Cynefin viewed as an archetypal model

October 2, 2010

As it is has been argued elsewhere, archetypal models aim to provide paradigms for human behavior and supply meaning and value to individuals, organizations and societies. They can reveal the fundamental elements and relationships of a system between or the critical stages and thresholds in a maturation process. Such models comprise certain symbolic images or patterns of behavior that repeat over and over, even if the details are different in each case; in this way, they make sense to everybody.

Being neither statistical nor stereotypical (deterministic) models, they allow different interpretations and choices to be made by the individuals. This kind of data is added to a different knowledge-reservoir, full of experience, value and truth, verified over thousands of years. Some typical examples are: the Four Elements (a 4+1 fold framework), the Olympian Gods (a 12 fold descriptive model), the Hero’s Journey (a cyclical transformative template), etc.

From the first moment I read about Cynefin in late 2004, I saw some correspondences with the Four Elements framework. Earth symbolizes practical sense, safety and stability, order, inertia, gravity, classification, and value to data and results, Water symbolizes relation, connection, flexibility, emotions, inner life and motives, collectivity, depth, unconscious, passions and sensitivity. Air symbolizes whatever invisible and intangible, a world of thoughts and ideas, communication, concepts, new insights, etc. Fire symbolizes will, action, energy, enthusiasm, creativity, transformation, connectedness to potential resources, etc.

The way I correspond the four domains to the four elements and the four psychological functions can be summarized in this table and figure. Recently, Cynthia Kurtz has also indicated a correspondence between the two frameworks, when referring to the similarities between Cynefin and the Medicine Wheel. However, her viewpoint is slightly different from mine.

Many times in seminars and workshops, I have used this parallelism to facilitate the understanding of the domains’ meaning and the result was always the same. Due to the propagation of their concept, the four elements have always enabled the participants to make sense of the notion of each domain much easier and retain in mind the different folds and aspects of the model.

During several workshops I have also used the concept of the Cynevian four-fold (expressed through different labels, according to the content and the purpose), in order to refer to different ways for approaching a conflict, dealing with an existing law, rule or situation, sensing the org’l culture, understanding the main characteristic or the principal function of a team, etc. I would appreciate your comments and ideas as a feedback to these suggestions.

All the above, along with the issue of the ontological, epistemological, and phenomenological character of the Cynefin model (that, in my opinion, exist in parallel) and its ability to bear different labels and terms, make me believe that Cynefin can be viewed as an archetypal model. A more documented presentation of this assumption is under way. If this thesis is true, then the real power of Cynefin derives from there.

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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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