Cynefin as a filter of perception. – Part One of N

For the past few months I’ve been studying and practicing (Praxis) as I move from conscious incompetence to conscious competence about Cynefin (A journey that I’m starting rather than finishing). I treated myself by watching every video of Dave Snowden, John Seddon and Don Reinertsen I can find on vimeo, youtube and infoq. ( Check out wonderful Anthony Green’s playlist on youtube. ). I heartily recommend watching as many of Dave Snowden’s videos as you can. Dave is a bit like Eddie Izzard, the jokes are the same but the delivery is different and as a result fresh. It also means the emphasis is different and you pick up something different from each video. I took his course last year in two sittings because it is modular in nature. I think there is benefit in seeing the whole thing in one go so I’ll probably take it again at some point.

When I originally encountered Cynefin I thought it was a model to classify problems and situations. At some point the penny dropped and I realised it is more a filter of perception with much broader application. In particular you can use it to classify behaviour of agents, people, cultures and organisations. A bit like learning models, people and cultures have preferences when it comes to the five quadrants of the Cynefin model.

These days, most organisations are operating in a complex or chaotic world. Although some situations are obvious (the new name for simple) or complicated, the situations are realistically only those where the organisation can control the outcome (by defintion). The model divides the ordered and the unordered. I prefer emergent to unordered. I also think of the divide as certain and uncertain. From our experience using real options, we know that people would rather be wrong than uncertain. This means that we have a strong in-built preference for certainty over uncertainty, we have a strong preference for obvious and complicated problems to the extent that we will see complex and chaotic situations as complicated ones. The links between Cynefin and Real Options are not circumstantial. Dave used Real Options in the creation of the Cynefin model a decade before Olav Maassen and I started talking about them. ( I urge you to read the paper Dave wrote on Real Options in 1857 ).

Once I realised this I started to see some really interesting behaviours and memeplexes. I have a preference for chaotic and complex situations as I find them easier to solve than complicated ones. Here are some of my observations to date.

Those who crave certainty love hierarchies. Experts love hierarchies as their expertise is formally recognised. If not, they have a certain path to recognition. Those who do not want to be experts can defer to experts. The experts can help them convert complex or chaotic into complicated problems by stripping away context ( and hence uncertainty ). As problems travel up a hierarchy, knowledge of the context is lost or ignored until they become general enough for an expert to be able to opine. The epitome of the complicated quadrant is the “Thought Leader”.

Politicians are masters of the obvious domain. They take complex and chaotic and convert them into simple problems with simple solutions. They also know that they will be out of political office before they can be held to account. For example, Global Warming, the solutions are complicated but the implementation of the solutions are complex/chaotic and much to do with local versus global political aims. A complicated problem that politicians have turned into a complex/chaotic problem for political reasons. Politicians should implement multi-hypothesis safe-to-fail experiments but that removes the politicians from the equations. The leity do not perceive the difference between complex and complicated, this is the realm of the high priest.

People with a preference for complex and chaotic situations favour self organisation and social networks. Communication in networked organisations is much more effective than efficient. Complex problems need collaborations between parts of the hierarchy that typically are not designed to work together. Communication in hierarchies to solve complex problems requires information to flow up the hierarchy which strips off context which is all important. It is also slow. People and Cultures who prefer complex situations also have a preference for flatter organisations where communication across and up and down the organisation is faster.

A culture that is moving from complex to complicated will see the introduction of more layers in the hierarchy as effectiveness is replaced by efficiency. In addition, the culture will discourage communication that by-passes the hierarchy unless through established social networks. Meetings in complicated cultures tend to be bigger, whereas meetings in complex cultures will be more ad-hoc and managers will defer to subordinates with more detailed knowledge. In complicated organisations, meetings will be dominated by more senior individuals. In complex organisations, meetings will be facilitated to ensure that those with the most pertinent information speak about on the problem.

A culture that is moving from complicated to complex will see an erosion of the hierarchy. The CEO will “Go to the Gemba” to acknowledge the cultural importance of front line workers and their superior knowledge. Town halls will be be more spontaneous and less likely to be formal. Communication will be inconsistent and chaotic, and workers will be expected to work based on principles and commander’s intent rather than to be told what to do. As such, there is more risk they will do the wrong thing. People will respect the bandwidth of senior members of the community. They will only communicate if necessary but they know that they have the option. People in complex and chaotic situations are respected for their ability to do things. Respect is afforded by relaying stories of daring deeds and acts of greatness rather than qualifications, publications and accolades (Side note. This explains my unease at being a fellow of the Lean Systems Society. None of the people have worked with me). The epitome of the complex world are “Trail Blazers”, those who travel beyond the map and come back with scraps of maps on paper to show the way. There are lots of them and their names tend to be lost in the mists of time (Historiography)

The opinion of experts (Hippos) is more valued in a complicated culture. After all, if an expert makes the decision, you are absolved of making a bad decision. Data, Metrics and Lean Startup type thinking is more valued in Complex and Chaotic situations.

Gotta go now. This has grown as I started to write it down. I’ll be back to talk about the behaviour and risk surrounding learning in the different quadrants.

P.S. I know that they are not quadrants as their are five of them. I also know it winds up Dave when I refer to quadrants. Pleasure wins over accuracy every time. )

P.P.S. I also know I’m not discovering any new ground here. Simply sending a few postcards from the edge of Dave’s thoughts. Then again, they sell postcards so I’m guessing I’m nowhere near the edge of the map.


About theitriskmanager

A IT programme manager specialising in delivering trading and risk management systems in Investment Banks. I achieve this by focusing on risk rather than cost. A focus on costs can lead to increased costs. View all posts by theitriskmanager

10 responses to “Cynefin as a filter of perception. – Part One of N

  • anthonycgreen

    “These days, most organisations are operating in a complex or chaotic world.”
    I don’t make the same assessment. The majority of organisations occupy all domains at cyclical points during their lifetime, Cynefin provides us with illumination in order to determine what action any situation merits. Learning to ride the tides between domains is how we ensure longevity.

    • theitriskmanager

      Thank you for the comment.

      I agree that all organisations engage in activities in all domains. I disagree that they operate in complicated or obvious contexts. If they did, their share prices would be stable or would only move when they announced information or interest rates changed. Any company operating in a market where the current or target customers have choice is operating in a complex domain. That is unless there are constraints on the customers that prevent choice. The obvious example of this is Detica which was effectively an outsourced division of the GCHQ. Their customers did not have any choice as to who they could use. They were engaged in long term contracts with certain payout.

      Your comment prompted a thought about lean. Although Lean may use complex strategies, it is fundamentally a complicated process. The outcome is knowable. The same outcome but faster or with less waste. Lean is an enabler of complex strategies (faster response time) but is not necessarily sufficient.

  • edster

    This is so rich and deep I’m going to have re-read this many times to get my head around the implications. I particularly liked: “Those who crave certainty love hierarchies. Experts love hierarchies as their expertise is formally recognised”. It’s connected many dots already for things I’ve been wrestling with in the Agile space. Thank you!

  • rondon

    Did Dave really write a paper on Real Options in 1857? I knew he had been going a long time…

  • Sergey Kotlov (@skotlov)


    This is a very good post. Thank you very much for it.

    I’m myself on the road of Cynefin’s studying and practicing and I’m completely thrilled how many new connections between different pieces of knowledge it unveils.

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  • Greg Brougham

    Not sure about emergent in preference to unordered as this is a property of a complex system so you are excluding the chaotic – think certain versus uncertain is a better distinction as it about causality.

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