Making Sense In A Complex World

Siddharth Anantharam
10 min readFeb 6, 2019

What a complex world we live in, don’t we?

A world where;

  • Divisive and egocentric leaders are taking center stage;
  • Deep and meaningful relationships are becoming an exception instead of the norm;
  • People are disengaged at work and disconnected with themselves;
  • Smartphones get more love and attention than humans;
  • Depression is becoming serious enough to be declared an epidemic.

With such complex problems, how do we even make sense of everything?

And where does change really begin?

These are questions that have been burning deep inside me.

Why are you trying to reinvent the wheel here Sid? Why don’t you just listen to a podcast, read the best book on the topic or look for answers on Google?

I asked myself the same question. Even tried these out.

If you have successfully dealt with or are in the process of dealing with any of these issues, you know that the nature of these problems is pretty unique. And that the knowledge we get in a book or the expertise in a podcast is just not enough.

This is when I started digging deeper and was introduced to a fantastic decision-making framework — The Cynefin Framework that really helped me understand why these problems are so different; and why our approach to solving them needs to be too.

Cynefin (pronounced ku-nev-in), is a Welsh word whose literal translation into English as habitat or place fails to do it justice. It is more properly understood as the place of our multiple belongings, the sense that we all, individually and collectively, have many roots, cultural, religious, geographic, tribal etc. We can never be fully aware of the nature of those belongings, but they profoundly influence who we are.

Graphic by Lara Listens (

The Cynefin framework, developed by Welsh researcher Dave Snowden, divides the problems we face into five different contexts depending on the relationship between cause and effect. Four of these — simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic — require us to diagnose situations and to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth — disorder — applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant.

Most of the problems we are facing today are complex in nature — which means there are “unkown unknowns” and the relationship between cause and effect can only be seen in retrospect, never in advance. In such situations, the best approach, as per this framework, is to probe, sense what’s wrong and then respond to the situation, together.

So what does this really mean? How does understanding this framework help us tackle these problems better?

In a world of complex problems;
- If we try to impose order, we will fail.
- If we simply rely on knowledge and expertise, we will fail.
- If we shy away from being ‘in control’ and ‘not knowing’, we will fail.
- If we simply rely on our past experiences to determine our response, we will fail.
- If we don’t collaborate and make sense of the problem together, we will fail.

- If we set the stage and slow down a bit,
- Use conversations to probe on the issues that really matter,
- Consider multiple perspectives to make sense together,
- Allow patterns to emerge,
- And then respond by taking wiser actions,

We will succeed.

The Cynefin framework teaches us that today, in a world of knowledge and advanced technology, what we need more than ever before, is HUMAN WISDOM.

Wisdom is our ability to make decisions after considering multiple perspectives and insights, decisions rooted in deep caring and compassion.

Wisdom to look at world’s most critical issues beyond their political, economic and social lenses and into their psychological, cultural and spiritual roots.

Humanity is hungering for wisdom. That is the word I hear most; not compassion; not love: not peace; not kindness — but wisdom. The other words all have deep meaning and their own unique power. But wisdom is the one that seems to magnetize people across the broadest spectrum around the world. I found myself drawn to this word because it is a cross-cutting theme in so many of the very diverse settings in which I am travelling.
- Mark Gerzon
Activist, Conflict Resolution Facilitator, Leadership Trainer
Author of Leading Through Conflict

Wisdom to learn from our past, both individually and together as a species, before creating our future.

Wisdom to not label (and judge) people simply based on their color, appearances or professions but to really understand the lessons they bring through their most human experiences.

The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the ordinary — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wisdom to not only learn from a podcast or a book but also from the people who form an important part of our lives every day — whether it’s our own family, friends, the local grocer or the guard who secures our buildings.

Wisdom to Connect Deeply — with ourselves and each other. And to know that we have a stake in each other’s success and well being.

Because here is the thing,

Wisdom is not just about a few wise people, but about the capacity of entire communities to make wiser choices and build a better future, together.

So, how do we create spaces to help Human Wisdom emerge as a Community?

  1. By Hosting Conversations & Active Dialogue
    Bringing more people together in conversation has been the source of Human Wisdom for generations. For years, humans have sat in Circles around fires, developed our thinking, shared stories and created narratives. This age-old tradition has helped us build stronger relationships and fostered more collaboration. The world, today needs more spaces like this.
  2. By Inviting Diversity and Compassion
    We need to actively invite participation and collaboration between people of different ages, backgrounds, colors, and genders. Where the inherent biases are discarded. Where we are able to experience life through the lens of another. Where we feel safe to express our truths because of the one thing that unites us all — the fact that we are all human.
  3. By Creating Meaning, Together
    Participating in groups, sharing rich experiences and seeking collective clarity on common issues helps us develop new meaning together. We may find the solution to our burning question in the experiences of another. Or find a whole new perspective that we never considered. Doing this together makes us more open, responsible and ultimately wiser.
  4. By Harnessing The Power of Stories
    In the thousands of years before books and computers existed, a story was the way we transmitted everything. It was the carrier that taught us how to be human and see each other’s humanity. Creating and sharing our most authentic stories with each other is how we come upon our wisdom and make the road map we need for survival. The more we understand and share our own stories, the stories of our families and communities, the more links and bridges we build with others.
  5. By Using Art For Expression
    Arts play an important role to change our narratives, see new possibilities and bring new hope. Theatre, drama, music, movies, poetry, photography all have the immense power of influencing our perspectives while entertaining us. They create powerful moments that shape who we are.

And what can we do as individuals to tap into our own Human Wisdom?

Here are 6 values and attitudes that, I believe will help us tap into our own Wisdom. These are all choices we can make in our day to day interactions with others and in our own actions.

1. Deep Listening over Noisy Advocacy

Deep listening involves us being curious about what is really going on both in the interior and exterior worlds of others as well as ourselves. It requires us to be really present and not simply hear for the sake of memory. To dial into what we really feel, dream, fear? And to be really aware of the events in our day to day life that give or take away our power?

In a world where we are surrounded by noise, opinions, advertisements, and judgments all around, this will help us see and feel what really lies behind the curtains.

2. Powerful Questions over Superficial Answers

We often assume that the purpose of questions is to find answers. But in a world of complex problems where we don’t have all the answers, questions play a different role. They invite us into the unknown and open a thread of new possibilities and connections. They help us craft meaningful conversations and open us up to diverse perspectives.

In a world of experts, teachers, and gurus who claim to have all the answers, simply asking ourselves more powerful questions, not to seek answers but to invite more questions and live in the discomfort and uncertainty surrounding them, can be a gamechanger. It’s this process that allows wisdom to emerge.

3. Learning over Knowing

One of the wisest things I have heard was from Tom Chi — Co-Founder of Google X when asked how he managed to develop the first prototype of Google Glass in record time,

Knowing is the enemy of Learning

— Tom Chi, Co founder of Google X

When we tell our brains that we “know” something, we automatically shut out any new information that a particular event or experience can teach us. Intrinsically we always want to “know” things since that makes us feel safe and certain. However, it is only when we are willing to risk “not knowing”, that we allow something unexpected to emerge from the depths of our wisdom. This is similar to a beginner’s mind where we suspend our need for certainty and instead let curiosity guide our thinking and actions.

In a world which believes that ‘knowing’ and knowledge is power, ‘not knowing’ and learning actually becomes our superpower. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the more we commit to “not knowing”, the wiser we become.

4. Humility over Ego

Our Ego is that invisible little child that lives inside every one of us that loves getting his or her way over anything or anyone else. It controls our need to be better than, know more than and be recognized for our thoughts and actions. As much as our Ego lives to protect us, makes us feel good while feeling safe, Ryan Holiday says it best in his book of the same name — Ego is the Enemy.

Wisdom, on the other hand, is born when we let our guards (ego) down and respect others, their opinions, and world view as much as our own. When we remain respectful even when differences arise because we don’t feel superior in relation with them but equal. This requires Humility.

In a world where we judge success by how outspoken we are, being humble is what really allows us to listen patiently, appreciate diverse perspectives and trust that we can all co-create a better world, together. Wisdom manifests itself in humility rather than ego and arrogance.

5. Slowing Down over Speeding Up

If our life was a movie that is unfolding continuously at every moment, one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal is to hit Pause — to slow down. To be really present and direct our energy towards how we want to create this movie before actually living it.

By accepting that the challenges we face today are complex in nature, one of the most important things we can do is to consciously slow down our lives and trust that the solutions we need are always available as long as we create space (time, energy and intention) to be really present.

In a world where speed is rewarded and where we are trying to cram more into the 24 hours, we have at our disposal, consciously choosing to slow down and reflect can be the secret to deeper connections, higher clarity and greater peace of mind. All of which directly contribute to us taking wiser decisions.

6. WE over ME

One of the most profound shifts I experienced recently is when I decided to conduct a little experiment. In situations where I was part of a group or collective, I decided to ask myself;

“What if this was NOT about ME? What can WE do, together?”

And then I openly shared this question with other members of the group to reflect on too. We found that simply asking ourselves this question as a group completely shifted our energy and thinking. It opened us up to conversations and solutions that were far wiser than what any one of us could have thought of as individuals alone.

This little experiment helped me realize why WE is always more powerful than ME. Why flashes of insight and new ways of understanding a situation are so common when groups of people make meaning together.

In summary, the next time we feel powerless in the face of any problem whether simple or complex, I hope each one of us can draw upon our own wisdom by choosing one of these six values and attitudes shared above.

And if our own wisdom does not prove sufficient, I hope we can use the power of collective wisdom to invite multiple perspectives and gain even more clarity.

As Shakespeare recognized, alone we are merely players, each with our own exits and entrances, but as members of something larger, we become something extraordinary!

If you are trying to make sense of a similar complex problem in your life, we invite you to join our next LIFE CIRCLE.

LIFE CIRCLES are unforgettable experiences designed for you to connect deeply — with yourself and a curated circle of incredible humans. Have conversations that matter. Draw collective wisdom. Drive wiser actions.

More details here:

Have questions or want to collaborate? Feel free to send me a message on Facebook, and I would love to have a conversation :)

The Power of Collective Wisdom by Alan Briskin



Siddharth Anantharam

Founder of LIFE CIRCLES | Business Head @Evercoach by Mindvalley | Leadership Coach