Every year, to celebrate St’ David’s Day, Dave Snowden has shared a series of posts on the evolution of the Cynefin framework. This year he introduced the newest version. The framework changes, because as we use it, it has an evolutionary journey towards “better” and more coherent. Not every branch in its evolution has had helpful components, but I find the current iteration to be very useful because it is both simple to use, easy to introduce, and yet has quite a bit of depth.
During the pandemic, I’ve been using this version of it to help people think about what to do and this is how I propose to tour you around it as well.
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 solveable. 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 exhibits the lack of any meaningful constraints a 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.
Complicated systems allow for a little more latitude in practice and so have governing constraints, such as laws and procedures. Break them at your peril, but also discuss them to make sure they govern activity in the system well.
Complex systems are characterized by enabling constraints which give rise to all manner of creativity, emergence and self-organization, but which can also be immutable. Think of the laws of physics or principles of evolutionary biology that seem to generate a huge variety of systems and living beings. But we don’t have a creature that can breathe by oxidizing neon, because neon doesn’t oxidize.
Constraints in complexity can be quite tight and still contribute to emergence and creative action. Think of the way the rules of the haiku form don’t tell you what to write, but instead offer guidance on the number of syllables and lines to use: three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. These simple constraints give rise to tremendous creativity and inspiration as you work to create beauty within a distilled form.
In Chaos the absence of constraints means that nothing makes much sense, and all you can do is choose a place to act, apply constraints and quickly sense what comes next. This is what first responders do. They stabilize the situation and then figure out whether a technical expert is needed (to operate the jaws of life) or whether the situation needs to be studied a bit more (so we know how a pandemic actually occurs and the different ways a new virus operates in the human body).
That’s the basic orientation to the framework. There are additional features above that are helpful to note, including the green zones of liminality and the division of the Confusion domain into A and C, standing for Aporetic and Confused. Aporetic means “at a loss” and indicates an unresolved confusion, or a paradox, which is just fine. Sometimes things need to remain a little murky for a while. “Confused” refers to the state of mind where you just aren’t getting it, and you don’t understand the problem. It’s often the result of a failure to see past one’s own biases, habits, and entrained patterns of solving things.
Contextualizing your problem
One meaning of the Welsh word “Cynefin” is “places or habitats of multiple belonging.” The name of the framework references the fact that in any situation of confusion, you are likely to have all five types of problems or systems at play. So when you are working on trying to understand a situation, start by assuming you are in Confusion. As much as it is tempting to look at all situations related to COVID-19 right now as Chaos, they aren’t. In fact, the desire to do see them that way is actually a key indicator that you are in Confusion. When I am teaching this framework, I sometimes label this domain “WTF?” because that is precisely what is happening here. We don’t know what’s going on, we’re confused, and we’ve never been here before. Any data you collect about a problem should all go into the Confused domain first.
From there you can ask yourself where things belong. This is called a Cynefin contextualization and is a core Cognitive Edge method for working with Cynefin. It works like this: you literally put as many aspects of your situation on individual post-it notes as you can, put them in the middle of a table and sort data into basic categories according to these criteria:
- If the aspect is clear and obvious and things are tightly connected and there is a best practice, place it bottom right.
- If the aspect has a knowable answer or a solution, has an endpoint, but requires an expert to solve it for you, put it top right.
- If the aspect has many different possible approaches, and you can’t be sure what is going to work and no one really has an answer, put it top left.
- If the aspect is a total crisis, and you are overwhelmed by it, put it bottom left.
- If you can’t figure out which domain to put the aspect in, leave it in the middle for now. NOT EVERY POST IT NOTE NEEDS TO GO IN THE FOUR OUTER DOMAINS.
Now you have a table with five clusters of post-it notes. You can do lots of things with your data now, but for me, the next step is to have a look at the stuff on the right side. Make a boundary between the stuff you can do right now (Clear) and the stuff you need an expert to help you with (Complicated). You can cluster similar pieces of data together and suddenly you have little projects taking shape.
In the top left corner (Complex), make a distinction between things that are more tightly constrained and things that are less tightly constrained. Think of this domain as a spectrum from closed to open. For example, moving my work online is constrained by needing a laptop and some software, and a place to work and some hours in the day to minimize interruptions. Those are fairly tight constraints, even though I know that I’m not going to get it right the first time around and no expert will solve it for me. I have to make it work for my context. Figuring out how to manage a team of eight people from home is much less constrained, and even comes close to chaotic. So that gives you a sense of the variety possible as you move from the boundary between Complicated and Complex and the boundary between Complex and Chaos. And you can see now why the liminal spaces exist there too. It’s not always clear cut.
Anything else on the left side that is overwhelming is in Chaos, so leave it down at the bottom left. If it is an actual crisis, you probably should take care of it right now and then come back to your framework later!
Stuff that is still confusing stays in the middle and you might want to take a crack at sorting things into Aporetic and Confused. An example of Aporetic might be trying to figure out whether you have the virus or not without being able to get tested. Because you can’t know for sure, you have to hold that knowledge in suspension and let your actions be guided by the idea that you might have it, but you might not too. But you might. You just can’t know right now.
So now you have options:
- For Clear aspects, just do them. Don’t put them off either, because failing to do so will drop you into chaos. WASH YOUR HANDS OFTEN FOR 20 SECONDS WITH SOAP. That’s an order. Orders work well here.
- For Complicated aspects make a plan. You might be able to find someone to help you learn the technical aspects of setting up a zoom meeting. You’ll definitely find videos and technical documentation to help you do it. You can learn that skill or find someone who knows it. This is what is meant by Sense-Analyse-Respond. Do a literature search, listen to the experts, and execute.
- For Complex problems, get a sense of possibilities and then try something and watch what happens. Figuring out how to be at home with your kids is pure complexity: you can get advice from others, talk about with friends and strangers, read blog posts and tweets, but the bottom line is that you need to get to work and learn as you go, engaging in a rapid iterative cycle and see if helpful patterns emerge. As you learn things, document practices and principles that help guide you in making decisions. If rules are too tight, loosen them. If the kids need more structure, apply it. Finding those sweet spots requires adaptive action, and learning as you go. Here we talk about Probe-Sense-Respond. Don’t worry about collecting tons of information before acting: it won’t help you past a certain point. Act on a hunch first and monitor the results as you go.
- Liminal complexity means that you are choosing to enter into proximity to either Complicated or Chaos. if you apply constraints (like enforcing rules on the kids) you are moving complexity towards the ordered domains. That might work, but too much rigidity will create problems. On the other hand, if your constraints are too rigid you may find yourself unwittingly creating patterns that make it hard to flow with the changing times. And so you release the constraints until you can discover something new and helpful, and then apply constraints again to help you manage in complex times. An example might be adopting the assumption that you are a carrier of the virus and letting that assumption guide your behaviours. That helps you to make choices that will probably benefit you and the people around you. (And here are some heuristics to practice with if you have kids at home during the pandemic)
- For chaos, you are going to need to apply constraints quickly and maintain them until the situation stabilizes. That might mean self-quarantine if you are infected and sharing a house with others. It might mean relying on emergency services to impose those constraints for you.
- For confusion, think of this as the top of the fountain and as new data enters your system, add it there until it trickles into the right domain. I like to revisit things that are in this domain from time to time, because as I get to work on stuff, sometimes my confusion about other things disappears, or sometimes I find a true paradox that can never be resolved and those are delightful in themselves.
So, to conclude
- Cynefin is a five (expanding to seven) domain framework. Whatever you are doing probably has aspects of all the domains at play at any given time.
- If you need to learn something, or discover new things, loosen constraints. If you need to stabilize a situation, tighten constraints.
- In the Ordered domains, rules, laws, and experts are helpful and should be obeyed. In the unordered domains, principles and heuristics should be adopted that are coherent with goodness, safety, and care, to guide behaviour and learn new things.
- In chaos, stabilizing the situation is most important. Act now to restrict your actions and once things are stable, make the next move.
Be careful, be aware, be connected, learn and share as you go. None of us have been here before, so offer grace and support. Try to look at what is happening and suspend your judgement. Don’t spread information unless you know it is reliable, and help each other out.