Types of System

Based on the concept of “constraint”.


In order to understand what a system is we need the concept of “organization”. It will be easier for us to define what an organization is if we ask ourselves: what is the opposite of ​​"organization"? The opposite of organization is chaos.

Chaos is when we have many things that are not constrained by anything. The word “constrained” is important here. To understand what a constraint is, we first need to understand what variety is.

Variety (or diversity) means the number of distinct elements in a set. For example, the variety of the set of human sexes {Male ; Female} is 2.

A constraint is a relation between two sets, and occurs when the variety that exist under one arrangement is less than the variety that exists under another.

For example, if a certain school admits only boys, the variety in the set of sexes within the school { Male } is 1. Since 1 is less than 2 a constraint exists in that school. Another example is the Moon orbiting the Earth. In theory, the Moon can occupy any position on the space-time continuum. However, in practice, it occupies a smaller set of positions that describe a particular curve. That is - something restricts the Moon from taking some of the other theoretically possible positions. And what limits it? Gravity. Hence we can say that gravity is the constraint. Further, it follows that every law of nature is a constraint e.g..the Newtonian law says that, of all possible velocities and positions of the planetary bodies only a smaller set will actually occur and specifies what values the elements will have [1].

The intensity or the level of a constraint is the reduction it causes in the variety of a given set. Thus a constraint that reduces the variety from 10 to 1 is more rigid than a constraint that reduces the variety from 10 to 5.

Constraints may be coupling or containing. The first defines the boundaries around something, the second defines the interactions between entities that form a part of the system [2]. Constraints may be physical as in a production system. They may also be intangible as a policy/practice in an organization. The physical constraints may also be further constrained by kinds of policies/practices. There is also a constraint if the state of one thing depends on the state of another. Here by state we understand not only the properties of the thing and their values, but also the positions in the space that it can occupy; the choices he can make; the actions it can take. For humans the values they can share; the methods they can use; the goals they can pursue; the functions they can perform, the rules they must follow. In general a resource constraint as a situation in which an organization experiences a level of resources lower than what it perceives as needed. The important thing is that it is what people perceive to be true, not what is objectively true!

In general, we have the following types of constraints:

  • time
  • resources - knowledge, information, finance, working conditions.
  • space - volume, area
Space constraints do not have to be physical, it may be a constrained private space. That is what we call "transparency". Hence transparency is a constraint! Seen from this point of view, the world around us is full of constraints. But because we are so accustomed to them we take most of them for granted and often we are not consciously aware that they exist. To see what the world would look like if a fraction of its usual constraints don't exist we have to turn to fairy tales or the cinema. A world without constraints will be totally chaotic.

Having shown what a constraint is, we can now give our definition of organization.

An organization is one or more constraints on the properties of a thing: on the positions it may occupy; the choices it can make; the actions it can take; the values ​​it can share; the methods it can use; the goals it can pursue; the functions it can perform; the rules it must follow.

Generally speaking, an organization is a set of constraints applied to a thing or a group of things.

What is a system?

A system is a set of things that an organization is applied to.

Let's see examples of organized sets of things that we call systems. For example, the solar system consists of nine planets. Their organization is based on constraints - Newton's three laws. Another example is the tax collecting organization or the so-called tax system.

System and organization are used interchangeably in everyday language. We say things like, "Let's make an organization with a purpose ...". Or: "The judicial system is organized as ...".

It is important to understand the difference and the relationship between the "structure" and "organization" of a system.

An organization is an idea of the connections between the components of a system that must be available for the system to exist. The organization determines the dynamics of interactions in the system and the permissible transformations of the system[4]. The organization gives the identity of a system. If the organization of a system changes, then its identity will also change [3]. In a human system the organization represents the established practice. Accordingly, established practice determines the identity of the system.

The structure of a system is the specific implementation of an organization. The structure represents the specific components and the specific relationships between them that make an organization actually exist [3].

The organization is abstract and the structure that implements it is real. Therefore, each organization can be implemented by many different structures.

Let's take an example of a mechanical device like a car. The specific structure of a particular car model may change if we put leather instead of textile seats. This change in structure will not change the fact that the thing is organized as a car. We should have no problem recognizing a machine that is organized as a car, despite the fact that each car can be made with a different structure and materials.

This is, in other words, a duality between the organizational and structural descriptions of a system. It seems that we humans cannot characterize an organization unless there is some way to associate it with some specific structure. At the same time, no particular structure can serve to account for the phenomenology it generates unless it is characterized in terms of the organization to which it belongs.

We need to keep the relationship between the organization and the structure of a system, but at the same time not to confuse the two types of description, as it is obviously easy to do [5].

Ordered, Complex and Chaotic systems

This contains substantial material from Cynefin Training programmes and Dave Snowden's blog posts. The author acknowledges that use, and further that his use of that material are his own and should not be considered as being endorsed by with theCynefinCompany or Dave Snowden.

There are differences between how we perceive things, how we know things and how things actually are. The fact that there are differences between those three doesn't mean reality doesn't exist. In philosophy Phenomenology is the way we perceive things, Epistemology is the way we know things and Ontology means the fundamental nature of the things - how they are.

First we shall see how Cynefin clarifies the types of system based on what they objectively are. There are two basic approaches to classification. The first is typology, which conceptually separates a given set of items multidimensionally. In a typology the dimensions represent concepts, which do not necessarily exist in physical reality. As such typologies generate heuristics which are more adaptive under changing circumstances. On the downside the dimensions (concepts) can be arbitrary, may not be exhaustive and can easily be subject to clashes of interpretation.

A taxonomy on the other hand classifies things based on clear empirical characteristics. It could have rules that allow things to be assigned a location. Taxonomies have clear boundaries and allow for rapid decision making. On the downside, once a taxonomy is established if something does not fit, it will be made to fit. Thus the taxonomy itself creates a filtering mechanism through which we filter observable characteristics[6].

Cynefin uses a hybrid classification. It is a typology in that its dimensions are conceptual, based on heuristics and arise from people's own interpretation of their own unique context. But at the same time the dimensions are based on natural science hence it can also be used as a taxonomy, but with care [7].

Based on the concept of “constraint” the Cynefin typology classifies the world as three types of system: Order, Complex and Chaotic[8].

Figure 1: Three types of systems

If there are no constraints the system is Chaotic. If the constraints are severe enough for the system to be predictable then it's Ordered, If the constraints are loose then its Complex. That means that changing the constraints can change the nature of the system and consequently the nature of the appropriate situational assessment and decision making.

In summary: in Cynefin Order, Complexity and Chaos are ontological states with phase shifts (transitions) between them [8]. There's also a little fold beneath the Order to Chaotic boundary, to show how rigid order can fall into chaos.


Order, complexity and chaos are different in degree of how rigid the constraints are and also different in kind. The idea is that as the constraints get more rigid a transition called “phase shift” occurs. The result of a phase shift is that the system changes its nature. For example, if we heat up water to 100ºC it gradually becomes steam. If on the other hand the temperature drops to 0ºC then the water slowly becomes ice. In a metaphor - Order is solid, Complex is liquid, gas is Chaotic [9]. The phase shift is not a spectrum or gradient, but a clear boundary[10].

Phase shift transitions either produce or require energy as input. From a physics perspective, chaotic is a lower energy state than complex and it is correct in the domain of natural closed systems. But here we are talking about human systems and those are open not closed. The nature of humans is that we create connections and constraints intuitively as well as deliberately and we do so very quickly. To create and sustain a human system in a chaotic state with no effective constraints takes a lot of energy both to create and to sustain the chaos[11].

A shift from Chaotic to Complex doesn't take any energy, it would happen naturally. A shift from Complex to Order takes a big energy input, because we are creating a high level of constraint.

Cynefin has explicit boundary conditions because I real life human beings don't cope very well with gradients. We need to create boundaries. Having a boundary is essential to human sense-making. Give us a gradient and we settle where we are most comfortable, create a boundary and we can behave differently on the other side. We need to be able to say - on this side it is different. Probably the most difficult thing for the people to grasp is - contradictory things work on different sides of a boundary e.g. Quantum mechanics works very differently than Newton's mechanics.

In Cynefin the boundary conditions are also domains in more sophisticated uses. We will not cover this here, but its useful to know that the transitions between domains are called liminal states.[12]

Works Cited

1. Ashby, W. R. (2011). Variety, Constraint, And The Law Of Requisite Variety. 13, 18.

2. Salmon, W. C. (1990). Causal propensities: Statistical causality vs. aleatory causality. Topoi, 9(2), 95-100. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00135890

3. Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1980). Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. D. Reidel Pub. Co.

4. Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1992). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (Revised edition). Shambhala.

5. Varela, F. J. (1979). Principles of biological autonomy. North Holland.

6. Smith, K. B. (2002). Typologies, Taxonomies, and the Benefits of Policy Classification. Policy Studies Journal, 30(3), 379–395. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1541-0072.2002.tb02153.x

7. Snowden, D. (2011, October 22). Typology or Taxonomy? Cognitive Edge. /blog/typology-or-taxonomy/

8. Snowden, D. (2005). Strategy in the context of uncertainty. Handbook of Business Strategy, 6(1), 47-54. https://doi.org/10.1108/08944310510556955

9. Kauffman, S. A. (1993). The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution (1 edition). Oxford University Press, U.S.A.

10. Snowden, D. (2016, March 13). Propensities. Cognitive Edge. /blog/propensities-2/

11. Snowden, D. (2019, April 17). Cynefin St David's Day 2019 (3 of 5). Cognitive Edge. /blog/cynefin-st-davids-day-2019-3-of-5/

12. Snowden, D. (2017, October 27). Liminal Cynefin: The final cut? Cognitive Edge. /blog/liminal-cynefin-the-final-cut/

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