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
  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.



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 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 other methods. Constraints present in this narrative material can then be identified, rather than constraints shaping a more generally-defined space.

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 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. The exact use of the typologies also relies on the judgement of the facilitator: if no additional stimulation is required, a typology could be skipped altogether, or can only be introduced at the highest level (e.g containing vs connecting, or following the meta-types 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.

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 elements that produce consistent, replicable, reliable transformations through various mechanisms.

In parallel with identifying constraints and constructors, participants can also brainstorm actants and effects. Actants are anyone or anything who is acting in the system, and they can be associated with specific constraints, as well as recorded as a separate list. Effects are observations of things happening in the system, whose cause we might not know. Often, effects that are observable but cannot be associated with a known constraint could lead to the identification of dark constraints.

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 constraint belongs to and disrupt them. A helpful device can be 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 the constraint, 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 the energy and time potentially required to change them, 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. The opposite process can also take place, with constraints being broken down into smaller-scale elements; this decomposition is recommended as the ideal response to disagreement as to where a constraint should be placed.

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.

  1. The counter-factual border

A line is drawn (a piece of ribbon or string can also be used, and it is in some cases 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 boundary 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 border

A similar line, isolating one area of the map, 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 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 stabilise them or increase the energy and time of change around them, in effect containing 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.

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:

  1. Compass Rose: When we can straightforwardly act to change a constraint, a special type is not always needed. The compass rose refers instead to a micro-intervention to change the energy or time cost around the constraint – in other words making it easier or harder to change in time.
  2. Monitor: Monitor projects are especially associated with the boundary lines, and they are often the only type of action that is possible within the counter-factual border. They aim to provide indicators that a line as drawn might be shifting or changing. 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. However, monitoring actions could also be taken elsewhere on the map.
  3. Request: Includes reaching out for collaboration, connection or, permission – an action especially associated with the liminal boundary.
  4. Stabilise: Refers to confirming a constraint that is exactly where it is needed.
  5. Conditional: Actions explicitly aimed towards identifying connections between constraints - conditions or changes in one that will enable change or action elsewhere on the map.
  6. Trigger: Often associated with conditional actions, this type identifies the presence of the conditions for action.
  7. Research: Research can be an action in itself, including deeper investigation, sense-making, or extending the range of available options.

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 string and flexible wire, or symbols and markers can be used.

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