Decision support in context

December 24, 2022

Screenshot 2022 12 24 at 23 16 05I promised to complete the decision series before the Twelvetide blog sequence starts up tomorrow so this is it.  The first post was written after my keynote at KM World last month talking about the context of decision-making with references to the three main decision-support frameworks within the Cynefin ecosystem.  I added a link to the keynote in a PS to that post.  The second post introduced a distinction between formal and informal decision-making, with an emphasis on our neglect of the latter.  It broadened the concept of ‘authority’ and made the point that “as people become powerful it is increasingly unlikely they will hear dissenting viewpoints, but it is increasingly necessary that they should.”  That second post also referenced a much earlier version of the matrix to the left, from twenty years back and I promised that in this final post I would talk about distributed decision-making, the entanglement of decision-making at different levels of scalability and also indicate why I think we need to stop talking about single and double loop learning.  Yesterday’s post on the importance of silos could also be considered a part of this series.

Now I put this out in an earlier form on social media for comments and got some interesting responses.  One from Victor Newman suggested it was “a variant on Johari and Fahey’s models.”  To be clear, as I stated in an earlier post the initial framing was a reaction against the Johari framework.  Johari compares known and unknown to self with known and unknown to others and is focused on gaining feedback, it doesn’t challenge the assumption of knowability and it arose from and is best used in individual coaching.  Liam (Fahey) wrote a brilliant article with Larry (Prusak) on sin in knowledge management but I wasn’t aware of anything in his writing that would compare.   I did a bit of work and found this but I may have the reference wrong as this seems a little simplistic.  Whatever I wasn’t aware of it and it makes the same assumptions of knowability which I think are false.

So that it is by way of setting the context.  I should start by saying the three-by-three is very much a speculation, a way of talking about things and it’s not something I would fight on the barricades to preserve.  I’m also still playing with it and made some changes as a result of the social media exchanges.  In particular, I changed Ontology to What can be known by the organisation.  This is not the same thing as known to others, it is about the nature of reality, “can be known” is the key phrase.  Similarly, epistemology became What the decision-maker is aware of and/or is able to act on.  It is important to note the able to act on qualification as a lot of senior decision-making is political in nature.  I should also make it clear that each axis is a spectrum, having three categories is just for ease of communication.  I practice the boundaries are fluid and blurred.  Given that we can start to make some statements about what we need to do to improve decision making and I will do so by colour


These represent the two ordered domains of Cynefin and the methods and tools are well-known and well-documented.  I may need to elaborate a little on why I place scenario planning here; my reason is that the reality of scenario creation is  limited in its effectiveness to what people with credibility can image and take action from as a result. In effect it is more inductive than adductive, more dependent on past knowledge that is appropriate for high levels of uncertainty.  But otherwise, there is not much to be said about these two areas, they are part and parcel of business as usual


Recognising that there are things that are unknowable until they happen has become easier in recent years and as the solution is similar to where the issue is known or unacceptable to decision-makers we don’t need to worry two much about that aspect, hence combining the boxes.  This is a major area of our work on resilience and it is all about creating an eco-system that can respond to the unknowable and that involves fast feedback loops and decision-making at the point of need without reference back up the chain.  A lot of the EU Field Guide is about this with its requirement for human sensor networks, the stimulation of informal networks and real-time response capability.  That involves distributed delegation not delegated decision making and there we have extended our Entangled Trios method together with the completion of the Genba version of SenseMaker®.  I plan a major post on this in the new year, but start with the Field Guide and the Trios method and you will get the essence of the approach.


I used green here as these are GO areas, where management decision-making is key.  Again the EU Field Guide describes this as the Aporetic turn, the point at which you realise that you have to think anew and act anew in order to even understand the problem.  That allows you to recognise different issues and approaches and there will be several, hence all the arrows.  Estuarine Mapping is also designed for this as it doesn’t say what you should do, it tells you what the energy gradients are.  By taking action to reduce the time or energy to modify constraints you allow novel solutions to emerge.  Red/Blue teaming of the energy/time map and comparison of the two can also provide insight.  The essence of the unknown unknowns, the complex domain of Cynefin is all about changing your understanding of the situation but changing the dispositional state of the system and the propensities of its modulators so you can navigate it with created safety.

The second green area is where the unknowable meets the unimaginable and all is failing.  I made that green, per the chaos domain model (which I must update).  It is the point where holding on no longer has value and you just need to let go and allow something new to emerge.


Here the politics start to creep in and it’s not an area you can address by admonishing leaders to be service, enterprising, and open to novelty etc. etc. I’ll look at each as a distinct area

  1. Unknown knows The things known lower down in the organisation of which Senior Management is unaware, are often filtered out as a consequence of power; telling powerful people what they don’t want to hear rarely goes well.  Here we use several different approaches.  One is knowledge mapping, something available as a mentored process in the new year, which maps the knowledge, especially the tacit knowledge of the organisation to things that are keeping decision-makers awake at night.  The other is the use of human sensor networks to create real-time awareness of people who are thinking differently – the 17% who have seen a gorilla that others can imagine could exist.  Both of these work by exciting curiosity through self-discovery by decision-makers of things that prove to be relevant.  It is the easiest of the three and the one most likely to be acknowledged as an issue.
  2. Unimaginable knowns This one is hard.  I remember when I was a Treasury Accountant in a firm (I have a mixed past) I and a few others knew the company was going under unless something drastic happened, but it wasn’t a message people wanted to hear so we left the company before the disaster happened.  This one is a hard nut to crack and the best I can offer is multiple small nudges using the various aporetic techniques we have developed over the years (a three-part set of blog posts starts here), in effect trying to shift things to the centre.  Distributing decision-making is also a factor which can include an agreement not to intervene for a period to “see what develops”.  I’ve done a lot of work in this area with more success than failures but there is no major formula.
  3. Unimaginable unknowns  Ironically this is a little easier as everyone is in the same vessel of ignorance.  Multi-perspective mapping using the MassSense feature of SenseMaker® and the various developments under EU funding in our Ponte project represents one way and I’d be happy to take people through that, but there are a lot of ethics involved so I’m not fully codifying the approach here.  The anthro-simulation game I invented and prototyped with the Singapore Ministry of Defense working with Gary Klein is another way and its metaphor-based version of particular value here

Finishing off, for now

So there is a lot more to come here, but I’ve found value in bringing back that old framework and making changes to it.  I hope you have as well.  To my earlier promises, I have put off a full description of distributed decision-making for the new year along with the entanglement point.

Single and Double loop learning?  Valuable in its day but it’s a little too structured, a little two systems dynamics like in its framing.  The real world is messier than implied in that way of looking at the work and it also tends to hierarchy.  Adding a triple-loop kinda makes my point there. More mess, more poetry, less engineering in my view, but if you find it useful …

Why the map?

I liked the map as it shows the reality of knowledge.  It is very detailed in respect of the coastal area but acknowledges the unknown inland territory.  Map makers can take to fantasy but this one is realistic, and it’s a work of art in its own right.

The opening image is a map of the south coast of South Africa between Cape Agulhas and the Sundays River, Robert Jacob Gordon (attributed to), after J.C. Friderici, after 1789 – 1790  Public domain image sourced from the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam.

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The importance of silos

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