The Origins of Cynefin - Part 7

July 13, 2010

It's time to bring this series of seven posts on the origins of Cynefin to a close. I started it a few months ago when I needed to update an old version of the model to cover off a post on knowledge sharing across silos. Over the next few months I kept notes, but was finally prompted to complete the series by Cynthia's excellent post on her confluence model (the inheritor of the original work she contributed). In parallel with this I have seen an increasing number of interesting uses and citations of the model; this interesting post on the application of the model to humanitarian response being a good example. I've also seen some bad ones and have had to be firm in preventing the name Cynefin being used for something wholly other.

In my last post I took the model from its form in Complex Acts of Knowing to the version that arose with Cynthia's collaboration in New Dynamics of Strategy. The major changes during that period was the addition of the tetrahedrons (or seeing eyes as Cynthia calls them), the introduction of additional dynamics (over and above the Dynamic Learning Cycle which came from Complex Acts) and some discussions of different types of boundaries. That included methods for the social construction of Cynefin so as to create the distinction between sense-making frameworks and categorisation models. That social construction and the emergent nature of the boundaries to my mind mitigates or possibly removes the dangers of boundaries preventing movement; the very nature of the Cynefin framework is to allow people to move across and through boundaries, but using the transition to realise that they need to think differently.

So what happened next? Well Cynthia and I continued to work together, but that work focused on our Singapore project and V2.0 of SenseMaker® Explorer. The narrative side of our work also continued together with several experimental ideas on networks to which I want to return when I have the bandwidth to cope. The defining article of that period is another Kurtz/Snowden piece namely Brambles in a Thicket.

Despite that focus (as we were building Cognitive Edge) I continued to work on Cynefin in presentations and workshops, and also in extended discussions with various academics who were starting to adopt it. This is the period where citations go up rapidly. Key to what happened next is caught in this extract from New Dynamics.

People are often confused by the apple-orange nature of the four Cynefin domains: they say, “Why not known, knowable, somewhat knowable and un-knowable?” or, “Why not simple, complicated, complex and chaotic?” The distinction is intentional. The Cynefin framework is a phenomenological frame- work, meaning that what we care most about is how people perceive and make sense of situations in or- der to make decisions; perception and sense-making are fundamentally different in order versus un- order. ….

….We are currently engaged in further conceptual and experimental work to more strongly de- velop the separation of ontological from epistemo- logical aspects of the framework in order to root the framework in a variety of scientific disciplines while maintaining the essential interweaving of ontology and epistemology, which appears to be an essential aspect of human sense-making in practice

The first paragraph of this quotes reflects the agreed position at the time, the second reflected concerns about consistency. Now one of the dangers of a training in philosophy is that if you find a paradox you want to resolve it by changing the game; you are trained to create coherence intellectual constructs. As a result I put a lot more effort into resolving the ontological (the way things are), epistemological (the way we know things and make decisions) and the phenomenological (the way we perceive and socially enact meaning) differences. You can see that the early resolution was to say that model was both ontological and epistemological and the reason for that was phenomenological. Now OK, it sounded good at the time but I started to get some bruises trying to defend it, in part I think because I was not very happy with it in the first place.

The net result was published for the first time in Multi-ontology sense-making; a new simplicity in decision making. This was the first time I removed known and knowable, and replaced them with simple and complicated in a published version of the model although it was not the first time I had used them in discussion/presentation. That meant that the model was now primarily a way to make ontological distinctions. That worked well with the new definition I had created based on constraints between the three ontological states of order (system constrains agents), chaos (agents unconstrained) and complex (agents and system co-evolve). It also gave new life to cynefin dynamics which could now be described (still using the tetrahedrons) as constraint relaxation or tightening.

It then followed that each ontological state, should be matched with an epistemological response. The social construction of the model created a common phenomenological perspective with enough coherence to enable decision making. From that point the model was consistent to an academic audience, and it also made more practical sense.

One of the things it allowed me to do was to talk about the way in which ontology (the way things are), epistemology (the way we know things) and phenomenology (the way we perceive things) interact. The way I did this is to ask people to image three discs that constantly grind up against each other. (see picture at top), each disc representing one of the ologies. In an ideal world all three would be aligned, but in the real world they are always misaligned to some extent. The more we move to the ideal (or the pseudo-mystical) the more we allow the disconnects with reality to emerge. Now for me this was wrong, for others reality seems an optional extra.

It was this model that formed the basis of the HBR article (written with Mary Boone) with the exception of the actual representation. We ended up there with a three dimensional picture with a rather good cliff. Its OK, but after that I stayed with my four simple lines and a squiggle! The other aspect of the article was the reclaiming of the whole known-unknowns labels of part 3 and a more comprehensive and tabular list of behaviours for Leaders.


It's interesting times as they say, the use of the framework is increasing and in the main for the good. That will generate some variety and also new material and experiences. For me, I am working on a more nuanced model of the complex and chaotic domains that may be a new model, or may modify the original. With the increasing capability of SenseMaker®, methods to use large groups to construct the model on line linked to associated formal monitoring methods will allow automation of its modeling functions. More work is also needed on unorder, which has positive uses as yet to be described. As with its whole history this will end up as a fluid mix of theory and practice: Praxis after all makes perfect.

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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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