The evolution of Cynefin over a decade

February 7, 2010

I’m working on a history of the Cynefin model. The number if citations and mentions seems to have gone up markedly in the last few months which is pleasing. However with growing use there are some misunderstandings of the history, and odd claim for influence which has surprised me! The sequence goes something like this:

  • Warwick University seminar where I first met Max Boisot and started to reflect on his I-Space model (I can’t remember when, but it was circa1998-1999)
  • Opening chapter of Liberating Knowledge published in 1999 has the model in two-by-two form with the vertical dimension between Expert and Non-expert, the horizontal between tacit and explicit. Focus on knowledge management and communities of practice
  • Chapter in Knowledge Horizons by Despres & Chauvel 2000 first use of the name Cynefin, two by two matrix shown below
  • Complex Acts of Knowing in 2002 now up to five domains (too many people succumb to the temptation forget the fifth domain) and formally linked to complex adaptive systems theory
  • The year 2000 also saw a more advanced form in Cynefin, A Sense of Time and Place. A presented paper at an Aston Univeristy conference which was a planned debate with Nonaka.
  • Infuriating meeting in IBM research with Stephen Haeckel author of Adaptive Enterprise produces the sense-X-respond and X-sense-respond labels. It was originally designed to try and explain to a linear systems thinker that there was more than one valid approach, but it stuck.
  • Work with Cynthia Kurtz in New Dynamics of Strategy, published in 2003, adds the tetrahedrons. I initially opposed that, but I was wrong to do so. Cynthia also created the butterfly stamping exercise around this time.
  • Further work with Boisot on a still to be published joint paper introduces a planar version of model (which appeared in a modified form in the HBR article)
  • Parallel work removes the confusion of ontology with epistemology (domains labels move from known-knowable-complex-chaotic to simple-complicated-complex-chaotic. Published 2005 in Multi-ontology Sense-Making
  • Addition around four years ago of the catastrophic fold between simple and chaotic.
  • HBR 2007 article A Leaders Guide to Decision Making brings respectability and an Academy award with the aid of the original contributions of Mary Boone to leadership
  • Application to project management in various discussions with AGILE & SCRUM communities, extended use by others in other fields. I particularly like it’s use to understand the role of religion in the Bush White House in this article.

So Max in many a conversation had a profound influence (and still does). Cynthia made one key addition to the model and innumerable contributions to the ideas and thinking around it. Along with Sharon Darwent and Warwick Holder she also made significant contributions to the development of workshop methods. More recently Steve Bealing and Michael Cheveldave have further extended that practice, along with our many clients and network members.

Now I may have missed something out, I may have failed to cover some things off properly, someone out there may want to claim a contribution I have not acknowledged above. Any questions or requests please here or by email and I will then write it up more fully.

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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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