Context & Cynefin

September 3, 2013

Before moving on to the Simple Domain model I wanted to say a little bit more about the purpose and evolution of the domain models as a whole. I also want to make a more general point about frameworks and models in the context of a key word scaffolding.   At this stage you might want to take a break and listen to a TedX talk by Ann Pendleton-Jullian who makes a series of important points relating to networks and scaffolding.  We have been talking and working together for a few years now since we met at a Highland Forum meeting, and will shortly start a major project on health and well being were we are the two architects.  She is making similar points to those made by another Washington based friend Alicia Juarrero who famously said that meaning exists in the gaps between things not the things themselves.  I wouldn’t use framework in exactly the same way that she does but there is overall agreement on the concepts.  The important one is that scaffolding is designed to support a structure while it is being built, but then to be take away or absorbed into the system itself.

Cynefin, and now the sub-domains along with various methods and of course tools such as SenseMaker® all have at their heart the goal of creating scaffolding through which and by which people can make sense of their world in different ways.  Since my early days in knowledge management I have emphasised the need to focus on context.  Cynefin used in full form is contextualised by the micro-narratives of that organisation’s own perception of its past, present and future.  I have railed against strategy and other models that simply define themselves and make organisations fit into pre-given structures.  So I developed our method of emergent archetypes rather than have some academic or marketing company come up with a set of so called universal archetypes to which customers or employees had to be categorised, labeled and duly filed away.  Consistency is achieved through process and structure not through final product.

I think this is one of the big changes in management science and it is not well understood.  The liking for recipes is all to common and we like recipes, the chefs understanding of the science and the art of cooking is less well appreciated.  Interestingly a lot of people in IT get it because it is the principle behind object orientation and aspects of AGILE (not all by any means and a lot of SCRUM has become a set of recipes).  But the shift is coming; in this (maybe more timorous than brave) new world, methods and tools are about creating capability that can adapt and then constantly exapt to meet changing and shifting contexts while maintaining coherence (which is not the same thing as alignment).  It not laying down a do this then you will get that set of formula, its about creating coherent capabilities for sense-making.  A last word on nomenclature here, a think a model or a framework can be used as scaffolding or a template or it can be the final form.   Its what it is used for that counts.  Of course too many consultancy models seek to become reality which is why they get swapped our every few years.  Unfortunately too few question the way they were used in the first place.

So back to the domain models.  I’ve had them in mind for around 4/5 years but the they needed Cynefin itself to develop and for the nature of market interest in complexity to shift before they could have any utility.  There is a time and place for any new idea and you need to get it right.  A few key factors pushed me into publishing them in a semi-developed form.

  • Increasing citation and adoption levels for Cynefin meant it was time to produce stuff for the next level down (or up)
  • The rapid growth in pop (not the same thing as popular) of books and methods using the language of complexity but the methods and practices of systems dynamics was another indicator that the time may be ripe to move this all on a bit
  • The need to create signifiers for Cynefin mapping using SenseMaker® meant I started to look at alternative dimensions or angles that would be understood in common without training or explanation.

They are also semi-developed because I expect them to evolve in practice and in teaching.  One of the main strengths of Cynefin is that it went through this sort of evolutionary process (and still is).  It is theory interacting with practice rather than a simplistic model derived from a limited number of cases.  Importantly I don’t see the axis or other labels as given.  Part of what I am doing here is creating a scaffolding for others to create their own ideas.  In operational rollout I would expect all the names to be contextualised into the micro-narratives and history informed language of the organisation.  I choose bamboo scaffolding for the illustration deliberately by the way.  It lacks the order and symmetry of metal tubes but it has all of the strength and is far more flexible.

Back to the scaffolding itself tomorrow

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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