Constraint mapping

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Cynefin has long used the constraint-based definition of complexity, with the domains having rigid, governing, enabling, no effective and unknown constraints as distinguishing factors.  The base definition of Cynefin uses Alicia Juarrero's distinction.

Constraint mapping and the associated typology of constraints, as a key approach to understanding, navigating, and managing complexity.  

There are two reasons for doing this:

  1. Mapping and changing constraints avoid a direct connection between situational assessment and action.  Humans always make a decision as to action based on a first-fit pattern match and post hoc use situational assessment to justify the position.  S/he who describes the problem generally controls the solution.  So by starting with constraints and then speculating at to the likely emergence that results and containment to ensure it is safe-to-fail creates a more objective decision process.
  2. Constraints are things that we can manage in a complex system, and they are also things that we can know. Once you map constraints delegation is also easier, as the focus is on constraint change and then see what happens (but critically, make sure you plan for containment and unexpected consequences).

This is not the same thing as the use in Goldratt's Theory of Constraints. This post is one view on the differences written by Steve

A provisional decision is to stop talking about modulators (although keeping the idea of modulation as an alternative to causality when describing a complex system).  In a recent exercise, we found people thought that mapping modulators and constraints got confusing, so I’ve created a different category of constraint, namely one which applies a force to go with the primary distinction of constraints that connect (generally complex) and those which contain (generally order).  The whole point of modulators and the magnet metaphor is that there are things we can manage in a complex system, especially if we can exert micro-control in near real-time.

A typology of constraints

Containers Connections Exert a force
Resilient (survive by change, continuity of identity over time) Robust (survive unchanged until they break and if they break then it is generally catastrophic) Change can trigger a phase shift (anti-fragile would be a part of this)
Natural conditions Clear decisions Decisions that allow for emergence

Dark constraints exert a force that we can detect but we cannot trace it back.

These may become a set of three triads which will also allow mapping in SenseMaker®.

Previous Constraint typologies:

Robust constraints

  • Can be either Rigid or Governing (degrees of flexibility or discretion)
  • Survive by becoming stronger and more entrenched
  • They are context-free, which means they apply to everything, regardless of context
  • When they fail, do so catastrophically

Resilient constraints

  • Also referred to as enabling - designed to encourage agency
  • Survive by adapting and changing, continuity of identity over time
  • Are contextual - can be adapted for context; guidelines or heuristics rather than rules
  • When they break, there is usually some warning or the impact is small

Robust constraints can be …

  1. Rigid or fixed which means they are clearly defined, visible and can be enforced. If you want a metaphor think of a sea wall, or dykes. They have all the advantages of certainty, all the disadvantages of sudden catastrophic failure when their limits are reached.
  2. Elastic and thus have the benefit of adapting to a degree of change which is good, but they can still break and possibly give a false level of confidence. An elastic waist band may give you the illusion of maintaining a healthy weight but only for a time. The failure is more extreme.
  3. Tethers which provide a backstop, like a tow rope for example which has the slack taken up before it applies. These can be fail safes, backups only coming into play in extremis. The danger is damage when they snap into effect, both for the object being tethered and for the tether itself.

Resilient constraints can be …

  1. Permeable (for containers) or conditional (for coupling), in both cases the constraint is contingent. Some things can get through others can’t. Think of a salt marsh to contrast with the sea wall if you want an example. Or a system where rules can be broken in specific cases subject to heuristic control.
  2. Mutating which means they change over time, they don’t switch on and off, you can see the evolutionary pattern. Case based legal systems on contrast with those based on the Napoleonic code would be good example of these. In companies they are hardly even used, but could be valuable.
  3. Dark are like dark matter or dark energy, we can see their impact but we don’t know what they are. Aspects of organisational culture fall into this category as do taboos, rituals and the like. Far more prevalent in modern organisations than people realise they are almost a complex system in their own right, only knowable or changeable by interaction.

Constraint Mapping Method

This section outlines the steps in constraint mapping within the Cognitive Edge framework.


Participants should work in small groups with a clear focal issue…


General instructions to be given at the start

first instruction first set of tips

Mapping reveals what we can manage – constraint mapping typically leads to experimentation and development of safe-to-fail probes.

Do's and Don'ts

Simple bulleted list including common mistakes

Virtual running

Constraint mapping has been facilitated virtually using a digital collaboration canvas and virtual communication channels.


Link to other articles on this wiki if they are relevant.

Blog posts


Link to case articles here or third party material

Other resources