Our causes can’t see their effects

Cynefin framework

I’ve been interested in, and trying to understand, the Cynefin framework for many years. Without much success, I might add. However, I recently saw an Intro to Cynefin video from Dave Snowden at Cognitive Edge that has helped me put the final pieces of my understanding in place.

Actually, looking back at my first attempt to use the framework to look at an issue, back in a November 2008 look at the response to the global economic crisis, it looks like I may have understood it better than I thought I did. But then I started taking it places I don’t think it was ever meant to go.

I started going wrong when I slipped back into thinking of the 2×2 as a categorization model, instead of what it actually is: a sensemaking framework. The domains themselves are unimportant, aside from the fact that they exist, it is how you react to a situation in those domains that is important. And whether you can understand or figure out which domain you are in.

The video goes through a description of each of the domains included in the framework, which is something I did understand, and a brief discussion of the appropriate method to address challenges in each of the domains. Even these I understood. What I hadn’t really understood, what wasn’t really clear to me before watching the video (and actually paying attention!), were the implications of applying an inappropriate method to a given situation.

Especially eye opening for me was the discussion about the transition boundary between the simple and chaotic domains. As someone who works in an historically bureaucratic organization that has a strong desire to create and use best practices, and a tendency to try to fit everything into the simple domain, I found this to be probably the single most important takeaway from the video – if you want to ensure the failure of your organization, just pretend like everything is simple and has a one-size-fits-all solution.

The other key insight I gained from the video was an essential distinction between ordered systems – simple and complicated – and complex and chaotic systems: ordered systems are things you already know and understand, you just have to find the answer; complex and chaotic systems are things you don’t yet know or understand, and you have to learn as you go. (I had just read Dave Gray’s description of the difference between training and learning in The Connected Company, so was primed to see this distinction.)

Note: it is not unlikely, and entirely possible that I’ve got it completely wrong. Or, to paraphrase Richard Feynman: If you think you understand Cynefin, you don’t understand Cynefin.