The utility of the Cynefin Framework

October 12, 2010

Some time ago I concluded that we have entered a new era, where many theories rooted in reductionism have maximised their limits of usefulness in supporting further innovation. Kuhn’s paradigm shift [1] is once again upon us – not just in an abstract sense, but in the very way we see the world operating around us [2].

One of the very helpful things about the Cynefin Framework is that it provides a straightforward and engaging approach to make this point concrete, through individual signification of experience.

Cognitive Edge’s naturalised sensemaking approach incorporates philosophies, models, and practices. Much of these revolve around the use of narrative, but I think at a higher level, the practices fall into a class of practices I would consider reflective. By my definition of it, reflective practices offer people productive opportunities to question unquestioned assumptions, talk about topics that are generally unspoken, and often result in a reframing of perspective. Here I favour Papert and Turkle’s term “epistemological pluralism”[3] to describe the fact that the Cognitive Edge approach accepts that the road to knowledge and understanding is inherently filled with a multiplicity of perspectives that, to be understood, must be reflected on by the groups of people for whom they hold significance.

In my practice I find that while reflective practices are essential, they can also be very threatening to the clients we present them to. In particular, we have both found that in reflecting, power relations are often threatened or disturbed and this can result in behaviour that, at least from a rational perspective, seems strange and sometime contradictory or counterproductive to the client’s stated goals. Issues we have encountered here may include the client questioning the validity of utility of the methods we propose, or even the approach we suggest even after they have signed the contract which states up front what our programme might entail.

All of this makes me more curious, as it suggests that there is more going on in our experience than we may be aware of. I have found that tools like the Cynefin Framework and other Cognitive Edge processes can be helpful to uncover these zones of experience.

[1] Kuhn, Thomas S. 1970. The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[2] Davis, Ian. 2009. The new normal. The McKinsey Quarterly March, 2009.
[3] Turkle and Papert. Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete. Journal of Mathematical Behavior (1992) vol. 11 (1)

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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.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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