The Origins of Cynefin - Part 2

July 7, 2010

Back in March I started a series on the origins of Cynefin. The first post described the original inspiration from Boisot's I-Space model and there were a few side postings, one on the importance of the name and then with regrettable necessity, a longer post dealing with Tom's attempt to abscond with the name (and brand) for something that was inauthentic as best, unprofessional at worst. Since then Cynthia (who made a significant contribution to Cynefin) has published some of her own thoughts about that period and her confluence model, aspects of which were brought into Cynefin and which she is now developing further. I commended (and commend) readers to that material. I plan a fuller commentary on her post next week, but for the moment I need to move the history on to bring the story uptodate with the point at which Cynthia got involved, which will take a couple of posts at least, possibly three.

Part 1 of this history saw the idea move from the three dimension I-Space to a quadrant model which contrasted levels of abstraction with rule based and ideation cultures, an idea I took up again in the posts of the last two days. From that point three major changes took place

  1. The realisation that the nascent model was far more than a knowledge and learning model, but could provide a multi-ontology approach to decision making by bringing complexity theory into play. That allowed ontology (the nature of things) to determine epistemology (the way we know things).
  2. Partly through developing processes for the social construction of the framework, partly through reflection, the realisation that phenomenology (the way we perceived things) had to be considered which resulted in the domain of disorder.
  3. In further extended conversations at the Academy of Management (where the price of an award for original work in KM was to present the ideas to active criticism from Max Boisot and J C Spender) the incorporation of the catastrophic fold between the simple (then “known”) domains and chaos.

Screen shot 2010-07-07 at 23.33.02.pngAs part of that examination (and I use the word advisedly) Max suggested representing Cynefin an three dimensions, and bringing René Thom's catastrophe theory into play. A lot of coffee and conversation later the a picture emerged of Cynefin as a plane, with a fold at the base and the boundaries between the domains as valleys or ridges with a messy disordered hollow, or peak or possibly a diaphragm pulsing somewhere in the middle.

Now I should make it clear that I have changed that original picture a bit, when we drew it Order was not separated into Simple and Complicated it was shown as a single domain. In many ways in that form it was a pure ontological model. Critically it established that the boundary between order and chaos was significantly different from that between the other domains where the boundaries were more blurred and transition might only be retrospectively coherent.

So, at that meeting in Washington two models existed, the quadrants of my first post in these series which related to knowledge and learning and the above model which represented the ontology of systems and the first real incorporation of complexity theory. From that point onwards the model went through the following steps (which will be covered in future posts)

  1. A merging of the knowledge model with the above to create a five domain model (known, knowable, complex, chaotic, disordered) with the catastrophic fold shown in a stylized form at the bottom and shown in Complex Acts of Knowing.
  2. The incorporation of the sense-respond nomenclature
  3. The distinction between a sense-making framework (data precedes framework) and a categorisation model (framework precedes data) together with formal methods to socially construct Cynefin from the narratives of an organisations past and possible futures
  4. The addition of the tetrahedrons (Cynthia's “seeing eye” model) and at this point we see the publication of The New Dynamics of Strategy which was the first to two articles co-authored with Cynthia
  5. Work with Cynthia to use metaphors to describe the different boundary states which also saw the use of the framework to create a model (and the difference is important).
  6. The separation of ontology from epistemology with known and knowable becoming simple and complicated which was first published here but was also the base of the HBR article with Mary Boone A Leaders Guide to Decision Making that article also reclaimed the idea of known unknowns which had come in many years earlier and had to be abandoned after is adoption by Donald Rumsfeld, but more of that in a future post.

Now I should say that I still like the planar model above a lot, and over the years I have tried to move back to it several times, but its not easy to draw. I'm still thinking about it, as I have another major development which looks at different types of complexity and aspects of chaos which may involve a new framework, or possibly can work within the above. I'm still thinking about that ….

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