Cynefin, Sensemaker and Evaluation. Some thoughts and puzzles

October 11, 2011

Kia ora tatou,

Over the years I’ve written much about Cynefin and Sensemaker, but mostly aimed at those who know little about these concepts. The idea of writing to those who know more than I is both exciting and intimidating. Rather than focus on describing what I’ve done and the various insights I’ve gained, I thought it might take the opportunity to explore where I’m struggling – or where I see others struggling. So over the next few days I want to cover some of those aspects. Later next week I may spend some timereflecting on the relevance of Cynefin and Sensemaker to a five day meeting I’m facilitating in Geneva.

But meantime here in New Zealand let me explore some opportunities and puzzles about the Cynefin framework.

Like a recent blogger, Irene Guijt, I work in the evaluation field. In practice that means using applied social research methods to assess the worth of particular interventions. These interventions can range from large scale social and economic development programmes (as described by Irene) to quite small projects. I once evaluated a school play that that sought to influence teenage drinking/driving behaviour. What distinguishes evaluation from other forms of applied research and even management consultancy, is that focus on “worth”. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Something that is worthwhile to one person may not be considered worthwhile by someone else; think about things like school-based sexual health programs. Our job in the evaluation field is to weave our way through all these conflicting judgements and work out the implications for improving the interventions – taking into account everyone’s perspectives as much as possible. It can be a tricky, uncomfortable and stressful job at times. We are often dealing with people running projects that are charged with resolving impossible issues, under hostile conditions, badly paid and under-resourced. What keeps them going is their belief that they are doing the right thing. And then I come along as say “hmm, interesting, let me find out whether what you are doing is worthwhile.”

Theory of Change (ToC) is an approach commonly used in the evaluation field to help explore the various belief systems buried in an intervention. Irene mentioned this approach briefly in her blog. A Theory of Change seeks to explain the logic of an intervention; how the intervention is supposed to bring about its intended effect, how it contributes to wider effects and what assumptions underpin the various links in the chain of events described by the Theory. Of course any one intervention can have many Theories of Change depending on the perspectives and assumptions. New Zealand prisons have just gone smoke-free. The program to help prisoners quit smoking could be based on bringing about change through “punishment” (stick), “reward” (carrot), social conformity (peer pressure), knowledge acquisition and so on. Discussions about ToCs are great ways of teasing out and exposing prejudices, assumptions, perspectives and values associated with an intervention but often hidden. ToCs are however controversial. Many complain that ToCs tend to assume relatively simple cause/effect relationships (these are often called Program Logic or Logic models). Others point out that ToC’s are often used as management control tools, forcing a particular kind of way of managing interventions and ignoring the issue of context. I’d guess that if I gathered a bunch of evaluators in a room and asked them what they thought of ToCs, half would think they were great tools, half would think they were evil. I can think of only one other evaluation topic that creates as much debate and anger.

So what has this got to do with the Cynefin framework?

I think Cynefin provides a way out of this conflict – but in doing so generates an even greater puzzle and two significant challenges. And I will blog about that tomorrow.

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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.

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