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.

The following typology of actions can be used to stimulate ideas, and generate potential for micro-interventions that are especially associated with different areas of the map:

Vector actions

  • Compass Rose is a micro-intervention that changes energy and time costs, either to increase or decrease energy or time for changing any item on the map - it's indirect character is very important: it changes the space around an item, rather than the item itself.
  • Destroy: interventions to eliminate an item on the map.
  • Stabilise: sometimes, an actant is where we want it to be, and interventions can focus on keeping it there.

Signal actions

  • Conditional: identifying links between items; which changes enable other actions or interventions? Such connections can also be physically mapped.
  • Monitor: focus on observation, mainly associated with boundary lines; monitors deep into counterfactual space are known as forward scouts.
  • Trigger: the conditions for action are present; now, we can and should act - this involves directly changing an item.

Communication actions

  • Research: investigate, sense-make, extend options.
  • Request: collaboration, outreach, permission – often in the liminal space.
  • Transparency: changing visibility (making something more or less visible) to stimulate interactions and can create observer-based effects.

From a facilitator's point of view, in a workshop, this is a good stage to introduce two elements: a way of extending the capacity of post-its or hexis for note-taking (such as the forms discussed below) and a system for marking connections between constraints. For example, pieces of weighted string and flexible wire, or symbols and markers can be used.

  1. Set a direction of travel

This might include elements such as monitoring systems for the overall landscape as well as for specific items, a cadence of returning to the mapping, and expressing where the identified constraints targeted through project should move on the framework.

  1. Combine the micro-projects into portfolios
An expanded diagram outlining the creation of an Estuarine Framework, including pre-process options.