Exploring synergies and interaction between the Cynefin Framework and Theory of Constraints

January 11, 2019

As our business contexts become increasingly complex, the success rate of large scale transformation efforts and projects are rapidly decreasing. Many have been looking for answers to improve their performance and results, often jumping from one method to the next in search of “The Answer”.  It is not uncommon nowadays for people to have studied and attempted to apply the work of different thought leaders like Deming, Goldratt, Senge and Snowden. This often leads to more confusion in an already confusing context.

The seeming similarities between the CynefinTM Framework and the Theory of Constraints are quite obvious. Both were created by thinkers with a foundational knowledge of Physics, both seek to provide insight into systems, both provide focus for meaningful change, and of course, both mention constraints.  What is less obvious is whether they are complementary or contradictory approaches; for example, it is unclear whether the word “constraint” means the same thing in both approaches.

The CynefinTM Framework is primarily a sensemaking typology that enables us to identify the kind of systems we are dealing with and the appropriate responses or approaches for each context. It is not intended to be any sort of simple “recipe book” or step-by-step problem-solving approach. Complex Adaptive Systems are such that any sort of prescribed approach is likely to fail, especially simply copying “Best Practices” that worked for someone else. The CynefinTM Framework provides a way to engage with these complex systems with a pragmatic theory of change:

  • What can we change (in the present)?
  • Out of these, where are we able to monitor the impact of our changes?
  • Out of these, where can we rapidly amplify success and/or recover from failure?

The CynefinTM body of knowledge doesn’t tell one how to answer these questions but can help guide you in sense-making and using your domain knowledge to find answers.

The Theory of Constraints, on the other hand, actually did start out as a more prescriptive method, specifically intended to handle problems in factories that led to late deliveries, high cost, and poor quality. Eli Goldratt’s first book, “The Goal”, tells the story of a factory manager who has 90 days to significantly increase his plant’s profits to avoid it being shut down. He realized that many of the means of traditional management are either of no use or are actively harmful. He, therefore, focused on improving flow by removing physical bottlenecks, or constraints, in his factory to enable success.

Goldratt originally wrote the book partly as marketing for his production planning software company, but he discovered that people were getting good results from simply copying the approach in the book. This piqued his curiosity and led him to abandon the software industry and concentrate instead on, in his words, “how to teach the world to think.”  TOC branched out to look at other types of constraints and created a more generic approach to problem-solving. The TOC Logical Thinking Process is designed to solve any problem by using necessity and sufficiency logic to find the answer to 3 key questions:

  • What to change?
  • What to change to?
  • How to cause the change?

At first the three questions from the CynefinTM Framework and the Logical Thinking Process of TOC seem similar, but are they?

One of the biggest potential disconnects between the two methods is around dealing with complexity. In the CynefinTM Framework, the Complex Domain is where analysis cannot give you a sure answer and the best way forward will often be obscured (as if in a fog) and can only be found through experimentation. But in Goldratt’s last books he embraced the idea of what he called Inherent Simplicity in which a complex system can be understood and the fog blown away to expose a simple underlying approach to management.

While those certainly sound contradictory, we invite you to join Steve and Dave for the upcoming Masterclass Exploration which will show that they are actually very similar and, again, open up the path for complementary uses of the CynefinTM Framework and TOC. This Exploration will explore this relationship, the respective underlying principles, and show how they are fundamentally complementary and can have a catalytic result when used together

I discovered the CynefinTM Framework after practising Theory of Constraints for about 10 years. I knew that TOC was especially good at finding ways to deal with difficult situations, but there still seemed to be problems that defied solution. When I began learning about CynefinTM, it became clearer to me under which conditions different problem solving and management systems worked or didn’t work. It helped me get out of a “Tool War” mindset of “My method is better than yours” and to realize that the context and the method needed to match. All methods work in a context they map to. That, then, led to the realization that the sensemaking of CynefinTM and the methods of TOC were a good match.  What I’m looking forward to in this Exploration is the opportunity to share those thoughts with others. And, I’ve always found that I learn a lot whenever I can interact with people. In this Exploration I’m looking forward to sharing some of what I’ve learned and then learning even more from everyone’s collective insights. – Steve Holt

Click here to register for this event: Cynefin™ and Theory of Constraints:  Explorations with Dave Snowden and Steve Holt, February 20-21, Seattle

Steve wrote a series of guest blogs in 2010 where he also looked at the synergies and interaction between the CynefinTMFramework and Theory of Constraints.

Photo by Greta Farnedi on Unsplash

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About the Cynefin Company

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.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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