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List of methods / Generic sense-making

Pasted from Blog post, needs formatting to template. Illustrations are in the linked blog posts but need redrawing.


Take two familiar things, the dichotomy, and a third element, an Aleph (to reference Borges). The third element needs to have mystery, ambiguity, or more critically something that cannot be resolved other than by radical rethinking and possibly radically different actions.

What follows is a provisional set of four types. In each triad (formed by the dichotomy and the third element), people position ‘things‘ in a balance between the three extremes and ideally without knowledge of where other people have placed them – then we look at the pattern created by multiple people overall. The triads are displaced by 45º and should be rotated in practice as a way of disrupting pattern entrainment.

The standard dichotomy

This is the typical two-column table in which an idealistic future is contrasted with a rejection of the past. To this, we add a third time, namely an aporetic statement which by its nature makes it difficult to put things into the two categories (see here for more on creating aporia. It might be as simple as some aspect of evil which people thought was OK; so, if I contrasted scientific management with agile I might use apprentice approaches to management and expectation of lifetime loyalty as the aporetic statement.

The hypocrisy dichotomy

There we have the difference between espoused (what people say) with enacted (what people do). To this, we add a third element, which is the question ’What was enabled’, which makes people think about what the affordances were. For example, I may have wanted to carry through on promises (espoused) but the circumstances had radically changed and it just wasn’t possible (enacted). Life changes and we may have been unrealistic, this triggers the group to think about that aspect.

The design dichotomy

In some ways the closest to Soja (see Underlying ideas below). The dichotomy is between where we are and what we can imagine, so we add methods to get people to transform how they think about that. Future Backwards as a method does this in a different way, in that it makes the hyper-positive and hyper-negative pathways realisable through an Act of God or an Act of the Devil. Here the design dichotomy refers more to the sense of creating a different space, mystical in nature, from which the difference between reality and imagination gets confused. Some of the aesthetic forms of aporia could do this.

The second chance

This type plays with Catholic influences. Given a bifurcation between Heaven and Hell, the ideas of Purgatory and Limbo seem attractive. This is a peace and reconciliation intervention that seeks to identify pathways to redemption and ways beyond suffering in which learning can be achieved. Dave Snowden almost called this the Dante Gambit originally.


Underlying ideas

  • Lefebvre, with a heavy focus on dialectic, distinguishes between objective (espace percu), conceived (espace concu) and lived space (espace vecu) the last being a dialectical result of the interactions between the first two.
  • Foucault’s heterotopia has a mystical element to it, a sense of the disturbing but transforming other that stands (this is my interpretation I think) which is a dialectical resolution of the contrast between Utopia and Dystopia.
  • Borges talks about the Aleph as a point in space that contains all other points – there are mathematical and cabalistic aspects to the word.
  • Soja sought to bring all of that together, along with feminist writings in his idea of the Thirdspace in which “everything comes together, subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable, the repetitive and the differential, structure and agency, mind and body, consciousness and unconsciousness, the disciplined and the transdisciplinary, everyday life and unending history”. It is a different way of thinking and acting.

There are links here to the idea or the Trinity in western thinking – that all the authors listed above come from that tradition is no surprise – but there are also links to Daoism and various non-Judeo-Christian forms. Then we get to the triple point at the heart of Cynefin®, and it looks like there is something to the number three as well illustrated by this quote from Terry Pratchett’s Witches Abroad:

It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.


Soja, E. (1996). Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places.

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. Blackwell.

Further reading

For more on heterotopia in Foucalt see here

Liu, Cixin. & Liu, Ken. (2014). The three-body problem / Cixin Liu ; translated by Ken Liu. Tor Books: New York