What do complexity and sandwiches have in common?

More than you might think.

Sandwich Lab, by Median.

Last month, in collaboration with the Made in NY Media Center by IFP, we designed an interactive lunch for their Culture Shift Lab, a “day of workshops and experiences designed to help you define your leadership style and give you the tools to engage your team, foster creativity, and introduce change.”

The domains of the Cynefin framework. Credit: Dave Snowden, Graphic: Athena Diaconis

We decided to design a lunch that explored a framework we’ve been drooling over since we were introduced to it in December. It’s called Cynefin (pronounced kuhh-neff-in) and it’s a decision making and sense making framework by Dave Snowden that enables people to navigate complexity. It breaks down situations into “domains,” — simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder — with best practices for how to navigate decision making in each of them.

Our Process

With anything we design, our first step is to deconstruct the concept and formulate a logic and outcome — the essential storyline of what we’re exploring, and our goals for participating in the experience. For this project we sought to create a complex environment that could become more chaotic or more simple, depending on how participants responded to it. The goal was to ensure that teams had to work together to build a lunch together — if you tried to do it solo, you would fail.

After rounds of sketches, prototypes and gracious feedback from the Media Center team — we landed on “Sandwich Lab” as the experience to explore complexity and the Cynefin framework.

Sandwiches and complexity

So, what is Sandwich Lab? (It was catchier than “Sandwich making with sensory augmented materials.”) As described our goal was to create an environment that had three main characteristics — it had the potential to be chaotic, it was unfamiliar or uncomfortable, and you couldn’t easily rely on normal habits or behaviors. To do that we designed a “game” with very absurd constraints. There were rules, such as “You cannot complete the same action twice” (as in, if you cut a tomato, you can’t cut it again until you’ve taken another action), and then there were physical constraints — such as binders, “T-Rex” arms, or earplugs. Each group had four rounds, two minutes each, to complete their goal: to make beautiful lunch platters that are exactly what each person wants.

The Rules of Sandwich Lab, presented to participants.
The sensory changing constraints of Sandwich Lab.

The dining area had 8 tables with roughly 6–7 people at each table. We gave a brief overview of the rules, members at each table adorned themselves with the tools we had made, and then they got to work! It was beautiful. There were a few groups who weren’t crazy about making food together, but for the most part everyone excitedly started collaborating. Some teams tried to plan the best way to make the sandwiches, others just started making, and still others sought a test and learn tactic. In the end, almost every team managed to make lunch platters for their group to varying levels of success. Those teams that dove in — fearlessly took action rather than strategizing or trying to make sense of it all — were the most successful- meaning their sandwiches were accurate, beautiful, and delicious.

Participants mid-sandwich making!
Diving into complexity.

What did everyone learn?

As we recapped at the end of the lunch, getting comfortable with complex systems is critical to leading a modern, successful organization. Most organizations today seek to operate as more complex systems — simply because they believe, and rightly so, that this encourages more diversity of thought, and greater opportunities for flexibility and innovation. But one thing leaders often forget, is that a complex system is more likely to have “surface-level” inefficiencies or process ambiguities. AND THAT’S OK. Flexible, adaptable, systems should be a bit ambiguous and should produce some inefficiency, because in fact those characteristics ensure that the system never becomes mechanized — too ingrained for it to ever be changed quickly and easily.

We shared with participants some of the lessons that come out of the Cynefin framework and Cognitive Edge, and that we sought to set-up in the lunch. Namely that leaders of complex organizations should seek to do the following:

  • Become action oriented. Manage the present through action rather than thinking and strategizing.
  • Implement heuristics over rules. Heuristics are enabling constraints that encourage individuals to navigate an environment for themselves within a boundary. They provide guidance that is adaptable to new situations, and is easily measured.
  • Get comfortable with ambiguity! Lean into it and realize that relative ambiguity leaves the possibility and opportunity for more to be discovered.

Complexity is, well, complex. To lead in it requires you to become comfortable with yourself, to understand what is possible to control, and let go of what is not. To be curious and embrace the fact that the only constant, is change.

#SandwichLab Credit: Alex Todaro

Thank you!

Our sincere thanks to the IFP’s Made in NY Media Center for their partnership and support, and to our participants for their generosity of spirit.

We’ll keep building experiences that explore systems psychology, and applying that to different environments that we experience everyday (from workplaces, to governments, to schools, to hospitals). If you want to come play and learn with us, drop us a note!

🤘 Athena and Alex


Snowden, Dave. http://cognitive-edge.com