Focusing on moving from disorder in today’s world

To borrow and adapt a phrase from F. Scott Fitzgerald and those over at Cognitive Edge:The test of (complex adaptive) intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

I wanted to go back to one of my favorite frameworks, the Cynefin framework for partly thinking through the “known-unknown-unknowable” in our present world. We are seemingly more in the “unknown or unknowable” at present, perhaps in a world of disorder, in our understanding and actions relating to this coronavirus, a global pandemic.

The Cynefin framework is from Dave Snowden through Cognitive Edge. The positioning of Cognitive Edge is “making sense of complexity in order to act.”

I start by suggesting we need to find ways to navigate ourselves back into some (new) order; to stabilize the chaos we are in. What we first need to do is make sense of what is going on around us, we need to determine what actions to take and the level of action, resource and support each part needs. We need to constantly ask: is it clear, complicated, complex, or chaotic, or even worse, highly confusing. The Cynefin framework significantly helps us to determine what particular parts we are dealing with, in the decisions needed.

None of us today can predict when gaining a sense of order will come about while we are in the middle of the pandemic. Yet we should attempt to understand why certain decisions being made do make sense, others perhaps not.  In any chaotic situation, as we presently are,  the overriding need is to stabilize and determine the constraints to quickly establish some level of order.

We do need to make sense of this current global disorder so we can begin to act in a very different world

The best place to start is looking at this great framework from the present context, one where we are in disorder, possibly in chaos or seemingly chaotic, is recognizing not just how events are “hitting us but how we need to get out of them”. We are at this high level of concern at present. The “making sense in order to act” is paramount to reduce fear and bring some sense of order to our present world..

When there is chaos there is a certain reality of fear and uncertainty. The absolute urgency is to stabilize the situation and take what seems chaotic or in disorder and apply the rule of Act- Sense- Respond. It is crucial to reduce the pressures and find solutions that bring quick and decisive order.

In the Cynefin framework, you need to Probe- Sense- Respond or Sense- Analysis- Respond at the minimum, to gather the facts, makes sense of theses and make decisions to take Chaos into managing complexity at the very least. The need is always to respond in a crisis to reduce disruption and fast gathering pressures.

So, where do I start to explain this framework a little more?

I attempted my explanation some time back of the different framing domains in this post “The Use of the Cynefin Model for Innovation.” At the time, it was for framing innovation as these can pass through each of these domains, or actually, it can help those innovating to recognize different opportunities to innovate differently.

Let’s describe the domains that are highly relevant here in this pandemic crisis.

When you are faced with the chaotic domain, this needs a rapid response. This requires clear leadership and direct communications to attempt to impose immediate actions and re-establish order.

Then there is disorder, not knowing which domain you are in, and we often struggle to recognize which one we want to be in and if we stay confused, this disorder stays with us until we impose order, structures, or clarity to the thinking.

Finally, to complete the understanding of this disorder, Dave Snowden has recently renamed this domain of Disorder to Aporetic/Confused (A/C). The OED defines aporetic as a state of “perplexity or difficulty” Aporetic means “at a loss” and indicates an unresolved confusion, or a paradox, as it can all too easily produce catastrophic failure. The prime example of this has been in the current coronavirus where Governments imposed strict movement conditions and shutdowns far too late, to not avoid the spread of this virus. Thus that boundary is represented by a cliff, or more technically as a catastrophic fold.

Helping to explain this framework further, as it really is an essential frame for our thinking at this time

To help further explain the value of this frame to those unfamiliar; there is no better place than refer to those that are far more expert in understanding this framework. I liberally quote here from Chris Corrigan who explains this really well and its value in understanding complexity and how to frame it.

In a recent, beneficial post from Chris Corrigan, “A tour around the latest Cynefin iteration.”

He describes the Cynefin framework well extracted from this post:

“First, it’s helpful to orient people to the framework. To begin with, it has five domains: the one in the middle, plus four others.

“It’s helpful to think of the domains as a slope, starting high in the bottom right and tapering counterclockwise around to the bottom left. The domain in the middle is the most important for me, and the most underappreciated. It is the domain of Confusion (it used to be called Disorder).

The domains on the right side are “ordered,” meaning that stuff there is largely knowable and predictable, and problems are solvable. These Clear or Complicated domains are distinguished by the number of interactions going on – the more parts in the system, the more Complicated it is – and the level of expertise required to know what the answer to a problem should be.

The domains on the left side are “unordered,” meaning that situations are unknowable and unpredictable. This is the world of Complexity and Chaos. These are distinguished by the way the system changes, self-organizes, and creates emergent phenomena. Complex systems exhibit emergence and self-organization, and Chaos displays the lack of any meaningful constraints, that sense of randomness and crises.

The further you go counterclockwise, the more unordered and unstable the system is. If you go clockwise, you introduce stability and order to the system. Stability lies clockwise of where you are now, and instability lies counterclockwise. It is important to note that this is true until you get to the boundary between Clear and Chaos. That is like a cliff. One falls off of the Clear domain into chaos, and it is difficult – if not impossible – to recover and clamber back up to the well-ordered world with Clear answers.

Most helpful for understanding strategy and the use of the framework is understanding how constraints work. From Clear to Chaos, one can move through the framework using constraints: Clear systems have fixed constraints that can break catastrophically and can be repaired easily f you know what you are doing. Think of a water leak. If you know how to repair it, it is a simple matter to do so. If you don’t, you fall off that cliff into Chaos quite quickly, and it takes a lot of time to get back to normal.”

So at present, with the CoronaVirus, we are in the complex, chaotic, confused/conflicting stages.

Then there is no better place to go than with Dave Snowden. Dave is the Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Cognitive Edge. He focuses on complex issues relating to strategy, organizational decision making, and decision making

Dave wrote some timely posts recently, a series of five posts under “Cynefin St David’s Day 2020 (part one link) to his final one (5 of 5) within his Cynefin St David Day series. They are most useful to read if you are interested in deepening your further understanding of this framework.

One particular point that he makes is this need to quickly manage out of the confused and chaotic state of the A/C domain. When we are in high levels of confusion, we can soon slip into further chaos, and that is something to be clearly avoided.

As we manage out of the chaos, we need to keep these points in mind

The three key opportunities Dave Snowden suggests we can do in these chaotic, confusing times are, I summarize or quote here from a post he offered recently:

    1. You’ve never had a better chance to change things. Things will never be the same again but hopefully, we can use this time to come out more strongly, more resilient in the face of the wider challenges to come from global warming and more deadly pandemic.
    2. Start to learn at all levels now, as we also need to capture the day to day narratives as close to the point of learning as possible to manage differently in the future.
    3. His third point for me is the most important  I quote: “Retain diversity of response, not everything is chaotic and understanding the diversity of systems and sub-systems can allow you to apply the appropriate methods and tools in context.  There will always be complicated and often clear actions and techniques; decision making needs to stay agile not plunging into a single domain but maintaining awareness of them all and the movements between them.  The more we can shift from complex to complicated the easier it is to scale things, the more we can prevent entrained patterns of thinking and response from preventing that diversity the better.”

So the Cynifin framework really helps us make sense of our present world

Where it was, where it is at present and where it needs to return too or actually be reframed as a world that needs different order and thinking. Does it help you to make a better sense of how actions should be framed?

I leave you with this quote;


My next post starts thinking about an innovation pathway that helps us to break down how we need to build our thinking in new creative, innovative ways. We need to return to scale and rescope and re-boot the global economy, but I would argue these need to be in different ways.

For example, our energy source should be based on our needs to accelerate the renewable sources and reduce the fossil omitting ones of gas, coal, and oil. Our purchasing habits need to change from constant consumption to more reuse. We are in a crisis, but in this, we need to emerge differently. Have we been outsourcing strategic supplies to the point of over-dependence on other countries? Is this correct, or can they be managed differently but at what cost?



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