Cynefin St David’s Day 2019 (5 of 5)

April 20, 2019

Screenshot 2019 04 24 at 18 24 24

In my final post in this update series on Cynefin and I’m reserving the right to change things when I think about it more.  I’ve been playing with options here on trains to and from particularly dark productions of tragic operas and the experience may have influenced by thinking.  Lets start with a variation on the normal representation of Cynefin which I’ve drawn a few times, but this is the first time I’ve published it.  Here I show the danger zone between obvious and chaos as an extension of the inauthentic aspect of disorder.  In earlier years this was sometimes called the complacent zone.  It is a type of liminality but its one you are not aware of until you fall over the cliff.  So its less a state of suspended transition, more a case of being suddenly suspended with no prospect of recover – remember the Coyote in Roadrunner if you want an illustration.

Many many moons ago, before IBM in my Data Sciences strategy days, the first time I ever got the thought leader  label I created a matrix between known and knowable, and then a second overlapping one between knowable and unknowable.   I used it a lot in C level workshops and it came over into my work in IBM and I presented in a few times in Washington before the language got toxic.  I didn’t originate it and, before you ask, I didn’t get it from Johari windows.  I learnt about that when someone referenced it after a session in the Dental Practice Board.  its not original although the extension to unknowable is I think mine.   When I was working on the HBR Cynefin article Mary and I decided to rehabilitate it and for the domains of obvious, complicated and complex I have made no changes.  However I have shifted chaotic from unknowable unknowables and added labels to the two luminal zones and the boundary with chaos.

I should say that I like this version of Cynefin but I haven’t got the drawing skills for it yet.  It may be more of a brush stroke in which entry into it is imperceptible.   Its now how I would start a discussion but one of the values of CYnefin is that you can dive deeper.   I’ve also got some work to take the domain three by threes I developed for each of the four main domains and add liminality and this language.  That will take a bit of time.  And apologies for leaving the selection box on chaotic when I did the screen shot.  I just can’t be bothered to do it all again!

So lets run through how I am using this:

  • In the three main domains the descriptions are pretty self evident.  If its obvious we all know all that there is to be known and we all agree on the pathway.  If complicated then even if we don’t know, we know how to know and we know the range or nature of our ignorance.  Complex gets more interesting as we don’t know what we don’t know but its not inherently unknowable.  If we take the initiative to run parallel safe-to-experiments then we start understand what is possible.   We can use MassSense to to identity different views and also outlier perspectives as another approach to gaining insight here.  
  • I decided the question of imagination was important to bring into play here.  So in the chaotic domain we again have unknowables but they are beyond imagination.  In the complex space generally someone will know, its a matter of finding them and paying attention (MassSense again).  But in case its beyond imagination which is why we get stress based novelty.  It is a domain where naïveté may an advantage as it breaks patterns and see things differently.  This is a domain of fleeting possibilities, have seen, rarely realised.
  • The question of unknown knowns will be familiar to many people in large organisations.  Getting attention of senior executives is difficult.  See things differently from the interests of your immediate managers and you will never get near the real decision makers.   Also god help you if you publicly went against the norm and then get proved right, no one will ever forgive you.   Distributing situational assessment (human sensor networks, MassSense, anaymous reporting, crews are all ways to do this) make you more resilient and shift away, up through disorder into complex.
  • The liminal domain between complex and chaotic is a state of suspension.  We’ve contained interactions, generated skink works or similar so the prospect of knowledge now exists, its no longer unknowable.  But it is as yet unimagined so here micro-scenarios planning, trio based investigate, social network stimulation and lots of other methods we’ve developed over the years come into play.   I think this is one of the most fertile areas to explore and includes the ideas of anticipatory triggers and mechanisms of paying attention to the unexpected.  More on this in the next few months.
  • Finally we get the liminal domain between complex and complicated.  We now have an inkling, we’ve imaged what’s possible, we’ve experimented and new possibilities are emerging that we can now stabilise and exploit.

As I said I’m not 100% sure of the labels and descriptions yet – but I’ll develop it and ideas and comments are welcome


Banner picture is a view at dusk from the col between Mynydd Perfedd and Craned y Filiast looking towards Elidir Fair with Snowdon in background.   I’d planned to complete the ridge and descend to Nan Ffrancon but the walking and weather were so good I didn’t want to leave the tops so retraced my route back to Y Garn and down – a long but rewarding day and I wish I had the better camera for this picture.

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Liminal Cynefin & ‘control’

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I was searching for my original known-unknown-unknowable matrix for today’s post and, as you do, ...

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