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Addressing complex problems: a potted history

Addressing complex problems: a potted history

Today, many problems are non-linear in nature: we need to think in systems rather than in a straight line, and to access more profound intelligence.  This is a short, potted history of efforts to do that.  These approaches are all part of the Contented toolbox.

Collective conversations

Werner Heisenberg (formulator of the famous Uncertainty Principle) argued that science is rooted in conversations.  He recalled discussions with Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli and other great thinkers who uprooted and reshaped traditional physics in the first half of the 20th century. He concluded that, collectively, we can be more insightful, more intelligent than individually.

Action Research

Kurt Lewin, then a professor at MIT, coined the term action research in 1944. He described this as using “a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action and fact-finding about the result of the action”.

Action Learning

During World War 2, educationalist Reg Revans – then at the UK’s National Coal Board – was working with five Nobel prize winners, including Albert Einstein, alongside economist Ernst Schumacher, pioneer of sustainability thinking, and author of Small is Beautiful. Professor Revans’ crucial insight was that complex problems and challenges are best resolved by the people facing or experiencing them, rather than by external ‘experts’.  He observed the value of posing skilful questions in solving real-life problems and pioneered a process called Action Learning where people come together periodically to learn from their experiences.  The approach increased productivity by over 30%.  Today, action learning is a popular real-time strategy for developing leaders, building teams and transforming organisations.  By working collaboratively, we can resolve our difficulties and invent our own futures.

Revans described action learning as taking action and reflecting upon the results. “This helps improve the problem-solving process as well as simplify the solutions developed by the team,” he asserted. “There can be no learning without action and no action without learning.”


The so-called U-Process was developed by Dutch educationalists Fritz Glasl and Dirk Lemson in 1968 to use experience within a group to diagnose problems and to plan.  It recognised interaction between people and the systems around them, including nature and spirit.


In the 1980s, physicist David Bohm noticed a conflict between relativity and quantum theory and coined concepts of implicate and explicate order as two frameworks for understanding a phenomenon or aspect of reality.  An implication of his work is that nothing is fundamentally separate or independent; the whole is in continuous flux.

Bohm developed a method of ‘dialogue’, when a group becomes open to the flow of a larger intelligence.  It turns out that this is an ancient idea revered by the ancient Greeks and practiced by indigenous societies such as the American first nations.

Management systems thinker Peter Senge observes: “All of us have had some taste of dialogue – in special conversations that begin to have a life of their own, taking us in directions we could never have imagined nor planned in advance. But these experiences come rarely, a product of circumstances rather than systematic effort and disciplined practice.”

Work on the theory and practice of dialogue synthesised two major intellectual currents: the systems or holistic view of nature – such as movements of an ‘electron sea’ – and the interactions between our thinking and internal “models” and our perceptions and actions.

“Our thought is incoherent,” Bohm argues, “and the resulting counter-productiveness lies at the root of the world’s problems.”  Because, he says, thought is largely collective, we cannot just improve thought individually. “As with electrons, we must look on thought as a systemic phenomenon arising from how we interact and discourse with one another.”   In discussion, he advocates, each person wants to win; decisions are made.  In dialogue, “a new kind of mind comes into being” and the team wins; complexity is explored.  It’s a different mode of communication, requiring participants to see each other as colleagues, to suspend assumptions and a facilitator to hold the context of dialogue. (Like a ‘quaker’ or a court jester.)  Dialogue that is grounded in reflection and enquiry skills is likely to be more reliable than pure circumstance.

Action Science

Harvard professor Chris Argyris’ concept of Action Science begins with the study of how human beings design their actions in difficult situations. Human actions are designed to achieve intended consequences and governed by a set of environment variables.  When actions are designed to achieve the intended consequences and to suppress conflict about the governing variables, a single-loop learning cycle usually ensues.  However, when actions are taken also to openly enquire about conflict and to possibly transform the governing variables, both single-loop and double-loop learning cycles usually ensue.

Action Enquiry (also Action Inquiry)

Appreciative enquiry (U.S., inquiry) is a way of starting with what is working well and then using action research to improve it.  Action enquiry is a lifelong process of transformational learning, becoming a moment-to-moment way of living, that individuals, teams, and whole organizations can undertake to listen into the present moment and develop capacity to perform effectively and transformationally.

Cooperative, aka collaborative, enquiry was first proposed by John Heron in 1971 and later expanded with Peter Reason and Demi Brown. The major idea is to “research ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ people.” It emphasizes the full involvement in research decisions of all active participants as co-researchers.

Cooperative enquiry creates a research cycle among 4 different types of knowledge: propositional (as in contemporary science), practical (the knowledge that comes with actually doing what you propose), experiential (the real-time feedback we get about our interaction with the larger world) and presentational (the artistic rehearsal process through which we craft new practices). At every cycle, the research process includes these four stages, with deepening experience and knowledge of the initial proposition, or of new propositions.

Learning organisations

In business management, a learning organization is a company that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself.  The concept was coined by Peter Senge and his colleagues.  Learning organisations develop as a result of the pressures facing modern organizations; this enables them to remain competitive in the business environment. Senge identified five disiciplines required: systems thinking, personal mastery (individual commitment to be more productive by learning how to apply skills in the most valuable way); mental models (identifying and challenging assumptions and generalizations that might limit observations); shared vision (creates a common identity that provides focus and energy for learning); team learning (with structures to facilitate its sharing).


MIT’s Otto Scharmer worked with Peter Senge, Joseph Jaworski and Adam Kahane and extended the U-Process into a journey of learning and leadership, in order to increase productive behaviour by empathizing with clients and unlocking effective patterns of decision making. Scharmer developed this and called it Theory-U.

There are three phases: Co-Sensing (observing), Co-Presencing (suspending), and Co-Prototyping (acting).  By moving through the U–Process, participants sense the wider whole and explore where they fit. (See Diagrams and Appendix).

Co-sensing involves suspending judgement to see reality more clearly.

Co-Presencing is the art of becoming present as a group to what wants to emerge.

Co-Prototyping allows an inner vision to be birthed, taking action quickly to learn.


The Cynefin framework offers a series of decision-making domains to help identify how people perceive situations, and to make sense of behaviour.  Welsh for habitat, Cynefin was designed by knowledge management researcher David Snowden in 1999 while at IBM.


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