Liminal Cynefin & ‘control’

April 19, 2019

Screenshot 2019 04 21 at 08 06 49

I was searching for my original known-unknown-unknowable matrix for today’s post and, as you do, came across a variation of Liminal Cynefin I used at an event to talk about the whole issue of control within organisations.   I think it was one of those slides that I put together at a conference where I was getting irritated with a preceding speaker who was either peddling snake oil and/or was fatally naive.  It was probably at an Agile conference as the large red arrow has SAFe and Six Sigma written on it; more on that later.  It’s why I like to tune into a conference before speaking and I’m generally changing and adding to the slides (or notes if I am going without slides) right up to the point where I arrive on stage.  Either way, it was interesting and available so consider this a supplement to the St David’s series and I’ll get back to that tomorrow.

Again I am using Cynefin here in the context of what I long ago called the principle of Bounded Applicability; with some exceptions few things are wrong, but most are right within boundaries.  To put it another way, they are context-specific not context-free.   The question of what if anything is context-free I’ll leave for another day as that one is still worrying me.  The great value of Cynefin is that it provides a quick way to understand, and more critically, apply that principle.   I always emphasise that Cynefin was designed as a conflict resolution framework as much as one for decision-making – both aspects of sense-making.

So in this use of Cynefin, I was looking at three such aspects and one major danger:

How do we deal with exceptions or deviance from the norm?

  • In the obvious domain there is little excuse for deviance.  In the UK we should drive on the left-hand side of the road, in Germany on the right.  But if a child runs onto the road in front of us, then I would make an exception.   Not allowing any variation results in a ‘jobs worth’ mentality that sooner or later ends up on the edge of chaos and a catastrophic failure.
  • For the complicated domain exceptions are more likely, experts with the right qualifications know that few rules or processes are universal and mandating behaviour based on analysis in the centre of a normal distribution missed the fat tails that are more likely in practice.  Here exceptions should allow if they are transparent, ie they can be subject to some type of review and the decision maker knows they can be held accountable.  Falling back to the rule compliance to avoid blame is all to frequent these days and that will result in a shift to the inauthentic aspect of disorder.  Both of the ordered domains can be handled by process and shouldn’t involve senior decision-makers on a day-to-day basis.
  • In the complex domain by contrast every exception needs to be visible fast at a senior level as they may represent opportunities.  I sometimes term this finding the 17% which is a reference to inattentional blindness; we need minorities who are seeing things differently before they are homogenised into groupthink.  Something that MassSense was designed to handle on a near real-time basis by shifting to the liminal aspect of the chaotic domain.
  • Finally, in the chaotic domain itself where we are in crisis, exceptions are also important either to kill off fast or to extemporise solutions as they become visible.  Again the need for real-time feedback and cognitively diverse situational assessment is key.  We will be launching something to measure cognitive diversity in the near future by the way.

Planning and Control

  • If you are in chaos (not the liminal aspect) then it’s all about control and little about planning.  Not only that you haven’t got time to be nice or consultative outside of a very small group (give is a good rule of thumb) so the imposition of control is likely to be draconian in nature.  The real value comes in working out what you impose and it shouldn’t be a final solution; the essence of good crisis management is to create enough constraints that you shift the problem into the liminal area of complexity which means some patterns are starting to emerge.  At that point, you can shift into safe-to-fail very short cycle experiments (this can be augmented by the use of IT) to see which future pathways are coherent enough to explore; and you should never just go with one of those.
  • Obvious is about control but it is achieved through creating and mandating processes, the delegation of authority and so on.  Both middle management and senior executives monitor for deviance but they have different purposes.  The former is focused on compliance the latter on checking if it’s time to change.   If you are getting lots of reports of deviance it may be that the rules and processes are no longer relevant to the current context and need a radical rethink; a shift diagonally into the complex domain to allow for the re-discovery of what is sustainable.   The predictability here is both a benefit and a danger.
  • Peer review and acceptance is a key aspects of control in the complicated domain.  Planning and control can be far less explicit because the basics of what is needed are embedded in professional practice and training.   Ethical and other standards are key and the imposition of hard targets can create compromises here – think of the failure to report minor non-compliance in manufacturing which often arises from rigid targets.  Get that and when things go they will do so catastrophically.  This is a major area of concern in the modern organisation where several decades of excessive codification and measurement have destroyed professional standards and practices that have evolved over centuries to stabile sustainable and resilient decision processes.  Blind trust in experts is equally stupid by the way.
  • In a complex system, we can only manage the evolutionary potential of the here and now.  Planning is at best a sense of direction rather than a set of goals and targets. Rapid improvisation using and reusing what you already have (exaptation and bricolage) are key and the ability to rapidly mobilise cognitively diverse networks to support decision making vital.   I’ve been arguing for years that we need to create networks for ordinary purposes in times of stability that we can activate for extraordinary needs in times of instability and rapid change.  It’s too late when it’s happened.  Rapid feedback loops, fast failure and learning, and parallel experimentation are all key.  The plans and the controls will emerge as you do that and you can then shift into the liminal domain for codification and scalability.  But you really don’t want improvisation in the ordered domains – total waste of energy.

Measurement and Targets

  • KPIs abound in government and industry alike but they are always focused on outcomes and pre-determined pathways with little attention to the unintended consequences in the complex domain.  In the obvious domain they work, are valuable and necessary.  But they need to be easy to understand, few in number and not require constant reference to manuals or half-remembered training.  The use of ritual boundary crossings is one way to achieve the same effect with less codification.
  • In the complicated domain targeting goals is OK but needs to be generic enough for compromise and variation.  Standards that create boundaries within which variation is permitted are a good idea and this is the one domain where alignment and common purpose and goals are useful as they act as a constraint on deviant behaviour.  Too many targets and you lose respect, especially when those targets are created by bureaucrats or consultants (actually they then to be the same) who lack experience in the context and/or membership of the profession.  I had an argument recently with someone over this in terms of medical targets where he said the ones they had come from nurses.  I asked him which nurses volunteered for the task and after he went away to check he came back and said he got my point.  The nurses with a high reputation for care and empathy had better things to do.  Anyone in a professional group who volunteers to write standards or rules should be looked at with extreme suspicion.  Better to drag some people kicking and screaming into a mediated session where they can create something minimal.
  • For the complex domain we can only really measure the direction and speed of travel from the present.  This is something I have termed as vector measure and they are linked to the whole vector theory of change that I and colleagues are working on at the moment.  A sense of direction can be achieved by visionary goals, but their use has to be with care which is why I have placed them in the liminal zone of chaos.  For every story you hear about a visionary leader setting seemingly impossible targets that resulted in beneficial change, there are a thousand who failed; enough people have done it that some are bound to succeed.

The big red arrow

So to the one major danger which is all too common; faced with complexity people don’t absorb it they try to eliminate it.  The fluidity of Agile is far too scary so we get SAFe, evolved practices are not explicit enough and BPR hasn’t worked all the time so we get Six Sigma and so on.  The premature codification of complex issues into neat and tidy solutions is a large consultancy disease and a fertile field for snake oil salespeople and charlatans.  Most mission statements and (God help us) definitions of Mindset are little more than a collection of meaningless platitudes, the lowest common denominator of workshops based on keeping people happy rather than enabling learning.  There are better ways ….

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