I’ve had a couple of requests to share the exercise that helps people understand Cynefin physically. I’m happy to do so here.
I enjoy designing these kinds of exercises, as it gives people a number of ways of understanding the framework and I find that it actually helps the penny drop for folks who otherwise have a hard time groking the nature of the different domains. I am continuing to develop this exercise but here’s how I do it now:
1. Begin by having the group stand and clear a large space so that everyone can move around comfortably. To do this well, you need a large open space with lots of room for people to move. As you give directions, just give folks a simple instruction and don’t allow questions. They have to figure the rest out themselves. At the end of each mini exercise take a little conversation to reflect on questions such as “how did you do this?, what is happening here?, how did you gather data? How did you evaluate your efforts?” Use questions that are relevant to the applications of Cynefin you are dealing with.
2. Exploring the obvious. Have people divide into four groups (they don’t have to be even numbers). Instruction: “Organize yourselves by height.” Things to note: this can happen quickly, top-down leadership works well, it can be evaluated objectively. You can constrain the exercise further by instructing people to complete the task in 15 seconds. It is unlikely you will be surprised by the results of this exercise.
3. Exploring the complicated. Have people divide into four new groups. Instruction: “Organize yourselves by birth month and year.” Notes: there are many ways to do this, each can be objective;y verified. It requires getting hidden data that is easily discovered and top-down leadership still works well. You will find some surprising solutions for this problem.
4. Exploring the complex. Have everyone stand in a circle and introduce “The Systems Game” (I learned this version from Joanna Macy’s work). In this well known game, individuals must identify two other people and move to a place equidistant from each of them. You cannot let your “targets” know you are connected to them. It helps to demand that people try to achieve a high degree of accuracy in this triangulation. Done well, and with lots of space in the room, the group should be set into a pattern of constant motion. Notes: small rules initiate constant complex motion. You will see times when a group is clumped up and other times when it is spread out. Notice how some folks are naturally influential in the group – tall men wearing bright clothes seem often to have a higher number of connections to themselves. Notice how it feels to be constantly moving and adjusting. If people stop moving ask why (usually they are tired of the game, a fact of life that translates into dealing with real world complexity). Leadership is participatory and top-down leadership cannot help. When the group gets tired of the exercise, invite some probes to see what happens when certain people move. You will start to see the patterns of connection better that way. This is a good introduction to developmental evaluation. Once the system is at rest, it’s difficult to evaluate the connections. Probes (inviting certain people to move to a very different place, for example) gives us lots of information. Have the group devise their own probes to illuminate more of the situation.
5. Exploring chaos. Have people start “milling.” Milling is a practice from theatre training where participants are instructed to walk into space, rather than walk in a circle. Keep the speed medium pace, and ask them to listen to your instructions. Instructions proceed as follows:
- “When I say stop, stop. When I say go, go.” Do this for a while, giving commands to the group.
- “When I say clap, clap,. When I say jump, jump.” Do this for a while mixing up commands to stop, go, jump and clap.
- “When I say go, stop and when I say stop, go” Instroducing this kind of disruption starts making following directions difficult.
- “When I say bow, bow, when I say whoopee, shout whoopee! When I say clap, jump, when I say jump, clap.” Continue and increase the pace of your commands.
- “When I say shhh say shhh, when I say thigh, slap your thigh. Whoopee, bow; bow, whoppee…” We add one more pair of commands and continue disrupting people’s experiences.
- Continue to flip commands. It will get very chaotic.
Notes: “leadership” is increasingly difficult. Any strategy you develop for keeping the commands straight will be disrupted by randomized instructions. It takes a lot of attention to keep going, and eventually a breakdown is going to happen. Some will simply follow instructions as best the can, rendering the exercise simple. Others will try to devise coping strategies; others will give up and do their own thing. You could notice the tip from a simple exercise to a chaotic one and how difficult it is to cope as a group when you enter into chaos this way.
6. Exploring disorder. Have people divide the group into four groups. Invite people to organize themselves by a word that is both a verb and a noun. Pick one from this list. Words like this are sufficiently ambiguous that the groups have to figure out what is meant by the word before they can do the exercise. Any word will do. Notes: the group will become keenly aware of the difference between chaos and disorder. Have people reflect on their initial reaction to hearing the word. It is likely that each person instantly developed a strategy to address the challenge. you could slow the exercise down and have everyone take a minute to write down their strategy and then share them with the group. People will be surprised at the variety. This is a good lesson in what happens when a groups makes a decision without getting clear on what the problem is.
After the exercises I then give my own standard teaching of the framework, which can take from 30 minutes to an hour depending on how much discussion we have.
Hope this helps. Leave me a comment if you try the exercise so we can all learn from your experience.