So what. Tell me who has used it, and how I can make it work

December 5, 2011

I am frequently asked to demonstrate to my commercially-minded, tight-budgeted, hard-nosed, doubting-Thomased clients that there is profitable proof of pragmatic application of the insight arising from the narrative research and the Cynefin framework.

This is often difficult to do because of the issues of commercial confidentiality and the shear range of contexts involved. However, the volume and universality of the request takes this topic beyond a weak signal so a response is required. I provide a variety of case studies but one tool seems to resonate more than the others, and I am sharing that with you today.

In World War I, TE Lawrence worked with Faisal and affiliated tribes to defeat the Ottoman-German Alliance in the Middle East. Such was the success of the 1916 Arab Revolt that the British War Office feared that Lawrence might be assassinated. Consequently, Lawrence was asked to codify his experiences to ensure distribution of his learning with other British officers entering the region. The output was the document ’27 Articles.’

So insightful, practical and pragmatic has been this document for management of counter-insurgency, that the US Military requested a modified version be written for field commanders about to take up positions Iraq and Afghanistan.

The revised version was written by Dr David Kilcullen, an Australian academic infantryman with research and practical experience of counter-insurgency in Indonesia. He was tasked to crystallise his conclusions, and build upon that of Lawrence. Not to be outdone (what would you expect of an Aussie sponsored by the US), Kilcullen surpassed Lawrence by issuing the ’28 Articles.’

To me, this document is an excellent example of how to manage a complex adaptive system, where safe-to-fail experiments are essential, but where the level of tolerated failure is fluctuating and potentially fatal.

In our strategy generation process, the client identifies which of their challenges are relatively more Complex (and on the Complex/Chaos border). They then review the 28 Articles and agree which of the 28 they could localise and would aid in the resolution of the issues before them.

Clients find this tool to be extremely practical, pragmatic and applicable with a direct line to sight to the Cynefin framework all of which adds to the credibility of the framework. That it ties back to Snowden’s early DARPA-funded research is a neat bonus.

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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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