Notes on Scaffolding and Constraints in Complexity

Two recent topics that help bridge theory and practice when managing / gardening emergent social patterns

Marc Rettig
Rettig’s Notes
Published in
6 min readJun 25, 2019


This is a place for me to gather and organize notes, which I’m making public in case it helps someone else. These notes (which will keep changing over coming months) are an input to a further process of synthesis.

The basic idea

Kinds of scaffolding

Dave Snowden, in his blog post of December 23, 2018:

“But for the moment consider the following types of scaffolding, linked in this case to the Cynefin framework and my earlier post in this series.

  • Traditional scaffolding is erected with knowledge of the final shape of the building. It creates a structure that allows the building to take shape and can then be removed
  • There is then a class of scaffolding, such as a nutrient lattice which provides structure for the skin to regrow post burn but in effect removes itself as the nutrients are consumed. Variations of this can leave micro-electrical circuits in the heart and so on.
  • Shadow scaffolding is an emergent property of multiple interactions over long periods of time. The infrastructure that supports extreme sports involves training, peer group interaction, technology developments and apprentice type practices that cannot be designed but only understood with the benefit of hindsight.
  • Then we have keystones — the arch is supported by scaffolding until the keystone is in place then the structure is sound and more can be built on it. A form of creating the foundations but then allow different structures to be build within the foundation constraints over time. Equally if foundations are in place, removing a keystone may be done accidentally (certain socially evolved roles do this)
  • Finally (and astute followers will realise this is a moving feast) we have scaffolding that is built into the reality of being human — the nature of cognition, the role of narrative etc. It’s a structure that we can’t change but we can use.

In this new way of thinking about design you start by determining which type of scaffolding you put into place, or which you need to acknowledge. Adjustments then are not to outcome but to the enabling constraints that scaffolding provides. In effect tinkering becomes a permanent occupation and you need to keep your tools to hand and well oiled.”

Sonja Blignaut, in her post summarizing the Cynefin Retreat in Whistler

“Firstly, and probably most common, are building scaffolds: temporary structures that building crews use when constructing or maintaining buildings. Once the building is complete, the scaffold is removed. That is it doesn’t become part of the structure, but enables its construction.

A second kind of scaffold can be seen in skin grafts. An internal scaffold made of shark cartilage and cow-derived collagen, the protein found in all connective tissue is applied to the burn wound. The bottom layer of the collagen scaffolding — the part that makes contact with the wound surface — is covered with a sugar molecule that mimics the texture of the lower surface of the skin. This texture activates skin cells in the body called fibroblasts to start generating human collagen. As the body produces more and more collagen, the connective tissue begins to work its way up the artificial scaffolding, slowly building a new dermis. Over time the artificial scaffolding dissolves away, leaving no trace of the implant.

Thirdly there are scaffolds that aren’t removed and don’t dissolve away; they persist as part of the structure, but are transformed in the process. An example of this is the Bionic Cardiac Patch … formed by seeding nanoscale electronic scaffolds or mesh-like structures with cardiac cells. Once the cells have regenerated cardiac tissue and the patch has formed, the electronic components from the original scaffold are integrated throughout the tissue, creating an “internal pacemaker” able to detect arrhythmia and deliver correcting electrical shocks far sooner and operating at far lower voltages than traditional pacemakers. Most fascinating is that latest research shows it may be possible in future to simply do a co-injection of cells with the mesh, enabling the patch to self-assemble inside the body vs using invasive surgery.

These physical scaffolds offer interesting analogies for us to reframe our thinking about the design of organisations and how we engage with them. For example, external consultants and coaches can probably be seen as external scaffolds, meant to be taken away once the work is done (problem is that they are incentivized to become permanent fixtures way too often!). These external scaffolds feel like useful analogies for the kind of interventions or support that is needed in the Complicated Domain of Cynefin. Expert consultants who come alongside the organisation for a while until their expertise is no longer needed.”

Sources (to be harvested)

Chris Corrigan has been blogging on the topic of constraints, with some focus on how we might think about constraints in the context of groups, hosting, and facilitation.

Recent webinar on constraints and Cynefin:

That one above is Ann P-J talking about scaffolding. And here’s a webinar with Dave on Scaffolding:

Dave Snowden’s series of blog posts

Systemic Insight’s summary is good


Examples of enabling constraints

Haiku’s small format. Apollo 13 and “Failure is not an option”. A metronome. A safety harness. Blinkers on a race horse. Choice of tech stack. Ubiquitous domain language. A Code of Conduct. Scrum’s timeboxed sprints. Twitter’s character limit.

Examples of governing constraints

Examples of governing constraints: Reciting a pledge in unison. Closing doors on latecomers to the theatre. An overdraft limit. The seat-belt sign. The boiling point of water. A door lock. A data dictionary. The fuse on a plug. A mandatory form field. Being told to use VB 6.0.



Marc Rettig
Rettig’s Notes

Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Okay Then