The inside scope: Cynefin’s case studies with Anna Panagiotou (2 of 2)

February 8, 2022

For the first blog in this mini-series in which I interview Beth Smith, click here. Beth’s interview focused more on specific case study projects, some of which I’ve compiled as part of Citizen Engagement & Democratic Innovation programme’s case studies. So dive into some diverse case studies to get some inspiration for what your own project could look like. 

This post is about my chat with Anna Panagiotou. Anna has been a wealth of information for me to turn to as I have been finding my feet since starting work with The Cynefin Company just a year ago. So I wanted to ask her what it’s like facilitating projects within The Cynefin Company, from seedling ideas to applying the insights.

What is your experience of getting people’s projects up and running? What do you like about that process?

I especially like the connection part, when you see questions and aspects of sensemaking that were formerly disparate, come together, and see how they connect. That along with helping people to do things that they wanted to do for a long time but were hindered by not knowing how. 

The people who come to us want to connect with those doing the on-the-ground work, and don’t see things in black and white, either/or. We’re giving them the tools, so it’s wonderful to see them get excited about it. There’s a sense of joy of possibility and discovery. 

What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered? 

There’s two big challenges. One is to pay basic lip service to complexity and call the same things by a new name, but essentially, keep doing exactly what you’ve been doing before. The other day, a client described this perfectly: “I don’t want SurveyMonkey with triangles.” This can happen if you approach a different tool in exactly the same way as you’ve approached things before. The software isn’t going to do everything for you. It offers capacities and possibilities (affordances if you want to use the technical term) and it makes certain things easier. But it’s not going to force you to do things a certain way, you have to do it yourself. 

And most importantly, the second challenge: you’ve got your stories, you’ve got your data, and now what? The tool is not going to draw out insights and put them into action for you. You have to do it and do it with your team, organisation, community—and you have to do it in a way that works with your context. We can’t help that much with getting buy-in from the wider organisation. 

Is there any advice that you would give to people in relation to these challenges? 

I would give a piece of advice that is included in the Virtual Quickstart, but people tend to brush it off. Think about all those things in advance, don’t jump into planning or designing the SenseMaker collector itself. Plan and design getting buy-in from whoever’s relevant from the start because you might want to get community members, for example, involved in designing it. 

This is part of why I’m excited we’re focusing more on the methods. Hopefully it will make it easier to help people co-create the approach, but also approach the patterns and stories and generate insights and intervention ideas together with the group of people impacted by the changes. It will also be helpful in doing things in a live, ongoing way, rather than gravitating towards static approaches. This is how you explore the complex space; the data and the patterns are there to help you but they’re not a substitute for action, you have to decide how to apply them in your context and then go and try it out. 

What advice would you give to those people who are kind of approaching it like SurveyMonkey with triangles? What would you tell them in order to help them take a more Cynefin Company approach? 

When people are shown alternative ways of doing things, the vast majority of them want to try them out. They’ve come to us because the other ways aren’t working for everything they need to do. And when they get the logic of how and why things are different, they jump on it. Some might have challenges such as convincing quantitative researchers who spend years developing the perfect Likert scale (which can be great in some contexts!). But they find ways to work with those people in my experience. 

Sometimes you end up with things that are not perfect, but that’s not the goal, the goal is to take action, to probe so you can sense and then respond. 

Thanks for sharing that wealth of experience and insights Anna! 

Check out my other blogs in this series: here and here. And stay tuned for a blog coming very soon on How to Create A Citizen Sensor Network.

Featured image: Bud Helisson on Unsplash

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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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