7 . Creating Coherent “Explore Spaces” (II)

How The WaysFinder Provides a Scaffold for Exploration

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By Sonja Blignaut

In the first part of this article, we explored some foundational terms and ideas, such as constraints, affordances, boundaries and containment.

Also, we introduced the Waysfinder framework, which enables a process of continuous orientation or ongoing situational assessment and sense-making of where we are, who we are, and where we fit in the current environment.

The framework is called the Waysfinder and not the Wayfinder, because in complex systems there are always multiple options available to us at any given time. There isn’t a single way to find, and it is important to acknowledge this. If we limit our exploration to a single option or way we are not exploring widely enough, we are in essence just linearly iterating in a straight line from A to B. This is a problem if we are not sure where B is, or if we accept that B is dynamic.

Applying the thinking embedded in the Waysfinder helps to create a scaffold, to open up our ‘explore space’ a little bit wider, so that we can explore more options and hopefully find unexpected value along the way.

The Waysfinder Creates a Scaffold for Exploration

We start with a situational assessment, determining where we are and who we are in a particular moment in time in relation to our environment, i.e., we start by figuring out where A is at this point and time, and what is possible from there.

Situational assessment is a key starting point, as we see A as dynamic –we do not assume our current position is static. In navigation terms we need to be able to get a “fix” on our current position. In complex situations that are in flux, it is dangerous to assume that our current context is known. Also key to note here is that in organisations or institutions, the various parts, e.g., business units or departments, may not all be in exactly the same place.

Once we have oriented ourselves, we can determine what movement is possible (next steps) from where we are, i.e., find “adjacent possibilities”.

Before we start exploring, we need to define the boundaries of our search space.

1.  Setting Direction

– –  Intention that Constrains and Frames

Instead of setting a specific end-point or destination we set a direction (or heading). While we may not think of intent or direction as a constraint, we need to acknowledge that we exclude some options when choosing a heading (i.e., deciding to head South means that going North is no longer an option or going over the mountain means not going around it).

While we choose a heading based on the most promising possibilities available to us in the present moment, we must realize that our final destination may end up being some alternative of our initial perceived destination (one of many alternative possibilities).

This is where intent comes into play, it is intended but not expected. When we are clear on our general direction, goal setting becomes a shorter-term activity. We move towards the “next adjacent possibility” – like crossing a river on stepping stones.

Without a clear sense of direction, people can become paralysed and overwhelmed by uncertainty. On the other hand, if the constraint is too restrictive, we may be limiting or restricting our options to such an extent that we lose our adaptive capacity and any opportunity to find something novel.

It is therefore important that our statement of intent is specific enough to provide direction and aid in decision-making, but not so specific that it allows too few degrees of freedom for exploration and diversity of perspective (this is what tends to happen when we pursue alignment).

“The person with a narrow vision sees a narrow horizon; the person with a wide vision sees a wide horizon”

He rangi tā Matawhāiti, he rangi tā Matahwānui

2.  Creating Guardrails

– –  demarcating the explore space

Once we have set direction we know where we are heading, we need to demarcate the explore space, otherwise we run the risk of fragmenting, or becoming overwhelmed by too many options.

One might think of these as being safety guardrails.

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There are two main kinds of guardrails to consider: functional limits –extrinsic and intrinsic– and identity or coherence boundaries.

i)  Extrinsic Functional Limits

There are constraints that we have little control over; they are givens. We have to work within them or choose a different context.

These constraints can be imposed by an external agent or can be a feature of the environment.

Examples include laws and regulations (e.g. tax laws), geographical limits like borders or mountain ranges. They can also be imposed by society, e.g., taboos or biases (as social licenses).

ii)  Intrinsic Functional Limits

These are also imposed by factors beyond our control but are internal and related to capabilities or other intrinsic factors. For example, an athlete is limited by the range of motion of the joints in his body – a typical knee can only bend in one direction.

COVID19 has led to the imposition of many rigid, and hopefully temporary, limits. Many of us are not allowed to travel, and some are even confined to their homes. In many countries businesses which do not offer essential products and/or services have been forced to stop trading. For some of us, co-morbidities limit our movement even more. In the short term we can do nothing about these constraints, but we can find new ways to operate within them.

In short: Some things may not be possible for us to pursue now, i.e., we may need to recognise that we simply CANNOT go there.

Something to keep in mind is that perception matters. One person can treat a limited budget as a hard constraint, something that inhibits any momentum; whereas someone else could treat that same constraint as enabling, i.e., something that stimulates creative thinking. It is worth doing critical assessment to question assumptions around some of the identified limits.

iii)  Coherence/Identity Boundary

These are constraints that permit or enable certain options and not others). They reflect our priorities and values: How, where and why do we want to “show up”?  Where do we choose not to go even though we could?

The key here is to let people know what is permitted in this context; how do they know they belong? Sometimes this boundary is expressed by values or working agreements.

This is a critical boundary. Along with the intent or direction, it enables both coherence AND diversity, i.e., if we are heading in the same direction and are attuned to the same constraints, we can move at different speeds, explore different options and even look and sound different, but still belong to the same organisation.

These differ from the intrinsic and extrinsic functional limits in that often we choose these boundaries by ourselves, i.e., we could go there but we choose not to.

Such boundaries are more permeable and flexible than the limits we described. It is good practice to review these often, especially when we find people are repeatedly bumping up against these boundaries, or being forced to break them. However, they will not have as many options available to them.

These units are also within the cone, heading in the same direction between the same guardrails, but the depth of their option field is much more limited.

Sonja Blignaut - Graph - WaysFinding

The WaysFinder is recursive or fractal in the sense that different groups or units within one larger group can create their own explore spaces within the broader space.

For example, the Research & Development unit of a bank may have much greater degrees of freedom for exploration than the Risk and Compliance division, who may have additional functional limits imposed on them. So while both units will explore within the overall space defined by the organisational WaysFinder, each unit can define their own explore spaces with varying degrees of freedom within that field.

3.  Enabling Conditions and Co-ordination

Once the explore space or cone is established: we need to determine what we can do within that space to create the conditions for productive exploration.

“A leader’s role is to intentionally create the conditions that push the system towards thriving and away from extinction during the evolving journey” 

– Jennifer Garvey-Berger –

Some of the things we can consider here include…

Enabling co-ordination through shared organising principles or flow heuristics — sometimes called simple rules:

These are constraints that enable flow of information and resources as well as coordination within the explore space. If different parts of the organisation or group are exploring in different parts of the option field, we need communication and information flow to make sure we do not become disconnected and fragmented.

These principles ensure we answer questions like: How do we prioritise one option over another? How far do we go before abandoning our efforts and choosing another option to explore? What are the rhythms and cadences we need to follow? How do we stay in touch to coordinate, cross-pollinate ideas and learn from each other? How do we maintain forward momentum as a collective.

Without clear guidelines for interaction, we risk wasting resources exploring similar things in different areas, or become completely fragmented. It is key to note the difference between guiding principles or heuristics that leave room for some autonomy and adaptation over rigid operating principles or rules that do not.

Enabling and maintaining requisite diversity (of perspective):

If everyone sees the world in similar ways our exploration will often not be broad enough. We need productive tension and difference to catalyse creativity. It is crucial that we prioritise diversity while we explore. We need a variety of perspectives, a variety of skills and a variety of options to explore. A lack in any of those will undermine our exploration and creativity.

Ensuring requisite inefficiency or slack:

Slack in this context has two aspects. Firstly, the system needs some “give” – a culture where everyone works 18 hour days and the focus is solely on efficiency will not be able to learn, explore and adapt.

Secondly, the system needs redundancy. If a person is sick, or if a particular resource is critical to our survival, we cannot afford to be dependent on one key person or one supplier. This flies in the face of our focus on efficiency, where we have stripped out all of the redundancy and slack from our systems and essentially become over-optimized for a single context, and therefore vulnerable and unable to adapt.

Nurturing adequate connectivity and a thriving social network:

Scientists have discovered a remarkable phenomenon they have called the “woodwide web”.

Mycorrhizal networks where the fine, hair-like root tips of trees join together with microscopic fungal filaments to form a kind of social network, a mutually beneficial relationship that enables trees to connect to each other through underground fungal networks.

Trees not only share water and nutrients through these networks, they also use them to communicate: to send distress signals about drought and disease, or insect attacks. Other trees alter their behaviour based on these messages, and in effect the forest becomes like a single organism.

Sonja Blignaut - B 3 - Tree Roots -Woodwide Web

In human systems, just like in forests, we need social networks to span formal organisational boundaries. Trust, information and knowledge flow more easily through informal networks than formal hierarchies. While hierarchies naturally emerge in complex social systems, they are not ideal for multi-directional, non-linear flows.

Innovation often happens through serendipity, two people or ideas unexpectedly “bumping into each other”. When there is a strong social network, this is more likely to happen. Also, when things go wrong and the context shifts, it is the informal network that enables the most effective communication flow.

Distributing decision-making and authority to enable responsiveness:

When decision-making is centralised, everything slows down. Also, central decisionmakers are typically too distant to adequately understand the context.

If the direction or intent and boundaries are clear, authority can be distributed if there are clear heuristics in place.

Examples abound in military contexts where commanders have long realised that if their troops rely on central command, they will be too slow and nonadaptive to be effective.

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In an organisational context, a recent example comes from GM, where CEO Mary Barra reduced a ten-page dress code policy to a two-word heuristic. Dress appropriately. This is a way to not only devolve decision-making, but also prove that employees are trusted and therefore treated as adults.

As you may have noticed, many of these are again different types of constraints, e.g., some that connect people or things to each other, e.g., in networks. Flow is enabled (or blocked) by constraints; think about water that can be channeled or dammed. Slack is created by constraints that govern how we work.

4.  Feedback

The final and critical component of the framework is ensuring adequate feedback mechanisms are in place.

Externally, we need to continuously monitor our environment to determine if our heading and boundaries are still relevant to the context and if we need to adjust. Inside the cone, we need to know if we are still coherent with the intent and direction, and we need early warnings if we are approaching a functional limit. We also need to measure our own progress and understand what others are doing and how we can co-ordinate or leverage our combined efforts. Feedback helps us maintain forward momentum and not get stuck or keep exploring towards a dead-end for too long.

Key here is ensuring diverse feedback mechanisms – you cannot afford echo chambers or single perspectives. Also make sure that you enable the flow of communication and feedback from the edges of your organisation and/or network. Threat and opportunity emerge on the edges, but often we have no mechanism set up to listen to those edge voices.

Using the Waysfinder

When working with a client using this framework, a typical process unfolds as follows:

  • Assess current state.
  • Determine where constraints are either not in place, too rigid, too permeable or simply inappropriate.
  • Design a portfolio of safe-to-try probes to address the gaps.
  • Implement and monitor the probes.
  • Repeat / Iterate.

This framework is recursive in the way that it can be used on multiple levels in an organisation. Different business units may have different frameworks all within the overarching organisational framework.

It has been used in many different contexts including:

  • Strategy — in uncertainty especially in the context of needing to re-invent or pivot.
  • Culture — enabling local difference but maintaining a strong & coherent culture.
  • Agile — enabling fit for context scaling of agility — i.e. enabling the use of different approaches and methods while remaining coherent to an overall intent of becoming more Agile.
  • Innovation.
  • Establishing a new company or community.
  • Leadership & management.
  • New approaches to compliance & risk.
  • Some have used it as an individual coaching tool.

This is a work in progress. I have been working on these ideas for several years, and I have held off posting because I kept learning and refining.

There are still quite a number of things I am not fully satisfied with, and my hope is that sharing these ideas with more people will help move them forward.


So many people have helped shape my thinking over the years, I can’t possibly name them all. But I do want to extend a special thank you to Prof John Turner, Greg Spencer, Doug Maarschalk, Michael Göthe, Angela Lang, Anne Caspari and Hannes Entz and every one else who have provided feedback, used the framework withtheir own clients, and encouraged me to write it up. It is much appreciated!

I am Sonja Blignaut and these are my agile-thoughts

2021 © Johannesburg, SOUTH AFRICA by Sonja Blignaut

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Sonja has been working in the field of applied complexity for over two decades. She is a sought-after sense-making partner, speaker, teacher, and writer.

In her twenty-year consulting career, Sonja has worked with many blue-chip companies as well as not-for-profit and research organisations.

Founder and managing director of More Beyond, and co-founding partner in Sensemaking Partner and ComplexityFit.

Sonja is based in South Africa, arguably one of the best places in the world to learn about navigating complexity!

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