The Evolutionary Potential of Quakerism

Cynefin Quaker

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Cynefin model

[This article will be integrated with other material as the site grows]

In the opening of his tale "The Call of Cthulhu" Lovecraft wrote: "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." (Lovecraft 1928)

Complex Adaptive SystemEdit

Complex adaptive systems theory is a relatively new paradigm in social science and has been only recently applied in religious studies [Ref needed]. Its application in the social and humanitarian sciences emerged out of the work of people like Kenneth Boulding , Gregory Bateson, Peter Senge and others. During the first decade of this Century exploratory and theoretical work matured to enable application in fields including knowledge management, healthcare, education, and management [Refs needed]. Complex adaptive systems theory is becoming accepted as an important new way to look at social and cognitive sciences.

The Religious Society of Friends in Australia can be described as a complex adaptive system. It has two intermeshing and mutually interdependent dimensions. Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia Inc is a legally constituted organisation with a list of members, a governance structure and a Handbook of Practice and Procedure . Thoroughly intermeshed with this organisation is a spiritual community of friends, an informal system whose boundary, structures and processes are not exactly the same as the formal organisation.

David Snowden , a leading figure in the integration of humanistic approaches to knowledge management, developed the Cynefin model as a practical application of complex adaptive systems theory to knowledge management and decision making. The framework helps managers determine choices and decisions appropriate to relevant systems, situations and contexts. Cynefin has no direct translation into English. Snowden explains it as a Welsh word that signifies the "multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influence us in ways we can never understand" (Snowden & Boone 2007).

It is not appropriate to try to explain the Cynefin model in any depth here, but good starting points are the Wikipedia entry , an article by Snowden and Boone (2007) and the Cognitive Edge website . The Cynefin model is represented in a diagram with five domains of knowledge (see diagram above). The simple and complicated are known domains, where rational thinking and programmed or well-structured decision making processes can produce outcomes with a relatively high degree of probability. For example, repairing a car is in the simple domain, and sending a rocket to the moon is complicated (‘simple’ is used here as a technical term different to the meaning of the Quaker Testimony of Simplicity). These are the domains of best practice and good practice. The complex and chaotic domains on the left of the diagram are called unknown domains because cause and effect relationships cannot usually be predicted in advance. Here decision making cannot be programmed, and is often unstructured or intuitive. Raising a child is complex, and the aftermath of an earthquake is chaotic.

The domains in the top half of the diagram are domains of relatively abstract knowledge, while the chaotic and simple domains are more concrete. It is important to note that these are knowledge domains. We use them to categorise and characterise the knowledge we have of systems and situations, not as descriptions of independently existing reality.

When the model is applied in organisation cultures and in teaching-learning systems, the known domains on the right side of disagram have been characterised as ‘teaching cultures’ and the complex and chaotic domains have been called ‘learning cultures’. Teaching is of little value in learning cultures, we must learn through our own experimental experience, or in Quaker terms, by 'living experimentally'.

Most discussion and use of the Cynefin framework ignores the shaded domain in the middle of the diagram, but for Quakers, this domain is (as illustrated in the diagram) central. This is the domain of the unknowable. It includes aspects of the situation which are outside our perception or grasp, the things we are unaware of. It includes those things of the Spirit which are beyond human knowledge or perception.

When it comes to action, Best Practice principles can be applied only in the simple domain. Here written operating procedures, technical handbooks, and instruction manuals are useful because once a problem is correctly diagnosed the known procedure will work almost every time. The domain of good practice calls for specialised knowledge, and team work is often useful. This is the domain of informed and professional judgement, where the right knowledge, attitudes and skills can produce good results fairly consistently. In the complicated and simple domains the outcome of interventions can be predicted with a high or very high degree of success. In the complex domain prediction is usually not much better than chance. In this domain the causes of events are only knowable after the event. Human history is like this; it only makes sense in retrospect. This is the domain of emergent practice, where pattern recognition, distributed decision making and trial-and-error are important elements of emergent practice.

Quakers have understood this for a long time without the benefit of a scientific theory.The precursor of Quaker practice and procedures manuals was a letter written in 1656 from the first General Meeting of Friends at Balby , Yorkshire, England. It included these words in a postscript: “Dearly beloved friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all with the measure of light which is pure and holy may be guided.”This is an early acknowledgment that Quakers operate in a domain where rules and known procedures should not be enforced, and guidelines need to be interpreted flexibly, intuitively and creatively in the local situation. Discernment in Quaker Business Meetings is one of the very few widely used ‘technologies’ for decision making in this domain, and sits near the boundary with the central unknowable domain. In the chaotic domain novel practice and charismatic leadership become important.

The domain of the unknowable is of central interest to Quakers. On the whole, we don’t know how we learn about the unknowable. We generally nibble away at the edges, often making the unknowable knowable, and the knowable known. This can happen at any of the boundaries, as the Spirit is equally present within simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic situations. Max Boisot and tracks a social learning cycle not as a description of independent reality, but to point toward strategies to enhance deep and creative learning.


Capra, F. (2002). The hidden connections. London: Flamingo, Harper Collins.

Lovecraft, H.P. (1928) 'The Call of Cthulhu', February 1928.

Snowden, David J; Boone, Mary E. (2007) ‘A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making’. Harvard Business Review (November 2007) reprint available from

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