The table napkin test

July 31, 2015

One of the golden rules of sense-making is that any framework or model that can’t be drawn on a table napkin from memory has little utility. The reason for this is pretty clear, if people can use something without the need for prompts or guides then there are more likely to use it and as importantly adapt it. Models with multiple aspects, more than five aspects (its a memory limit guys live with it) or which require esoteric knowledge are inherently dependency models. They are designed to create a dependency on the model creator. One of the things that I like about complexity is that life becomes a lot simpler once you get the dispositional-causal difference. Cynefin evolved within that constraint; I never allowed it to develop to the point where it some form or another it could not be quickly sketched and used to make sense of the world to allow people to act in it. The italicised phrase being what is all about: moving forward through action under conditions of uncertainty. You can never know enough, but you can know enough to act.

Switching tack for the moment, I’ve always liked Stafford Beer but I really wish he had been born around twenty years later when the science would have caught up with some of his intuitions. The Viable Systems Model (VSM) for example is clearly within the cybernetic framework of causality but it is desperately trying to break away from those constraints. It does not pass the table napkin test although it is much loved by reductionist consultants. This may upset a few readers, but when people couple complexity theory with VSM it is one of my warning signs for someone who likes the language of complexity but really has not internalised the meaning. I find VSM valuable for its original insight, but not for current use. Others are far worse, the SAFe one is a classic example of a over complicated and simplistic framework designed for accreditation revenue and consultancy dependency and most of the large consultancy models and frameworks are similar, they are designed to reduce simplicity through complication.

The other advantage of drawing on the back of a table napkin is that the paper restricts you, you do broad stokes not fine detail. I always like teaching with chalk for the same reason; writing with chalk slows you to the natural pace of the class. Drawing also produces variety and sudden insight. Yesterday’s post came from six months of active experimentation on butcher paper, notebooks and yes, table napkins over dinner. Looking back some of my fondest moments with Max Boisot were when we say in cafes with paper table cloths and spend hours sketching, talking and drinking. Well Max was teetotal so he avoided alcohol and took away the artefacts in consequence!

So apply the table napkin test before you take up any new method, model or framework. Also avoid mixed ontologies. Combining VSM with complexity is ontologically incompatible, let alone epistemologically. However we can be inspired by it and a openly confess its influence.

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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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