Tests for coherence

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This page is about coherence in the context of designing exploratory safe-to-fail experiments. This is a special case of a wider application of the idea.

It is also worth remembering something from physics and maths – if a solution is aesthetically pleasing then its a good test that you are going in the right direction.

I think (but I am not sure) that the first and second are both necessary and sufficient conditions, while the second is simply sufficient. As I say I am not sure, as an experiment is designed to explore so there may be no necessary conditions.

  • Are the underlying assumptions behind the intervention compatible with what we know from natural science?
  • Is their design consistent with our understanding of the nature of human decision making and system interaction?
  • This may be a negative test as much as a positive one. If the intervention assumes that all respondents will examine our full proposal rationality and make a decision based on their own self-interests then it fails.
  • If we assume a measurement system can become a target it fails, especially if we need intrinsic motivation.
  • This is all at the heart of the naturalising approach to sense-making, which uses science to provide a coherent spine to understanding under conditions of uncertainly.

Use of Past Cases

Are there other examples of where this type of approach has created better understanding.

  • Tests for coherence is a legitimate use of prior cases.
    • We cannot use our limited understanding of past cases to create deterministic recipes as to future action. We can use them as a guideline to what may be a legitimate experiment.
  • Taking contradictory cases (never difficult to find) or assuming a paradoxical interpretation can increase the resilience of any solution.

  • Is the proposed intervention consistent as a development phrase from where we are?
    • This is important and much neglected by those who focus on a desired future state as a starting point.
    • The gap between the present and that state may simply be too much.

While we are not bound by the past, it provides a constraint on what is possible in the present. Finding examples of radical shifts in the underlying exemplar narratives of the organisation’s past can be used to enable more speedy or radical changes in the present.

In general, there needs to be continuity, evolution is progressive, occasionally serendipitous but you can’t rely on that happening


  • Does it pass a series of challenges using the ritual dissent technique? Successive rounds of ritual challenge makes for more resilient experiments, less likely to failure catastrophically, more like to mutate as circumstances challenge initial assumptions.
  • Increasing the diversity of the challenge and taking a options-based approach to the experiment, holding a commitment to aspects as long as possible, also helps.

The degree to which there are options to change is a linked test for coherence.


MassSense is a capability within SenseMaker® now fairly readily available.

In MassSense an idea or concept or theory is presented for mass signification and the results presented graphically as a landscape. That means that dominant views are visible, but also outlier clusters.

A dominant cluster is rather like “ask the audience” in a popular gameshow, it gives comfort but it may not be right. An outlier cluster is an indication of different thinking.

Both legitimise an experiment.




  • Linked related framework here



Articles and books

  • Paul Thagard, Coherence in Thought and Action (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology), MIT Press, ISBN-13: 978-0262700924

Blog posts

Other references