“Figure it out…that’s what I say…figure it out…”
Another reference from Letterkenny to start a blog post, another southern Ontario expression that means “it’s obvious, what’s the problem?” or “just do it.” Here in B.C. there is a similar expression: “give your head a shake.” It’s supposed to indicate that everything you’re making complicated is really just pretty simple.
The Cynefin framework is like that. It gives you something to help you give your head a shake when you are confronted with a confusing situation. The framework is useful in so many ways, but here are a few that help you get started using it.
If you’re confused, just stop for a moment and think about it. Cynefin, is a decision-making framework. It helps you to decide what to do. So when you DON’T know what to do, the Cynefin domain can help you figure out what kind of problem you have and what to do about it.
There is nothing wrong with being confused, that is why I consider the middle domain of Cynefin the most important one. Confusion has the benefit of inviting us to stop and figure out what’s going on. It’s not the same as chaos, where we have to act in order to preserve ourselves or restore order. Confusion is the pause that makes us question what is going on. So the first benefit of Cynefin is that it has a place for confusion, and I invite folks to enter to the framework from that point.
Is this knowable or not? At a high level Cynefin divides problems into ordered and unordered problems. An easy way to know which one you’re facing is to ask yourself questions like this:
- Does this problem have a stable solution?
- Is there someone out there who knows for certain what to do?
- Can I learn how to do this myself, and get repeatable results?
- Can I predict the outcome of my actions with certainty?
- Have I solved this kind of problem before?
If you answer “yes” to one of these questions, then you know you are in the ordered domains. If it is a thing you can do on your own right now, using best practices from the past, you are in the clear domain. If it’s something that an expert can do for you – someone who has the answer and can fix the problem – you are in the complicated domain.
If you answer no to these questions, then you are in the unordered domains, and probably in the Complex domain. If you are panicking, in the middle of a crisis, or in some kind of physical or emotional danger, then you are in Chaos, and you’re probably not sitting down to think about what domain you are in, anyway.
Ordered problems are pretty straight forward to solve. In the ordered domains we solve things with a linear sequence of steps that goes like this:
- Understand the problem
- Decide what makes sense to do
- Do it
- Evaluate the results
In the Cynefin world this is basically what is meant by “Sense – Categorize – Respond” or “Sense- Analyse – Respond.” The results of your actions will be almost immediately clear to you in these types of problems. Either you have fixed the problem or you haven’t. The more complicated your problem, the more expertise is required to both solve the problem and evaluate the results, but at the end of the day things are doable and solvable and it’s clear to everyone that the intervention worked.
If it’s Clear, just do it. Clear problems are easily solvable by doing things that you’ve done before. You might think that Clear and obvious problems shouldn’t be confusing at all, but sometimes we get into tricky situations where our minds cloud our thinking. We can overthink something or stare at a problem, not sure of what we are looking at. I have often had that experience while using public transit in unfamiliar cities. I stare at the ticket dispenser not knowing what to do. Sometimes it takes a person behind me to point out the big STEP 1, STEP 2 and STEP 3 instructions for me to see how to actually buy a ticket. Because systems are different in different places, and design isn’t always awesome, I often get confused the first time I travel in a new city. Once I figure it out though, I never have that problem again.
If it’s Complicated get an expert to do it. A Complicated problem is solvable, but not by me. It’s why I hire people to do my books, maintain my webserver, fix my car, repair my appliances, or maintain my musical instruments. If something is Clear to you and not to others, there is value in your knowledge, and so folks that have specialized problem-solving expertise make their living charging money for this value. There is something immensely satisfying about solving problems, and many folks that I know who work constantly in the unsolvable world of complexity, have hobbies that are are merely Complicated. Knowing that a problem is Complicated is a great relief, and then it’s just down to finding the right person to do it for you.
The secret to unordered domains is working with constraints. This is a tricky one to get, but basically the first thing to know about the unordered domains is our standard Western models of linear problem-solving don’t work here. The reason for this is that things are non-linear and emergent in this domain. Problems seem to spring up from out of the blue, and if we try to figure out what caused them, we head down rabbit holes. The system that gives rise to problems is unknowable in its totality, so we can feel free to release ourselves from needing to know everything and concentrate instead on finding patterns. Noticing patterns in unordered problems is hugely valuable. When we see patterns, we can hypothesize that things are probably Complex. When we can’t see patterns, things are probably Chaotic.
In the unordered domains, expertise is not helpful on its own – there is no one with an answer – but experience can be helpful. What IS helpful is gathering a larger number of people together to look at a problem and see if they can find patterns in it.
If it’s Chaotic, apply constraints until it is safe. Chaos is defined in the Cynefin framework as the absence of constraints. Ther is nothing holding the system together and everything seems random. In those situations, applying a tight constraint can help stabilize the situation to the point that you can think about what to do next. Think of a first responder to a fire, who establishes a perimeter around a burning building, orders people to evacuate and follows clear procedures to suppress the fire with water or chemicals. Applying constraints on behaviour and firm boundaries around situations helps to control it. As you gain control of the situation you can loosen the boundaries, let people back into the area, remove safety gear, cruise the area for hot spots or other dangers.
In psychological chaos, such as times when one is afraid, anxious, panicked, or reliving a trauma, constraints can be immensely helpful in self-regulating. Many therapeutic modalities that work with trauma help give people tools to control their breathing, bring their awareness back online, and gather themselves up. One doesn’t;t use these interventions in every moment, but they are helpful in the moment of panic.
If its Complex, work with the patterns. Finding patterns and understanding them is the key to working in complexity. A pattern is basically anything that repeats over time. Patterns represent some stability in a system and they are held in place by constraints. Once you find a pattern, you need to figure out if it is one you want to keep or one you want to disrupt. Either way, finding some of the constraints that keep a pattern in place helps you to work with it.
Think about forming healthy habits. For me working on my own health has been a decades-long struggle to eat well and exercise. I’ve tried lots of diets – from vegetarian to paleo – and found that the best way to eat well, at least for now, is to eat out of a small bowl using chopsticks. Why? Because those constraints help me be more mindful about the food I eat and the quantity of it I consume. Given a bag of potato chips, my salt and fat-loving body will eat the whole thing. Given a small bowl, and a slower way to eat, I find I can stop much sooner. Likewise with exercise. I have learned that if it is a huge production, I won’t get myself together, go out to a gym, and go through a routine using a bunch of equipment. Instead, for the past year, I have followed a simple set of bodyweight workouts from DAREBEE which has highly constrained the activity I do. For the first time in my life, I have stuck to a daily fitness regime and I’m healthier and more fit than I have been in years.
Complexity requires trial and error and lots of experiments. In the Cynefin world, we use the phrase “Probe – Sense – Respond” to capture this idea. Basically, because you can’t know what will work, you try a bunch of things to shift unhealthy patterns and stabilize healthy patterns and see what works. If you are getting better results, you do more of that. If things aren’t working well, stop doing that. In complexity conflicts get resolved by people DOING things, not arguing over them. We can make better decisions when we have some data that comes from action. If people have different ideas about what to do, invite them to take on small experiments to see if their ideas are promising. You can even have people do two opposite things – “we’ll take the high road and you take the low road” – and see how they compare. Experimenting with action is a far better way to find promising practices than constant arguing about the “right” thing to do.
So there are a few ways in which Cynefin helps you to figure things out. If you are an experienced practitioner, what would you add to this list? If you are new to Cynefin, what resonates most with you?
Chris, thanks, as usual for sharing your thoughts. Since the original article refers to ‘disorder’ and I like your point about ‘owning confusion’ ;), I was wondering if you have a graphic to refer to and which terms are the ‘official, latest’. I don’t even find it so easy to figure that out on the Cognitive Edge website…
Hi Tina. Dave and the community keep working on the framework and it grows and changes as it gets used.
I have a tour around the latest version back in March: http://www.chriscorrigan.com/parkinglot/a-tour-around-the-latest-cynefin-iteration/
Thanks so much – sorry I didn’t check your previous blogs. Should have known what a great resource they are 😉
Since you were asking for thoughts: I always have an issue with ‘ask an expert’ in relation to complicated. With the concept of expert, the fact that it is singular and the notion that that will deliver an answer that can be applied. Also ‘analyse’ is in my mind something that can be useful, we do too much though (the old scientific management approach;) and is different from using a more encompassing concept of ‘knowing’ that is so needed.
Especially working in an expert-focused country like Germany, I experience on a daily basis how it leads to turning away from collective sense-making processes, establishes arrogance with some, makes them and others fear (at the existential level of identity) that someone may notice any flaws or mistakes and are therefore resistant to an unbiased deliberation about issues.
I guess it depends on whether you categorise issues in simple / complicated / complex, but I find these days, taking overall sustainability into account in an unsustainable world, apart from really ‘simple / obvious’ issues, other decisions always involve a deliberation and sense-making with competing goals and needs (which is not the realm of expertise). – see below.
I tend to refer to “exploring different realms of expertise”… what do you and others think?
PS: Someone quoted building a house for the complicated domain. Renovating an old house ideally according to ecological standards, I find even ‘small decisions’ are rarely clear-cut, but have to take into account so many different factors: materials: ecological in decomposition, in production, in useage, local….safety and practicality (even the ecological masters often say: yes, but this material is necessary because of the humidity, or safety, and are resistant to doing things the ‘really old way’ as they would not be acceptable legally (e.g. earthquake protection). Then needs and behaviours of current and future inhabitants, the varied sense of aesthetics, fitting in with community, cost (current, over time, value)…. or is that complex? Complex in my mind is when the factors are even more oscillating, with each and every one having heir own dynamics etc. What do and others you think?
Experts are indeed misplaced in complex situations but I don’t need collective sensemaking to balance my books. I need an accountant with validated expertise who I can trust to do a good job. Of course how I choose to spend my money or figure out ways to earn it is something I do with my family and my partners and colleagues and that DOES require collective sensemaking. My accountant can help provide data but I wouldn’t trust her to tell me how to spend my money!
Nice, Chris. Thanks. I particularly like the idea that constraints can be helpful.
Cynefin people are wise and provide useful knowledge. But I must add that the people they use for training others aren’t good at training. I joined a Cynefin online course, but the training was so poorly designed that I had to pull out after 2 week.
Hi Chris, I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts about Cynefin and complexity over these last few years. This latest gem really makes crystal the link between ‘real world’ examples, Cynefin domains and the Patterns-Constraints link.
What I also like is the reference to ‘habits and being mindful. For me, the key first step to the approach you paint so clearly is the mindset … that little mindfulness-switch needed to get into a state of Not Knowing.
This is amazing ! One of the best way to explain the Cynefin model I have read in a loooong time.
In other words, and to quote you, everything is now in the CLEAR quadrant!
Thanks so much!
Thanks Francois. My search for simplicity is never ending!
Hi again Chris, this post has crystallised the 10 year journey we have been on with Ingrid’s migraines. They quickly shifted out of the ordered domains when western doctors (experts) revealed nothing wrong in their tests that they chose to do. So migraines for Ingrid (and our journey to treat them) became a decade long struggle of: looking for patterns (they were alway triggered by a cold/flu), working on increasing the foundational health of her system (constraints included limiting alcohol/coffee, maximise sleep routines, keep fit, eat well etc.) so she was strong enough to “get through” the migraine. We experimented with Eastern approaches (which is a more complex and systems based approach to health/prevention) which saw us probe with many other interventions including acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Then, from left field our youngest boy exhibited some patterns of health similar to Ingrid’s. We saw something similar then in his older brother and remembered that his undiagnosed Blood Sugar condition could be related. More patterns and connections! Turns out our youngest has a similar blood glucose issue which we now think Ingrid has … passed on to her sons. Each of them exhibiting (on the outside) different symptoms, but all related to a systemic issues with blood sugars. These learnings have now made us ask new questions like … “What if the migraine have nothing to do with getting a cold/flu?” ; “What if we ensure blood sugars are kept high/stablised at the early signs of a migraine and we focus treatment there?”. So far so good … last migraine we managed to avoid the downward spiral to hospital. I suppose, if we have (through years of trial and error) discovered the underlying cause … the problem solution/decision might become a simple one (even though the underlying physiology is complex and interconnected). It also reveals the limitations and blindspots of experts who were looking for things ‘other than’ blood glucose. A thorough examination of Ingrid’s boys medical histories may have revealed the pattern earlier, but that took our own sensing to discover.
Awesome story! Glad the healing is progressing.
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