Complexity and Mediation Converge

To address conflict it is important to select the process and style that best suits the nature of the problem and the needs of the parties. I have just realized that there is another dimension to this analysis – complexity theory! I love finding writings that bring together two of my current passions: complex system change and mediation. The most recent piece is a compelling article by Greg Rooney entitled “Applying Cynefin Complexity Theory to Mediation”.

First, a bit about Cynefin (how do you pronounce that anyway?). Chris Corrigan teaches the Cynefin Framework for strategy and decision-making, leadership and basic understanding of complexity. He explains Cynefin in an excellent article here. It has really helped me to understand the nature of complex adaptive systems. I have adapted his key elements of the Cynefin Framework into a table format:


Back to Greg Rooney’s article. He describes the Cynefin framework as follows:

It is an experiential mode of management which requires leaders to step back and allow patterns to emerge. It is through this emergence that opportunities arise for innovation and creativity. It is a process that opens the door for luck and serendipity. The focus is on managing the present and seeking out its evolutionary potential.

It requires leaders to have a deeper understanding of the broader context in which they operate and the ability to not shy away from complexity and paradox. Because it is an evolutionary process it gives managers the time and space to assimilate complex concepts. The approach is to probe first then sense and respond. It is managing for emergence rather than outcome.

He highlights the causality issue raised in the table above. In a complex system we cannot go back or forward in time so we have to “understand and manage from the present and nudge forward.” This is contrary to our most familiar and default approach which is “designing a desired end state and then working backwards to close the gap.” Cynefin also aims to trigger mistakes early through multiple ‘safe to fail trials’ which is contrary to the ‘command and control model’ which seeks fail safe predictable outcomes (mostly through multi-year pilot projects). These are, of course, important reminders as we tackle reform of the justice system because it is a truly complex adaptive system. If we keep trying to apply ordered system approaches we will continue to be disappointed.

Rooney then applies this complexity framework to conflict resolution and peace building practices. The starting point is that any interaction between human beings (and markets) falls within the complexity quadrant (unordered rather than ordered). Human beings and human relationships are, by definition, complex.

In any mediation there are multiple relationship connections.

In a simple mediation with one mediator, two parties and their lawyers there are 20 connections there and back between each of the participants, 48 pathways in which messages can be carried to and from the mediator and 120 pathways in total including through the mediator.

He uses a comparison of the joint session and caucused mediation approach (also called “shuttle mediation”) to illustrate his point. In the joint session all of these connections and pathways are continuously in play requiring the mediator to be skilled in nurturing emerging solutions, diversity, innovation and the positive aspects (opportunities) of disruption and conflict.

In the caucused mediation approach, however, the parties spend most of their time in separate rooms with the mediator(s) shuttling back and forth. The parties have little or no connection or interaction directly with each other, the pathways are reduced and communications are often translated by the mediator. Rooney hypothesizes that the caucused mediation approach assumes an ordered system or problem since it seeks to fashion order by designing an end state solution and then applying pressure on the parties to close the gap. He asserts that this may be effective in simple ordered disputes but will be counter-productive in complex conflicts.

For complex conflicts he identifies the following benefits of the joint session (complexity) approach:

  • It allows a fresh interaction between the parties (the decision-makers) in real time
  • The mediator mediates the moment to moment interaction between all the actors
  • The decision-makers have direct access to the information they need
  • The risk of misinterpretation is reduced
  • It can emulate experimentation as the parties brainstorm and test various solutions together

Until this article I had not considered mediation (or facilitation or other peacemaking approaches) to be amenable to a complexity theory analysis. It is important for mediators to assist the parties and their counsel to select the process and style that best suits the nature of the problem and the needs of the parties. Shuttle mediation is useful and appropriate in some situations; the key is to select strategically the best approach. This Cynefin analysis emphasizes that complexity must also be considered in that process.

Thanks to Chris Corrigan for his deep knowledge and for Greg Rooney for connecting the dots.

Comments are closed.