Living With Uncertainty Sense-making for Paddlesport Clubs

"All human beings actually have a lot of lived experience in complexity [...] As we negotiate city life, traffic, social complexities in families or friendships and raising children, we are effectively engaging complexity" - Sonja Blignaut

Including "the Cynefin Framework & CLubs"

Sketch of the Cynefin framework, by Edwin Stoop

Navigating everyday complexity & informality

Day in, day out, we allow trite arguments to pass unchallenged. We might roll our eyes, or bite our tongue... but we don't do more as life is quite genuinely too short to challenge each and every instance. Does it matter? We'd hopefully say "yes" over Black Lives Matter - but what about when the issue is the landscape of opportunity for would-be outdoor-enthusiasts?

"everybody wants everything done for them these days" - "no-one can do anything anymore" - "we wouldn't be insured" - "we already are inclusive, we welcome everyone"

Does everyone really just want everything done for them these days? Do people really just want to dip into things & move on? Does liability really mean everything has to be done by the book? Do we really meet members & volunteers where they are in our clubs?

If we let these trite arguments go unchallenged... we might end up in a place where they are actually true - but what happens if we just shape the way we talk about things so that our ordinary, everyday ways of working reflect what we DO value?

life on the edge of THE clifF

In practice, life in smaller canoe clubs tends to be rather like life in other truly informal communities: awash with uncertainty. Old hands may affectionately identify members as being madder than a box of frogs / sack of ferrets - and activity tends to bubble upwards from even the least likely of sources.

Where a club is a site of entangled lives - and where coordinating anything is commonly seen as more challenging than herding cats - club culture can end up appearing pretty loose. Perhaps in reaction, or over-reaction, we may also see an occasional dabble with a paternalistic "our way or the high way" model for club activity.

Despite occasional challenges which tend to dominate the stories we tell, we find clubs up and down the country doing a pretty good job of navigating (or at least surviving) these landscapes of uncertainty.

Against this background, we might note a broader UK trend towards informal participation in smaller networks where pretty much everything has to be negotiated / made up on the fly. These informal networks are where the growth is happening... and we face a real danger of a gap opening up between where how our clubs are expected to work and real world paddlers.

Supporting decision making

Much recent thinking in organisational design has been about harnessing informal learning & embracing complexity. This is arguably what our more confident clubs have been doing for years - but are we ready for the challenges ahead?

What would it mean to treat Clubs as networks which are in large part about coming together and adapting to challenges? Could we find a way of supporting clubs that respects instincts to just "get on" with things - independently, autonomously, and through whatever processes the members choose?

That's where a sense-making framework might come in: as a means of shaping our perceptions of the situations we find ourselves in (our sense of context) and of supporting our decision making.

In passing, this document will make a case for turning to the Cynefin sense-making framework - and will illustrate how this might work with a case study - as either might help us clarify our thinking about what we really value in our clubs and informal paddling networks. Before that, though, we might directly consider a few potential temptations which might get in the way of using any framework effectively.

The stories we boat by

How easily are we seduced by some notion that we've got a handle on how our club activity is going to play out? Do we tend to see the novelty of our situation but still have confidence that if we stick to what we know, everything will work out fine?

If we're a bit unsure about how things are going, is our first instinct to re-evaluate... or to just concentrate harder on eliminating sloppiness from how we might be operating?

At what point does someone set off alarm bells because the stories we were expecting to be telling don't actually make sense of what we are seeing unfold around us?

"best practice" temptations

Even without a worrying experience, external pressure, or members being anxious about liability or insurance, we might find pressure within any club to ensure "the stories we boat by" are agreed in advance and are very clear to everyone involved.

In an extreme case, we might feel we are being called to adopt a "delivery-centre" model where the club offers a "product" and deploys a "workforce" to "provide experiences" - to adopt someone's notion of an "industry" approach.

So long as people buy into the model, a "delivery centre" approach might work... but volunteers don't generally stick around if treated as staff, and members don't generally stick around if treated as clients... and if there's ever going to be a gap between what's what's envisioned and what actually needs to take place, it's likely to be with this approach

High Risk, Low Reward

In theory, managing club activity through fixed constraints tends to mean a clear and orderly world... in which any amount gets done. In practice, without heroic and ongoing efforts, a world where volunteers work entirely as envisaged within "the stories we boat by" and within "best practice" guidelines tends to get become limited and limiting.

In practice, we still choose inflexible / rigid constraints... but we should at least be conscious that as and when our volunteers and members encounter real uncertainty... any effort to get things done more effectively than "as envisaged" can mean bypassing the club's control measures!

Authoritarian Temptations

Has anyone ever encountered a club which has not, at some point or another, worried that situations might be in danger of sliding out of control? Sooner or later, having such concerns is likely to be a fair.

That's fine - but how do clubs handle those whose first instinct is to stress over a possible collapse into chaos?

We may be talking here of members who agree with the rest of the club over situations where everything is proceeding in an orderly enough manner, and with whom we're all aligned when the wheels really do start coming off - but we might might well be talking about the biggest energy-drains on club life somewhere in between!

Few club committees would choose to be authoritarian, but pressure mounts as members start seeing the only choices as "order" and "chaos" - with nothing in between.

How should clubs handle those members who love to see things in black and white, and who struggle with the ambiguity which comes when subtleties of the situation facing the club demand shades of grey?

Sadly, open discussion of the dangers of attempting to tightly constrain club activity doesn't tend to get us far with those who want to see processes in place for everything and everything run as envisioned.

Trust the Expert?

Club Committees can generally manage process enthusiasts who want to see the club run like a well oiled machine... and can generally avoid authoritarian over-reaction. Steering a path through in ways which keep everyone on-board might sap energy... but few ever doubt that it's the right thing to do.

For committees, far greater temptation tends to come in the form of a well meaning "expert" (classically, an experienced coach) who offers to "save" a club from chaos. Why a bigger threat? Because most of the time, the "expert" may well have a lot to offer in relation to huge swathes of club activity!

Shouldn't a club just charge a paddlesport expert with overseeing an annual programme of "club activity" in ways which reflect identified needs and demonstrate a commitment to National Governing Body guidelines?

Well... if a club were like a well organised production line then sensing how it's operating and using forensic analysis of predictable elements and linkages to ensure appropriate responses to every development might make sense. The result might be an ordered domain of "good practice" devotees.

Unfortunately, if a club guided by an expert just moves from having clear processes (understood by everyone) to having complicated processes (understood by the expert)... it's only going to find a more robust way of staying within a world of black-and-white!

Even a complicated plan to run a club like a machine is still setting up a simplistic order vs. chaos choice - we're still avoiding shades of grey.

In practice, the instinct to trust an expert can be almost as problematic as the instinct to distrust an expert. Either CAN be a good instinct - but even when the expert is right, over-reliance can be corrosive.

What's worse? We may always have more questions (or arguments) than we would like around who counts as an "expert" in OUR club activity!


Handling Uncertainty - in Border Collie Style!

Pretty much everywhere we go, we hear talk of "meeting people where they are at" - but how come pretty much every effort to shape a perfect answer seems to end up with champions who celebrate new possibilities... and skeptics who just see a familiar story unfolding?

Does "collaborating" ever actually work for anyone other than those who are used to getting their own way? Do systems solve that by ensuring everyone has access? Maybe, but ... but do we have any example where access isn't on terms decided by those who set up the systems?

Are stability, certainty and predictability inherently good? what might we actually value in continuous movement and change?

acknowledging Complexity

Step one on a road to embracing complexity might be acknowledging the rich tapestry of connections and entangled lives at the heart of our clubs - and affirming that we see and value the connection between our clubs and ever evolving traditions within the outdoors.

In some clubs, we'll hear that an embrace of complexity is already happening through a recognition of "peer paddling" - but that's typically presenting anything complex as something "other" than a more familiar world of club activity!

A complex world of peer paddling might be romanticised positively (celebrated) or imagined as something to fear (demonised). Either way, barriers are erected to any sense of connection between those complex realities and club activity.

More meaningful acknowledgement of the informal side of club activity might start where approaches place "coaching for independence" at the heart of "meeting members where they are at" - but as a rule, these approaches insist on individual paddlers emerging from the "other" world (independent paddling), then receiving training for a return to that "other" world.

Truly meaningful acknowledgement is difficult to start until we move beyond a patronising and patriarchal language of clubs "empowering" paddlers and start accepting that power was never the club's to give in the first place.

In those clubs which have gone further, we tend to find, instead, a genuine respect for the impressive self-organisation we see where informal networks take ownership of club activity. That's respecting where members start exploring (together) what commitments they want to make to one another.


Embracing Complexity

So how do Committees get beyond an inherently paternalistic "our way or the high way" model for club activity? How do we develop club activity based on respectful collaboration? What's needed for networks of club members to feel comfortable stepping forward as self-managing teams, ready to define and shape their own activities?

Curiously, a commonly overlooked first step is having an activity framework in place which means the club "programme" can emerge from the bottom up: one that allows members (within reason) to place their own activity on the club programme as they see fit - ideally catering for everyone from those who crave autonomy to those who genuinely don't.

A note of caution: if we're going to be inclusive, allowing people to get on with things can't mean "so long as formal process is followed" (as that only works for those who identify with explicit structure) and it can't only mean "so long as you are comfortable taking your own lead" (as that doesn't may not sit nicely for those more comfortable with support and collaboration).

Reading Signpost: Simon Mont on A Failed Holacracy


The bigger piece of work for clubs tends to be sustaining a culture in which appropriate conversations are taking place among those who are keen to go paddling together. That's conversations, first and foremost, about what's involved - and in particular about any mutual commitments involved.

What counts as an "appropriate" conversation about mutual commitments? Well, that's going to depend on everything from context (who's talking to whom) to the nature of the emerging plan.

Where familiar teams are planning familiar activity within their comfort zone, very little may ever need to be explored by those getting involved. If everyone's comfortable with a loose plan, and confident in dealing with whatever might arise, "winging it" may actually be an entirely responsible approach.

Where teams include some who are new to an activity, or plans involve tackling something new or a less forgiving environment... conversations typically get taken further by those whose expertise and experience mean they'll end up shouldering a greater Duty of Care.

What's the ultimate dream? Possibly a club with a strapline of "the place to make mistakes" - meaning somewhere which responds to the crazier plans which bubble up from the membership with "that's great, are we OK that it's safe to fail?"

Of course, the "are we OK that it's safe to fail" proviso is critical here. It's what avoids us getting us overly romantic about what members can dream up together and it is a direct challenge over club responsibilities (e.g. over insurance, and for safeguarding) - but it's an approach based on framing questions to meet people where they are at.

With a starting point in meeting people where they are at, we've got a starting point for developing horizontal accountability and Governance. Adding those "are we OK that it's safe to fail" conversations, we start adding in vertical accountability - and that's all just asking clubs to manage things over which they actually have a degree of control.


Landscapes of Opportunity

We've been working towards an outlook in which clubs of any form can be seen as enriching the landscapes of opportunity of members in ways which don't specify which page any group of members must be on... but which holds out the promise, for all concerned, that pretty much anything is possible.

We need to start from acceptance that what appeals as an opportunity and approach in a particular section of a particular club might have quite limited appeal pretty much anywhere else. We might also need to start with a pretty open mind over how much those club members have to be on the same page for their plan to count as "safe to fail."

If we had to envisage everything which might arise and plan for it, we might never get to first base. Traditional models of professional judgement and decision making would show a need for skillsets which few teams could be expected to pull together.

Fortunately, as we navigate life in and through our club networks... we very rarely have to actually take a big-picture view of any of this. In practice, we mostly just need to be confident that as things unfold, we're well enough attuned to what's going on keep our options open in ways which minimise the energy cost of changing tack!

Yes, we could (in theory) be opening many cans-of-worms over Duty of Care - but rather than seeing a black-and-white world of activity that is, or is not, club activity... we're seeing a world where clubs manage the extent (rather than the principle) of their liability.

In practice, tort law supplies principles such as Volenti non fit iniuria - "to a willing person, injury is not done" - and with care, clubs can (and do) navigate complex terrain.

Some of what is written here opens into Beverly and Etienne Wenger-Trayner's work on Social Artists. It also ties into much thinking within Ecological Dynamics. More importantly, the Cynefin framework gives clubs an incomparable tool navigating the challenges which come with embracing complexity.

Theory Based Practice

Theory Based Practice


Justen O’Connor & Dawn Penney write of how "looking at at informal participation as a context and form of meaningful, sustained involvement in physical activity [...] participation does not demand a prime focus on technical proficiency, but rather, upon ‘other learning’ that centres on the social, interpersonal, cultural and environmental dimensions of H/PE."

They point "to the importance of children and young people learning how to appropriate and use space for an activity in ways that are socially acceptable and respectful to other community members" and "to the skills, knowledge and understandings associated with making a space a meaningful, safe and inclusive place for being active" - source.



After thirty years of being a major stabilising influence in many people's lives... Pennine is still very much "work in progress" - a project which may remain forever unfinished.

The club has evolved to be what it is today through everything from hard work to happy accidents. It's not a model to be cloned, and it doesn't claim to be exemplary in anything it does - but the reality of The Pennine Way (on the ground) reflects an embrace of complexity.

Of course, the reality on the ground in the Club preceded anything here - but over the years, Pennine has actively explored issues which lie at the heart of this current document. Crucially, description of how the club has worked on the ground has always preceded, and informed, decision making - so the reality on the ground is one which has evolved through engagement with theory rather than having been developed FROM theory.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, the Club has also attempted to get the current state of play quite comprehensively articulated on the website. Please visit www.penninecrc.org and take a look around!

"Ours is not a club with a culture of having everyone following rules – and the club doesn’t really 'do' hierarchy, either. As in the past, connections between members [...] are overwhelmingly informal.

One series of interlinked pages on the website exist to shape perceptions of the opportunities for action (or invitations) which might attract visitors to the club's Home Waters. Attention is drawn to everything from the access and launch point to the nature of Battyeford Weir.

These interlinked pages seeks to engage around factors which might have a bearing on whether a visit goes well... and tries to create attractor-states around ways of approaching things which increase the odds on a positive outcome.

Visitors are not directed through the site in a linear progression - but those who get drawn in might encounter anything from Ensuring things go well to Winging it... Responsibly - plus lots of content on things like Keeping Life Simple and an ever evolving Safety Advisor System.

Varieties of Club Activity

At the heart of Pennine is an appreciation that in large part, a club is a community in which Club Activity is driven BY members and takes many forms. That CAN be formal, supervised or sanctioned... but more commonly, it's collaborative, informal or independent. All are valued!

Earlier drafts characterised the cyclical movement on the left as tending towards the formal and transactional and as involving trust in training and procedures. That might lead to independent paddlers drilled to take clearly demarcated roles in crews which follow good / best practice.

We might expect cyclical movement on the right hand side to be characterised more by informal and transformational relationships, with trust being in the commitment individuals are making to one another and independent paddlers accustomed to adapting to one another within teams.

keeping Life simple

For Pennine, the key question about on-water activity is typically whether those involved have a proportionate float plan. That might be back-of-a-fag-packet style... and it might just be in people's heads... but if appropriate questions have been asked, life it good.

The club is happy that what's appropriate depends on context.... and if we’re sure we’ve got more than enough options… and that no-one’s going to worry if we’re back late because things haven’t gone to plan… the club accepts we might well be good to go.

Old hands mostly want to be confident that those getting involved at least have some idea of the commitments they are making to one another and have reason to think they'll be able to adapt to whatever they find in front of them.

Can the plan be implemented in full by adequately prepared team members? Could it be adapted responsibly in response to unforeseen developments such as illness or injury?

For those who want it, the club offers float plan templates. These suggest plans should reflect aspirations, expectations and priorities, be based on a realistic assessment of capabilities, resilience and resourcefulness and be sufficiently informed by local knowledge, including of prior weather & local forecast.

Even the basic template encourages evaluation of concerns due to prior / forecast environmental conditions, concerns due to group arranged at the start, strategies for mitigating risks and contingency planning. For those who might need it, the templates offer prompts around communication, maintaining line of sight, avoiding incidents, expectation of positioning, navigation, rescues, first aid & calling for help.

The important bit isn’t what gets written down… it’s asking the questions in the first place!

Please note: the club does not expect members to use this template - or any other template - it's just an enabling device which sits alongside everything else - if someone feels more comfortable using it, fine - it's met a need.

Exploring WHAT might be POSSIBLE

This graphic is an attempt to show a few ways in which the club's sense-making approach might be seen as operating in practice. It's not a template for how things work... but it provides a lens for viewing what actually happens on the ground.

being genuinely responsive

Will what we've outlined work well for everyone at the club, all of the time? We doubt it - and the risk of complacency on this front is perhaps increased by the size of the club - so the bigger part is the culture which sits behind - the trust, the openness, the transparency, and the feedback loops needed to ensure the club is hearing how life in the club is being experienced.

Of course, all of this does also have a "formal" side - and that's taken seriously, right from safeguarding (within entangled lives) through to providing pathways for members to be heard - but the culture doesn't change in committee meetings - what members see really is what they get!

Other case studies, Elsewhere?

both the thinking in this document and the broader cynefin framework (see below) are informing how pretty much every issue in this club gets tackled... but what might that look like in another setting?

Cynefin Resources

signposting a framework which might add value almost anywhere
Cynefin by Martin Berg @ vige.se

Getting Started with the cynefin Framework

After more than 20 years of increasingly global reach, the world is awash with misconceptions about the Cynefin Framework... which is still evolving. That can make getting to grips with it a little tricky - especially for anyone hearing that the latest iterations open into the most fascinating areas.

Fortunately, we can get by with a recognition that the cynefin framework does nothing more (nor less) than support us in our efforts to make sense of what we find in front of us.

For a complete newbie, this 2016 Wagnerdery video may still work as a starting point.

The challenge with finding a starting point with Dave Snowden's broader thinking is even greater... and we arguably get greatest insight by exploring the parallel Sensemaker website - but The Cognitive Edge Blog (which includes both staff and guest contributions) contains endless reflections.

For a more accessible starting point, this gentle and entertaining keynote address is recent, accessible and recorded to a high standard.

Also Brian Shirai's Indexed Partial Transcript.

To get into the detail of where Cynefin Framework thinking has been going most recently, check out Chris Corrigan's tour of the latest iteration of Cynefin and see Dave Snowden's series of St David's Day blogs.

For more on why you can't model a human system and the science of complex adaptive systems see this 2018 presentation.

This 2019 presentation marginally pre-dates those blogs but directly addresses theory based practice. After the first 45 seconds the audio and video quality is again immaculate.

A host of podcasts and Webinars have allowed further insight into the way the Cynefin Framework may be evolving and into how it can be applied. Finding them can be challenging... but Dave Snowden's (hugely entertaining) Twitter Feed tends to bring new offerings to light pretty consistently.

Ps. See also Sonja Blignaut's blog - as with her piece on Why we suck at “solving wicked problems” and her accessible & inspiring, presentation on Navigating Uncertainty.

For more on this theme, please Follow the links or get in touch

The Talent Equation Podcast Conversation

After reading a first draft of this presentation, Stuart Armstrong invited me to a conversation around ecological approaches to clubs - now available as a podcast.

Enriching Lives 1 & 2

The Enriching Lives Presentation

The ideas articulated in the Enriching Lives videos / Podcasts are developed in an earlier Adobe Spark Presentation...

The Energising Enthusiasts Presentation

The Enriching Lives presentations led into one on how we encourage more people to put more energy into enriching lives on and around the water...

Sustaining Great Club Cultures

Why do club cultures in the outdoors sometimes get detached from the values of the members? How do National Governing Bodies end up getting cast as a persecutor? What's needed to ensure the finer traditions within clubs always prevail?

Beyond Living with uncertainty

To see what else has been coming out or to get in touch, please visit the website or make contact through Facebook, Twitter, etc.

A Parting Thought

"And I think what’s really important for us to understand is that complexity can’t be tamed. It can’t be wished away. And it can’t be simplified. And it’s not good or bad. It just is. And we know if you… If you think about just the natural environment, any social context, any human context is complex and we’ve all experienced those and we all know how to navigate it." - Sonja Blignaut

For a short summary and partial transcript with key quotes, see here.

Created By
Greg Spencer