Origins of Cynefin: By any other name would (it) smell as sweet?

April 9, 2010

201004100744.jpg A very confusing thing happened today. Google alert and a few friends pointed to this interesting post by Harold Jarche. It picks up on on another post by Clay Shirky (I had the great pleasure of spending a day with him and others in New York a few weeks ago) on the collapse of complex business models. Clay’s post is excellent but it uses the word complex where I and others involved with complex adaptive systems theory would use complicated. Now that is common, and the analysis and recommendations in Clay’s post are spot on (and I will build on them in a future post). Harold made a similar point on language together with recognising that solutions will involve organisational designs based on simple units, connected in a network. I don’t fully agree with Harold’s suggestion that this type of structure cannot be managed directly, although at a micro-level he is correct. However, that is for another day.

The confusing thing was a comment by Stephen Downes. Harold had used my separation (which I derived from reading Cilliers with his wonderful metaphor of an airplane and a mayonnaise) of complex and complicated from the Cynefin framework. Stephen made the valid point that the term complex can stand on its own without Cynefin; in practice when talking about complexity I only use the framework itself in about 50% of cases. But then he goes on to say: I’m inclined not to cite the Cynefin framework until it gets a proper name. ‘Cynefin’? Really, now. I decided to use a probe (sorry to use Cynefin terminology Stephen) and tweeted @Downes has no poetry in soul along with the quote. The resulting exchange was more confusing. Stephen understanding protested my comments on the contents of his soul, but having been given the full definition (something he could have obtained from the Wikipedia article or any published material) said that “the place of your multiple belongings” was meaningless and its use is just a distraction that it obscures rather than clarifies. Notably he failed to answer my question if he was only prepared to accept English names or acronyms. I didn’t ask what type of mental model is required to refuse to cite something because you don’t like the name; that would have been unfair.

I am grateful to Stephen however, he prompted me to write this in the series on the origins of the framework. Now I originally got the idea of the name from the preface to Kyffin WIlliams: The Land and the Sea (Gomer 1998) and these are the words I used in the first article to use the name:

Cynefin is a Welsh word with no direct equivalent in English. As a noun it is translated as habitat, as an adjective familiar, but dictionary definitions fail to do it justice. A better, and more poetic, definition comes from the introduction to a collection of paintings by Kyffin Williams, an artist whose use of oils creates a new awareness of the mountains of his native land and their relationship to the spirituality of its people: “It describes that relationship: the place of your birth and of your upbringing, the environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatised.” (Sinclair 1998). It differs from the Japanese concept of Ba, which is a “shared space for emerging relationships” (Nonaka & Konno 1998) in that it links a community into its shared history – or histories – in a way that paradoxically both limits the perception of that community while enabling an instinctive and intuitive ability to adapt to conditions of profound uncertainty. In general, if a community is not physically, temporally and spiritually rooted, then it is alienated from its environment and will focus on survival rather than creativity and collaboration. In such conditions, knowledge hoarding will predominate and the community will close itself to the external world. If the alienation becomes extreme, the community may even turn in on itself, atomising into an incoherent babble of competing self interests.

I hadn’t read that for a few years, but it probably stands as my best attempt, in latter years I tended to shorten it a bit. Now I can’t see how that obscures the meaning, unless you are the sort of person without poetry in your soul! Even the editors of the HBR finally saw the point, having wanted (i) to reduce it too a familiar two by two matrix and (ii) give it an anglo-saxon name. I sense a little bit of NIH syndrome here, and possibly a implicit cultural filtering with a tendency to reducing rather than absorbing complexity.

My original reasons for the name were as follows:

  • Names are important, they impart power, anything of value deserves more than a phrase or acronym
  • A name which requires a story to explain its meaning avoids confusion or association with existing concepts (the whole point of Harold’s post after all so its ironic that Stephen didn’t see it). There are many uses of complexity for example, so a name which includes that word will trigger associated meanings that are likely to obscure rather than clarify meaning.
  • Using a language understood by less than three million people (at the time) will increase peoples attention, it will activate curiosity linked to novelty. How many successful brands are a phrase or an acronym?
  • I was preparing for a debate with Nonaka at the time and decided that his use of a Japanese word with spiritual significance (much better than SECI) would given him the advantage, so I countered
  • Finally, and most importantly, the fact that there was not a direct equivalent in English was important, it thus required a narrative to explain its meaning. A narrative pulls people into meaning or understanding in a way that a few familiar words will not.

So that is where it came from. You probably do have to have poetry in your soul to understand it, along with a realisation that names are not the same thing as a definitions. It doesn’t obscure, it makes you think, challenges literal definitions and allows deeper meaning to emerge.

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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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