The quiddity of Cynefin

January 18, 2018

For those not familiar with it, quiddity is not about games played by wizards (although for all I know it may be the origin of Rawlings imagination) but a term from scholastic philosophy meaning ‘what it is’. It comes from the literal translation of Aristotle greek to ti en einai which is literally translated as ’the what it was to be’. It is about what things of the same kind have in common. It also has a legal meaning of to quibble and (I was reminded when I looked it up) is used in Hamlet’s graveyard speech in respect of lawyers: “Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures”.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the scholastics, preferring Aristotle to Plato and Aquinas to the neoplatonist hypocrite Augustine of Hippo. But in this case I want to use it to start a process of defining what is the essence of Cynefin as a framework without (sic) quibbling.

A lot of value of Cynefin has been people picking it up and using it in many different ways. Some of those I agree with, some I don’t a very few I attempt to correct. The variation in use, from a Downing Street staffer using it to understand the role of religion in the Bush Whitehouse to a discussion of software testing techniques, is a tribute to its utility. I don’t want to disrupt that so I keep myself in check as much as possible. Over the past decade I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have asserted variations of “look that may be interesting and Cynefin may have inspired it, but it isn’t Cynefin so call it something different”. Only once has that produced a violent reaction, what I refer to as the “poor old Tom” exchange. My original inspiration for Cynefin came from Boisot’s I-Space but I never claimed to have created a better I-space; I acknowledged by source (and over time sources) and moved on.

So what is the essence, the quiddity of Cynefin?

  1. It is a framework not a model. I didn’t understand that until I got the commentary on the Academy of Management award for the HBR paper. A model seeks to represent reality, a framework is a way of looking, a way of making sense which is very different
  2. It is a typology not a taxonomy, although I consider the primary identification of order-complex and chaotic to be clear categories with phrase shifts between them other people disagree and the use of Cynefin is not dependent on it.  So in terms of essence, typology is the key point.
  3. It has five domains, disorder is often neglected or confused with chaos but it is either a transitionary domain, or more frequently the domain of not knowing which type of system you are in – something I always label as inauthentic.  Cynefin, for the avoidance of doubt, does not have five quadrants; I worry about people’s education when I see that.
  4. The boundary between Obvious and Chaotic is sometimes labeled as complacency and is represented as a catastrophic fold (in the sense of Them), a sudden unexpected collapse from what appeared to be a steady state.
  5. Chaos is not a permanent state, it is transitory.   Entered accidentally it is catastrophic and someone will soon impose order.  Entered deliberately for innovation of mass sense-making it is valuable, but requires considerable energy to maintain.  Most situations classify as Obvious, Complicated or Complex (or combinations thereof)
  6. It can be used to describe reality, our knowledge of reality or our perception of reality.  The real value comes when you use all of them and check for linkages, but any use is legitimate.
  7. The boundary conditions and dynamic cross of boundaries is as important as the domains and is now also expressed in the new Liminal version – there are only two liminal boundaries, Order-Chaos is catastrophic and Obvious to Complicated is a question of degree.

I think that is it, but welcome comments


PS: I’ve used the black swan as an opening picture in part to remind people that in the original meaning black swans were never exceptional. Popper in a lecture once said that we should not define whiteness as part of the essence of what a swan was, as if we encounter a similar bird with black plumage it would still be a swan. Taleb somewhat changed the meaning but I like to remind people of the origin.



PPS: Tomorrow I’ll return to the history of Cynefin. I’m also theming posts this week with pictures from my daily walks around the coast from the Cabbage Patch.




Recent Posts

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.


< Prev

Origins & acknowledgements

It was satisfying to find my name on Brian Castellani’s updated map of the Complexity ...

More posts

Next >

Phronēsis in Cynefin

I’ve talked about some of the intellectual origins of Cynefin and yesterday addressed the question ...

More posts

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram