Tools for Thinking about How Organized Plans and Self-organized Patterns Flow Together

by Cynthia F. Kurtz

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A path winds its way through a forest. Why does it go the way it goes? Did someone design it? Or was the path made smooth by feet that chose the smoothest path? Maybe some of both?

Confluence examines the many ways in which organized, intentional plans (like paths we design) and self-organized, unintentional patterns (like paths that emerge where we walk) intermingle (happen at the same time and place) and interact (influence each other). The book lays out seven “thinking spaces” (like this one) that explore various aspects of the structures and relationships that flow together in our lives.

thinking space example

Confluence includes copy-ready materials for a group exercise you can use to think about how organization and self-organization flow together in situations that matter to your life, work, family, community, and organization.

Table of Contents

  • 1 Introduction - What this book is about
  • Part One: A Thinking Tool and an Exercise that Uses It
    • 2 The Confluence Thinking Space - Thinking about how organization and self-organization flow together
    • 3 Using the Confluence Space - An exercise in situational awareness
  • Part Two: Six More Thinking Tools
    • 4 The Jungle - Thinking about self-organization
    • 5 The Plan - Thinking about organization
    • 6 Inundation - Thinking about how self-organization influences organization
    • 7 Regulation - Thinking about how organization influences self-organization
    • 8 The Mix - Thinking about how organization and self-organization interact
    • 9 Connecting the Dots - Thinking about what happens when both forces are (or seem) weak
  • Back matter: Postscript, Acknowledgements, Exercise Materials, Notes, Index, About Me

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The Confluence Workbook

Thinking Spaces to Fill with Your Thoughts

by Cynthia F. Kurtz

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The Confluence Workbook is a do-it-yourself companion to the book Confluence: Tools for Thinking about How Organized Plans and Self-organized Patterns Flow Together. You can use it to draw your own diagrams as you think through situations that arise in your own life, work, family, community, and organization. You can also use your workbook to record what happens when you do the group exercise described in Confluence.

The workbook contains 120 two-page spreads like this one.

Workbook pages

A thinking space on the left is followed by three prompts on the right:

  • Context: Why you explored the topic, when, where, and how you explored it, and so on.
  • Patterns: What you saw when you placed your items into the thinking space - clusters, gaps, boundaries, links, and contrasts.
  • Thoughts: What you learned, what surprised you, what you are curious about, and what you would like to do next.

There are 24 of these two-page spreads for the first (main) thinking space, and 16 for each of the other six spaces. For convenience, the workbook also includes a brief description of each thinking space, with examples; a summary of the group exercise; and copy-and-cut exercise materials.

To be perfectly clear, every word in The Confluence Workbook can also be found in the Confluence book or on this web site. In fact, you can assemble your own workbook by printing pages from the exercise materials PDF you can download from the Printables section of this site. The printed workbook just gives you a nice bound volume in which to store your diagrams, as a sort of Confluence book of your own.

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Confluence Printables


This sample PDF includes the first 35 (of 315) pages of Confluence, as they appear in the printed version.

Exercise Materials

These are the materials for the exercise described in the book, exactly as they appear in the print and Kindle editions.

PDF version PPTX version

This version is for use in a physical meeting. After you download it:

  1. Choose a thinking space.
  2. Print the pages for that space. Cut out its corner and axis labels.
  3. Place the labels on a table (or tape them to a wall with non-damaging tape).
  4. (Optional) Cut out the example situations and/or proverbs and place them into the space where you think they belong.
  5. Label your thinking space with a topic and time frame.
  6. Use sticky notes to describe at least 20 situations relevant to your topic. Place them into your space.
  7. Look for patterns. Use sticky notes to describe them.
  8. (Optional) Print the exercise form (page 4) and fill it out to record what happened.

This version is for use in an online meeting. After you download it:

  1. Open this file in a presentation program (PowerPoint, OpenOffice).
  2. Choose a thinking space.
  3. Find the corner and axis labels for that space. Copy and paste them into an empty page.
  4. (Optional) Copy the space's example situations and/or proverbs, paste them into your space, and move them to where you think they belong.
  5. Label your thinking space with a topic and time frame.
  6. Using sticky-note-style text boxes, describe at least 20 situations relevant to your topic. Place them into your space.
  7. Look for patterns. Use the program's annotation tools to describe them.
  8. (Optional) Copy and paste the exercise form (page 4) and fill it out (by adding texts) to record what happened.

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Praise from readers of Confluence

"This book has layers upon layers of meaning. I can imagine groups of people or individuals using the insights you have shared to resolve problems – small disputes to large, societal problems."

"[The book] started to get under my skin, changing my perception of what I would normally see, and what might be really there. Opening a new awareness. . . . This is how we can learn to resonate and interact with what is there and understand the choices we have to step in or stay out constantly."

"I think what you wrote is so cool -- and so practical, too. I loved the clear explanations, clear directions, fun thinking spaces to work in, and how you put together the material."

"I have started reading your book and my initial sense is that it reads very well, like a story as I would expect. I am pulled into the narrative from the outset..."

"It’s a beautiful book, simple and complex in the best way, and I expect to spend a lot of time with it."

"I love your writing style. It is easy to read and fun. My favorite parts are the examples and stories."

"I love this book very much because as you said you have provided a lot of wisdom to work in the zone of uncertainty!"

"[The book] has immediately and utterly shifted my thinking from stuck somewhere in a polarity/interdependent pair, to thinking-space and dynamics. I find the thinking spaces a clever, generative way of working with things that are often viewed as polarities. It invites and enables a coherent and dynamic story to be told."

"I like the introduction of the spaces of agency and interaction, and the collaborative inquiry method for negotiating meaning and seeking possible next actions."

"I got delightfully lost in the book. Your erudition will seed many a reading adventure in my future."

"Very picaresque and I loved everything I read."

"It brought up some interesting ideas, and helped me think about thinking."

"You have created the perfect book for me in this moment. Every time I sat down to read it, it was like fine dining. To gulp it, or to have another helping directly after a first, would have been unthinkable. So I took my time."

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Confluence Errata and Addenda


I read through five proof copies of Confluence, and helpful people pointed out many errors as they read the book's final versions. But I still managed to miss a few small errors.

  • On page 60, the book says, "Then he gave it the second man and asked him to prove that he killed the jaguar..." It should say, "Then he gave it to the second man." (The last typos always take refuge in sequences of tiny words.)
  • On page 79, the book says, "the things on the two axes either happened together or they didn’t." That's wrong. It should say, "the things on the two axes either happened together or didn’t." (Do you see why it's wrong? It's a sequence, and a sequence should be disassemblable without creating nonsensical phrases. To test any sequence, we can take the part before the branching word ("either") and repeat it in front of each element of the series. Putting aside the "on the two axes" preposition, "the things happened together" makes sense. But when we test the second element -- "the things they didn't" -- it doesn't make sense. The word "they" doesn't belong there.)

Frustrations with the Kindle version

Formatting a book to be displayed on a Kindle is a difficult and convoluted process. As many times as I reviewed the results, I still made a few mistakes. Two things bother me very much.

  • The bits of poetry ("There was a little girl / who had a little curl") came out with too much space between the lines.
  • Some of the images have a white background when your Kindle display is set to dark mode.

I may publish an update to the Kindle version of the book to fix these errors, but I think I'll wait a little while longer, to see if any more mistakes pile up. If I understand how it works correctly, you will be able to update your Kindle copy of the book using a menu or button or something. I will update this page if and when I do this.


  • On page 205: I may be coming to regret using the word "spiraling" to mean "trying to keep learning and improving, even when it's hard." Since then I have come to realize that some people have been using the word to mean "sliding downward, while trying not to." (One of my early readers hinted at such a usage, but I stupidly barreled on.) I tend to use "spiraling" to mean striving upward because of my gratitude towards Alex Korb's excellent book The Upward Spiral. But really, spiraling could go either way, and I should have found a term that was more clearly upward-facing. For example, the word "striving" might have worked better.
  • On page 211: It is starting to bother me that I listed "difficulty" as one of the unique attributes of spiraling, because focusing is just as difficult in its own way. (Only shuttling is easy.) Focusing requires us to accept responsibility for a life lived in the midst of paradox, start over again and again, seek truth and beauty in mixed-up situations, and find a way to move forward, no matter what. So I now wish that I had made a more helpful distinction between the two types of difficulty rather than mentioning only one of them. The difficulty in spiraling is the pain of knowing that you might be wrong. The difficulty in focusing is the certainty that you will never know whether you are right or wrong. Pretend I said that.

This sort of thing is why I always say, "Now that I'm finished, I'm ready to start."

Notice a mistake?

If you see an error in Confluence, please send me an email at

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Confluence Media Resources

Articles and reviews

Date Description Where
June 2021 Tatiana Feitosa Correa Lima and I collaborated on an article about Confluence for LinkedIn. Tatiana is the Brazil leader at the Business Agility Institute. On LinkedIn

Do you write book reviews? Would you like me to send you a copy of the book to review? Drop me a note at


Date Description Where
November 2021 In Episode 4 of the Plexus Institute's ComPlexus Podcast, Bruce Waltuck and I talked about where Confluence came from, how I hope it will help people, how it connects to other ideas, and what's next. On the Plexus Institute's ComPlexus Podcast page

Would you like to interview me? Do you have a podcast or newsletter? I'm interested. Drop me a note at

Interview topics:

  • Where Confluence came from, why I wrote it, how I hope people will use it
  • How organization and self-organization intermingle and interact
  • How thinking about the ways in which organization and self-organization flow together can help your community or organization
  • Thinking spaces as sense-making and meaning-making tools
  • Complexity, ecology, stories, and society

Book information


Kurtz, C. F. 2021. Confluence: Tools for Thinking about How Organized Plans and Self-organized Patterns Flow Together. 316 pp. Kurtz-Fernhout Publishing.

ISBNs: 978-0-9913694-1-6 (printed book), 978-0-9913694-2-3 (Kindle book).

Key words: families, groups, communities, organizations, decision support, facilitation, sensemaking, brainstorming, education, conflict resolution, community organizing, future planning, self-organization, complexity, emergence.

Copy-paste book description

Confluence is a book about working with complex, emergent patterns as they truly exist in human life: intermingled with intentional, organized actions. The book lays out seven thinking tools designed to help individuals and groups make sense of complex-and-complicated situations, think about how things got to be the way they are, weigh options, consider risks and opportunities, and understand differing points of view.

Copy-paste author bio

Cynthia Kurtz is an independent consultant, researcher, author, and software developer. Throughout her career, she has been fascinated by the many ways in which organization (intentional plans) and self-organization (emergent patterns) intermingle and interact.

Cynthia started out as an animal behaviorist, then learned to write software, then discovered organizational and community narrative. Since 1999, she has consulted on over 100 participatory narrative projects for a variety of government agencies and for-profit and non-profit corporations. Her 2014 book Working with Stories is widely considered a useful resource.

You can also look at the bio section of

Downloadable author photo

Cynthia Kurtz photo


Send me an email at


See the Printables page.

Target audience


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