Cynefin: A framework that grows for me all the time, in its value and worth.

The Cynefin Framework by David Snowden, through Cognitive Edge

A good framework seems to grow, it becomes integrated into your thinking and application. You see increasing possibilities to apply it. One of these for me has been Dave Snowden’s Cynefin.

I also increasing apply the Three Horizons framework as well.

Both allow me to organize my thinking and provide options within any multiple evaluations to begin or shape thinking going forward. Both attempt to break down a growing complexity we all find in our word today.

One, the three horizons, attempts to sketch out our thinking about today’s world, of where we are and what we need to do to keep it going in a hopefully orderly state, and then looks to forecast out the changes we need to move towards, in a projected future and then identify the needs to get there. It passes through three horizons of today (H1), the near term (H2) and the longer term (H3).

You will find much of what I have written about on the three horizons story, within my insights and thinking tab (shown above) and look for the applicable section. Equally, you can put into the search box “three horizons” and many posts will come up to explore this, if you are curious on its value, position and our need, to use this on a more consistent basis.

The Cynefin framework provides a wonderful way to sort the range of issues faced by leaders and us all, into five contexts, defined by the nature of the relationships between cause and effect. Dave Snowden has been explaining these consistently for years. Four of these five are; obvious (formerly simple), complicated, complex and chaotic states and requires us to diagnose situations and then to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth one is disorder, often overlooked or not fully appreciated. It is when something is unclear, it is in a disorderly, highly transitory state and needs to be rapidly stabilized into one of the other four to give it a more orderly state going forward.

So why do I see this Cynefin framework as growing in importance?

We are constantly moving from an orderly world into a more complex or chaotic one. We need to be able to recognize what we are facing when we are evaluating something, be that a problem, issue or possible solution. We need an organizing framework where we explore and then exploit, it is knowing when to do either of these becomes important.

Let’s look at different competitive environments we can face and place these into the Cynefin model.

The Obvious Environment

A relatively clear future is seen. Here the future, or the evaluation, is relatively easy to predict. Incremental innovation tends to go into this space. Adding additional features to software, in any strategic design are more predictable. We operate in this ‘state’ in repeatable and predictable ways. The relationship between cause and effect is fairly obvious to all involved so we set this up in those ‘classic’ structure and processes, having the application of regular reviews and place a clear set of measurements on them, to enable them to progress.

I often react over the use of ‘best practice’ but it is the practice we do apply to this ‘obvious’ environment if most ‘things’ are equal. Often we tag much as ‘best practice’ because we are not as thoughtful in our analysis as we should be. Much ‘best practice’ is for me, so often based on past practice, this is someone’s else’s practice, it becomes far too often just “lazy practice”. We often become “chained” to this application of best practice and totally forget to put this “practice” into its appropriate contextual setting. We get used to copying others and lose our own creativity or evaluation. The value of the Cynefin Framework is to challenge this “obvious” state and see if it is actually emerging, or moving towards a different state.

The application goes into a sequence of Sense- Categorize and Respond. That is you assess the facts of a situation or idea or concept, you categorize them and then respond, mostly on established practices or past procedures, systems or practices.

We have to watch out for a number of dangers here. Often we impose far too much micro-managing, we actually miss vital points and far too easily classify issues, as they are often presented as overly simplified. Equally the information has become condensed for higher management consumption, who do not pick up on possible growing problems or warning signals, often until it is too late. Also, we become complacent, our thinking becomes ingrained. If we miss a range of important points the obvious suddenly becomes chaotic, a crisis often born out of this poor evaluation or simplification.

The Complicated Environment

You can see distinct possible futures or projected outcomes. You have options, perhaps limited but clear and mutually exclusive to apply. You can form the future scenario’s. You can break down a construct, a proposal into short-term, frequent reviewed project landmarks. You do have options but the key is to bring everyone on to the same page. You are searching for good practice. Those ‘knowns’ need to be clarified and those felt as ‘unknowns’ need to be investigated and turned into ‘knowns’ Working in this space of complicated we need these reviews to recognize any necessary adjustments. So we need to establish some form of good investigative and application of some knowledge, usually drawn from experts or specialists.

Here we go into a sequence of Sense- Analyze and Respond. The emphasis here is Analyze and does look for this expertise to “inform” decisions to be made. We might sense what is wrong but getting to a real cause or effect needs this analysis.

Again there are numerous dangers in this complicated evaluation to look for and avoid. Engrained thinking is one, here it might be the experts more than the ones listening. Experts can dominate and highly influence conversations and one has to guard against this. Listen to alternative voices. Often expertise does come with clear opinions and those need to be questioned, to see if this opinion is missing the further opportunity, different options or can be explored in more controversial, imaginative ways. The ability is to listen out to novel thoughts and give them time to be explored. We can over-analysis, that ‘paralysis’ that needs watching out for. Here it is the chance to be more creative, to brainstorm, to allow exchanges and challenge to the surface. You often need trade-offs to arrive at a consensus or decision-making. If after a reasonable time you still have not found a solution, it might be because it is actually more in the complex rather than just this complicated environment.

The Complex Environment

Here we are getting into the area that a right answer does not exist. So many of the parts are dynamic and we are spending increasing time on breaking down ‘unknown unknowns’. We do not have the insight of retrospect but we are in a search for patterns, understanding change as best we can. Here it is constructing a solution for emergent practice. It is not possible to define distinct and/ or mutually exclusive scenarios. Cause and effect are in retrospect. You look here to focus increasingly on building guidelines, establishing rules or standards and less on applying fixed processes that do not meet this environment. Actually, there are an awful lot of decisions within organizations that are complex. If leadership imposes to early, or without the necessary thinking through is a serious error. Leaderships job here is to explore the path forward, so as to gradually reveal itself. This is the place where new business models, innovation, and creativity can emerge.

So to allow future ranges of possibilities to emerge we Probe- Sense and Respond. Sensing is where the path begins to emerge. We need to build the competencies to experiment, prototype and test increasingly in this space to allow that emerging solution to come out.

What we always need to guard against here is this falling back into past experiences, applying past practice to this situation, or ignoring major differences because it is not within our existing experiences. Often the instinct of taking control, applying command and decision-making to fit a self-imposed timeline or determined need for clear outcomes can dominate. When you are in the ‘unknown’ environment outcomes become increasingly hard to determine. The call is for more experimentation and inquiry so the probing becomes very important to make the sense. The other aspect that needs flagging here is the clarification of risk and failure tolerance. If you impose a sense of order, a call for clear outcomes, criticise failure and regard risk as unacceptable you undermind the evolutionary process. From this set of actions, you can easily fall into a chaotic state as poor decisions are based on a lack of real discovery. In the complex environment a stepping back, allow those patterns and validations to emerge and then respond to them on which, in your opinion and best judgment can succeed, is critical

The Chaotic Environment

Nothing is right in any chaotic environment. The relationship between cause and effect are impossible to clarify. The shifting is constant. It is a turbulent place to be. The most important starting point is to stabilize this “sense of chaos” as quickly as possible. They are never any recipes for success already known, you have to design it or simply build it. The key is to get reactions aligned, clarify principles to enable levels of decisions to be made, who determines what and why across all those involved. It is the nature of acting early but acting as critically important. The whole need is to transform the situation from chaos to complex. Communications and engagement are critical. Shifting ambiguity into a growing pattern of certainty through well-considered actions.

When we are faced with a chaotic environment it is Act – Sense, and Respond.  We are operating in the realm of  Novel Practice. Effectiveness comes from developing responses, build out the directives, communicating these clearly and taking constant action to restore the sense of order. It is highly turbulent, has high tension and requires a high level of pattern-based leadership. It is a place where many decisions need to be made and very little time to think.

We often hear of those legends who took control and turned something around, that saved us. One environment is completely different from another, even when you think there are similarities.  We also need to guard against placing known specialists into new environments, if they have that self-opinionated self-image. Leaders or crisis management teams do need to move the context from this chaotic to complex, and be ready to change from command and control quickly into a challenging environment where complexity needs to take hold, at the very least, to quickly stabilize this sense of chaos.

What we do know is this space is the place to impose innovation. Novelty, directive leadership all become highly valuable, people open up to experiment well. It has been suggested when you manage chaos, you manage innovation in parallel. One team focuses on the crisis, another on the innovating opportunities to do things differently. It is the time to make the real change to move through chaos, to complex, too complicated and then too obvious.

The Disorder environment

There is a fifth-domain, shown in the middle and that is the one of disorder, not knowing which domain you are in and we often struggle to recognize which domain we want to be in for innovation or to take the business forward. This disorder stays with us until we impose order, structures or clarity to the thinking and recognize the place (domains above) we should be operating in.

This is a truly random state. We need to place this disorder into its right environment and hopefully, it is only a transitory one, highly undesirable, needing to be ‘taken hold of’. Having no order needs to rapidly change. We fall into disorder when we lose attention. The most simple definition of disorder in Cynefin is the state of not knowing which domain you are in. Your immediate job is to seek out which option of the other four states will get you out of the disorder one.

Complacency can create a catastrophic failure

Finally, to complete the understanding, the Obvious domain is next to Chaos because complacency (the extreme of Obvious) can all too easily produce a catastrophic failure.  Thus that boundary is represented by a cliff, or more technically as a catastrophic fold. You can find yourself moved from an orderly, steady state, the business that is obvious to you and then thrown suddenly into chaos, by a sudden change.

There are many examples of sudden change that might mean real threats to your very survival. A sudden disruption in the market, unforeseen competition ‘suddenly appearing and totally creating havoc. You fall off the cliff and descend into chaos. This sudden shift from the obvious can become a catastrophic fold, sudden bankruptcy due to complacency and not being alert to the dangers that are building up all around you. We often fail to stay alert to changes in the market or simply ignore them.

As more and more disruption forces occur, the state of suddenly going from a well ‘oiled’ machine into a state of chaos is this feeling you are falling off a cliff. It all begins not to make any sense to you anymore, you lose that sense of order. Your solution is to try and “impose” a ‘known’ order but that might be a serious mistake, or you recognize this becomes the opportunity to construct a new order through rapid experimentation to find a new pathway back to order. You begin to open up your thinking to evalaute new models, thinking or ways to undertakre business.

So the value of the Cynefin Model

Today we are seeing “waves of disruption” that can can be depicted as the (reverse) sequence of chaos- complex- complicated – obvious, as the necessary stages to go through to meet these changes occurring. Knowing them by applying a framework likes Cynifin places it into a contextually appropriate structure, working through this through the Cynefin framework can become valuable. Knowing the different stages of how to make sense, by using this “sense-making” model really does help. Seeking out and knowing the context is critical to any decisions made on where you are classifying your order..

I wrote this  in a post “Learning the mantra of innovation context”

“The power of context shifts everything and then gives it ‘shape’. It provides the conditions and the circumstances of time and place and why we need to find and deliver something different. It provides the innovation marching orders.

If we place innovation in a certain set of contexts, then those setting about the task are more sensitive to the needs and understanding, they can relate or can reject this. It can allow them to work more clearly and effectively, not necessarily effective as innovation is inherently messy.

Context gives us certain guard rails or borders to help gain a more united focus. Where we go after that, by pushing those borders will depend on those involved by seeing a greater value in an evolving context of mutual understanding. The ‘setting it in context’ allows for dialogue, adding more value to the thinking”

I keep going back to David’s model as he evolves it through constant practice and engagement. It can be applicable to many situations.

Cynefin, by the way, is a Welsh word, it means “the place of your multiple belongings” and just apply this to all the situations you need to assess the state you are in and the type of approach you need to undertake. This model helps put much into a contextual value.

Finally, I have drawn a lot from David Snowden’s work, in certainly writing this post but more importantly to gain so many insights and stimulus for what I do and how I want to apply it. I always enjoy his thinking, challenging and wanting to explore.



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