Cynefin – a time management and productivity tool?

February 14, 2012

The thirst for easy fixes to the challenges of time management appears unslakable. I have no doubt that for some, the act of seeking and tinkering with the latest ‘getting-things-done’ (GTD) tool/philosophy/process is an addiction.

It affirms we all seek efficiency without compromising effectiveness. And in a minor example of exaptation, the Cynefin framework has the potential to be a useful tool in this pursuit.

As written previously, a CEO and I were talking about the use of Cynefin to aid in the setting and monitoring of personal and team objectives. I can now report on developments and a spin-off consequence for Board Governance.

The criteria I set out for the use of Cynefin in this application were two-fold;

1. Will it give leaders the courage to stop doing things. I hear a constant plea from all levels of management (particularly those in the middle ranks), to “tell us also what to stop doing whenever you tell us what (new) things we should be doing.”

2. It should contribute toward a more sophisticated conversation on the impact of personal objectives upon the market and the organisation, and with an attendant reduced focus on output measures. The balance of impact and output should reflect the breadth and depth of the contexts of problems to be solved. Over a six week time period, members of a seven person, general management leadership team kept a daily record of time allocation against the Cynefin framework. This was a lightly constrained data gathering exercise in which individuals chose time units that made sense to them, and adopted a self-recording approach which would be sustainable for a month and half. The only stipulation was that a daily time allocation should be kept, plus a note of the nature and domain of the most significant issues addressed that day.

After six weeks, the team averages were:

Simple 35%
Complicated 25%
Complex 25%
Chaos 15%

Now I realise that Cynefin purists will say we deal with domains rather than categories, and that I am missing the Disorder domain, but my focus was using the framework as a pragmatic entry into a more informed debate.

I present the average scores here, but there was naturally a range of responses. Those in operations and finance spent slightly more time in the Simple and Complicated domains than their research and commercial colleagues, but the spread within the team was narrow. Startlingly so. The record highlighted the burdensome time consumption of budgets and reports on the marketing and sales personnel.

Debate within the team soon reduced to ‘the ideal’. Should the split between Simple/Complicated and Complex:Chaos be 50:50, and would this be true for all ‘seniors’ or broken down by function? The conversation was soon curtailed by the revelations of the head of R&D.

After recording data for three weeks the R&D head, Dr Y, was comfortable that she had a good sense of her time split by domain. She then started to run a number of techno-commercial safe-to-fail experiments in the market place.

“Within days,” she reported to her colleagues, “it was obvious you have to spend a lot of time involved in the problem (being tested) in order to know if you should dampen or amplify the subsequent actions. I pushed my (time) allocation up from 32% to 60% and I can’t believe the difference it made about (the confidence I have in) what programs we will invest in next.”

The exercise is was deemed as being insightful and value adding, and has been extended in a modified form; one executive has already reassigned his Omnifocus contexts to reflect the Cynefin domains.

The project is being expanded at two levels.

Firstly, there is consultation with the team and HR professionals to make practical progress on linking these finding to the personal review process of this team.

Secondly, the CEO is working with the Board for it to a better supporter of the business processes. The objective is better governance on matters of strategic significance, not just the complex issues, the ensurance that appropriate feedback loops are available to activities in the Simple domain.

Are Filofax Cynefin inserts far behind?

Finally, this is my last entry as the Cognitive Edge guest blogger. Thank you for your kind comments.

I have been asked to be a guest blogger at The Riot Point (RSS) where I will continue to post my experience on the practical application of Cynefin and Problem Solving Leadership.

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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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