Cynefin St David’s 2021 (1 of 3)

March 1, 2021

Screenshot 2021 07 08 at 18 05 42As is now the tradition I am using St David’s Day to provide the annual update on Cynefin.  Last year in a five-part series I introduced two changes, the renaming of Obvious to Clear and critically the central Aporetic/Confused domain replaced the idea of disorder.  I also started preliminary work on listing what can be managed and what can be monitored – something I will pick up later in the year.  The linked post connects you to the previous updates.  In many ways that series completed the development of Cynefin as, with the recognition of the aporetic, the final ambiguity was resolved; disorder was always problematic

Later that year I referenced the long-standing three-domain version of Cynefin and brought in the idea of the Triple Point and followed that up with a key post that put the various known, unknown and unknowable aspects into Cynefin domains and the liminal areas; this is the final image in the sequence below.  That post also created a sequence of the way that you build from the three-domain version, to full Cynefin and added in the recent three-dimensional version with trolls for which we plan to introduce T-Shirts shortly.  I’ve reproduced that below but with a different final image as indicated.  I promised to expand on the two posts but failed to do so but I plan to rectify that now and elaborate a bit on both previous references.

These days when I am asked to present Cynefin I do so in the following sequence:

  1. I talk about three basic types of system, or ontology namely ordered, complex and chaotic and I use the metaphor of solid, liquid, and gas to help people understand the difference.
  2. Then I introduce the idea of a phase shift using latent heat to illustrate that.  Water boiled to 100ºC at sea level needs additional energy to convert to steam: the atmosphere heats up a little before snow slows as energy is thrown out when the liquid in the clouds solidifies as snow.
  3. That leads to the idea of the triple point, the balance of pressure and temperature at which it is equiprobable that whatever it is can become solid, liquid or gas.  Sometimes I talk about its use in calibration but that is rare.
  4. That leads into a description of those three domains in which I talk about the Ordered domain as being contained, with the certainty of outcome which makes it possible to set goals.  The Complex domain is one where everything is entangled with everything else.  I often quote Juarrero Like bramble bushes in a thicket here and tell a few walking stories.  The fact that this domain is characterised by uncertainty and multiple hypotheses leads to the idea of parallel safe to fail probes (not experiments).  I emphasise parallel not sequential.  Finally, the Chaotic domain is one of apparent randomness in which there are no effective constraints and the goal of the decision-maker should be to act decisively in such a way as to maximise options, not to resolve the issue.  In effect that is a shift to the aporetic …
  5. … and I name it as such (I no longer talk about confused as that will come in with the introduction of liminality.  A question that can be answered is not a question more of a process, but a question which forces you to think differently about where you are is aporetic.  I then reference the three types of aporia namely linguistic, aesthetic and physical, and pick a few examples to make the point.  I’d also commend readers to Zhen’s post on the subject.
  6. Then and only then do I say that Order can be divided into Clear and Complicated and I describe the difference between self-evident and expert-based with Best and Good practice.
  7. I will also then, or possibly after stage 4 introduce the idea of a catastrophic phase shift between order and chaos
  8. The next stage, but I don’t always progress to it, will introduce the ideas of liminality at which point I can introduce the Confused aspect of that central domain and I can talk about the aporetic turn which is a key aspect of the EU Field Guide.

I’ll generally finish by talking about the difference between complexity thinking and the dominant systems approach of the last few decades.  The latter sets goals and tries to close the gaps, the former focuses on describing the present and starting journeys with a sense of direction; which means you are open to novelty on the pathway.  That, in turn, allows me to use my favorite (and memorable from the social media streams that follow) illustration of this namely the Disney Movie Frozen II in which Anna, the true heroine of the movie, sings Do the Next Right Thing.  In academic language that is all about moving to the adjacent possible and then looking again.  In fact, the whole of that movie is a great illustration of complexity!

In the next post, I will talk about how we now create the Cynefin framework, and then in the final post look at common errors and explain the counter-factual label above.

The banner picture is of Castell y Gwynt on the summit of Glyder Fach with Yr Wydffa in the background to the left and Glyder Fawr to the right.  All three posts will have pictures of the walk from Capel Curig over the Glyders to Pen-y-Pass.  As a matter of policy by the way I am going to use the Welsh names of the mountains of my Cynefin rather than the Saxon and Norman ones.

Screenshot 2020 12 02 at 07 26 22


Please also note this post was written on the 8th July 2021 and backdated to 1st March to conform with the St David’s Day update sequence

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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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