What to Do When in Doubt

Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash

In a previous post on complexity, I highlighted Liz Keogh’s shortcut for complexity estimation in order to quickly figure out the complexity of the system. In this post I will share Dave Snowden’s Cynefin approach for dealing with aporia and figuring out what to do when in doubt about what to do.1

An expression of doubt

So far, in my introduction of Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, I focused on the four domains: Clear, Complicated, Complex, and Chaotic. However, there are additional aspects of the framework I haven’t highlighted until now. For example, in the space in the center, between the domains, we see “AC”, which is the Confused domain.

The distinction between A and C in the Confused domain is intended to convey distinction between being active and being passive. In being passive, one remains Confused, and tends to drift toward their favorite action heuristic: Clear, Complicated, Complex, or Chaotic, whether it is appropriate or not. The danger being accidentally slipping into Chaos. In being active, one expresses Aporia (the expression of doubt) where one is actively confused and is attempting to unconfuse themselves.

“The instance of a decision is a madness”2

Snowden articulates six pathways out of Aporia from low to high risk, suggesting an order of elimination in how to proceed out of doubt. I paraphrase below.3

  1. If expert advice is questionable, shift provisionally into Complicated and set up a rapid debate between experts and people with different backgrounds to see whether expert analysis will be sufficient.
  2. Shift into Complex, identify multiple coherent contradictory hypotheses with champions, and conduct safe-to-fail experiments to discover more about the context.
  3. Shift into Complicated if there is a clear and obvious body of knowledge that you’ve been ignoring or didn’t know about so far. Perhaps the experts were right and it’s time to listen to them.
  4. If you’re concerned that you may not be seeing something essential, shift into the Chaotic-Complex liminal zone and identify multiple perspectives, especially minority perspectives. Outliers are very valuable as they provide diverse points of view and may offer hypotheses to be tested. Diversity here is key.
  5. If you can no longer tolerate Aporetic state, you may choose to enter into the Chaotic domain where you begin crisis management, exert control and take direct action to attempt to resolve the situation without necessarily having control over what way it resolves.
  6. Lastly, the most risky approach is to shift into Clear and assume that you need to apply standard processes and procedures harder. 

Linguistic, Aesthetic, Physical

Now, it may seem that being in doubt is not desirable. This is not always the case. Snowden points out that we may want to enter Aporia deliberately if we begin to observe our approaches are failing and perhaps we need to reconsider our assumptions. To deliberately induce Aporia, consider linguistic, aesthetic, and physical techniques. 

Linguistic approach is to use language: neologisms, foreign words, paradox, metaphor, counterfactuals, poetry, or quotations.4

Aesthetic approach is to use art: cartoons, illustrations, fine art, photographs, satire, improv, music, etc.5

Physical approach is to use the body: physical exercise, practice of craft, fasting, and other embodied approaches.6 I can personally vouch for this approach having ridden 2783.6 miles of the Continental Divide on a bicycle. This may be an extreme example, but it took me a few months to care about my professional career again after I got back.

What Do You Think?

Confusion is not something I naturally seek out. Do you deliberately enter the state of Aporia? What do you get out of it? Let me know in the comments.

Next Up

I will set aside the Cynefin framework and continue to explore complexity, this time through the framing of Black Swans and Turkey Problems: Excession.

1 Snowden, David J (2020). “Cynefin St David’s Day (5 of 5)”. https://www.cognitive-edge.com/cynefin-st-davids-day-5-of-5/. Accessed on 17 Mar 2021.

2 Derrida quoting Kierkegaard in Derrida’s “Dialanguages” in “Points: Interviews 1974–1994”(Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1995, 147–8.).

3 See Snowden, David J (2020). “Cynefin St David’s Day (5 of 5)”. https://www.cognitive-edge.com/cynefin-st-davids-day-5-of-5/. for more precise descriptions.

4 Snowden, David J (2021). “Linguistic aporia”. https://www.cognitive-edge.com/linguistic-aporia/. Accessed on 17 Mar 2021.

5 Snowden, David J (2021). “Aesthetic aporia”. https://www.cognitive-edge.com/aesthetic-aporia/. Accessed on 17 Mar 2021.

6 Snowden, David J (2021). “Physical aporia”. https://www.cognitive-edge.com/physical-aporia/. Accessed on 17 Mar 2021.


  1. Pingback: Economy of Thought | No Motherships
  2. Pingback: Onboarding to a Software Team: In Three Parts | No Motherships

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s