Triggering attention in Cynefin

July 30, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 09.25.02.pngCynefin as a framework has always been as much about dynamic movement between domains as it has been about the domains themselves. They were part of the early two by two version published in Knowledge Horizons over a decade ago when I was developing the framework based on a reading of Boisot’s I-Space which again is all about movement and change.

In our New Dynamics article Cynthia and I got a little carried away and created a whole range of shifts with numbers and names, all of which are still valid. Subsequently I narrowed it down a little and really focused on three:

  1. Blue: The natural cadence between complex and complicated in which you experiment with the tightening of constraints. If that produces repeatable results, i.e. a consistent relation between cause and effect, then you continue. You shift from exploration in the complex to exploiting opportunities in the complicated. Then if you don’t get repetition of results, you shift back to the safe-to-fail experimental mode that characterises complexity. That dynamic has a natural cadence linked to organisation type, market conditions etc.
  2. Green: where you have long term stability and little dissent then (and only then) do you shift into the best practice domain of the obvious. Getting back from that domain to any other is very difficult as process conservative will always creep in. Inertia is the main enemy of innovation in most organisations so you need to be very very careful before making this shift.
  3. Yellow: is the shallow dive into chaos, the need to break up existing constraints to allow something novel to emerge. If you don’t keep up the natural cadence of the Blue dynamic then this becomes a means of recover. If the market suddenly shifts then it may be forced on you. Better to take a small hit now than a catastrophic failure, but attention needs to be payed to making sure it is a shallow dive, not a plummeting shift in to the abyss.

So those three were the basics for some time, then more recently I introduced a fourth Grazing Dynamic shown in purple on the diagram. Here the position never stabilises enough for full exploitation. This is the domain of the perpetual beta (or even the perpetual alpha) in software development but it is also a strategic decision. To maintain this dynamic needs a strong focus on granularity and linkages to allow rapid combination and recombination. The dynamic is also at the heart of how you scale success in a complex system so expect a few posts on that in the near future. It is a dynamic that can be forced on you, but also one that you can choose to adopt to gain strategic advantage but the architecture of systems and organisational structure needs to be radically different from the dominant paradigm.

As I drew these it became obvious that there were at least three, possibly four trigger points in which those dynamics intersected. So I have played around with them for the best part of six months and I’m now ready to put them out for scrutiny and comment. The way Cynefin has evolved over the years is multiple inputs from different people, readings and also practice that eventually coalesce into a substantive change or new development. So this is new, it will change, the diagram needs work, but it is now ready for use although the name is not right. I thought about inflection points which isn’t bad but some of them are undulation points and hyper flex is not beyond the bounds of imagination so that doesn’t work. For the moment I am talking about them as trigger points; events where you can ask decision makers to pay more attention and in particular focus on avoiding inattentional bias: more on that in the next few days. So what are the trigger points?

  1. As you shift from the complex to complicated you have to decide if the constraint shift from enabling to governing is really sustainable. If it takes a lot of effort or compromise then you may be in a grazing dynamic rather than a natural cadence. Equally you may not need to keep spinning around the Grazing Dynamic you may be able to stabilise the whole, or some aspect and get sustainable exploitation. So in software where SCRUM really focuses on complex to complicated transitions in software code you might realise that the number of iterations is getting to the point where you really need to start again or open up the architecture. In product marketing you may realise that the overall utility of your product is getting difficult to sustain and you are getting leakage of formerly loyal customers. If that is an ordinary change then you just shift to complex, but it may indicate an overall shift in the market that will force you into Grazing.
  2. When you are at full exploitation you reach a key point at which you have to decide if you can shift to best practice or not. There may still be dissent, not everyone buys in but enforcement can be justified. For example if we have all agreed to drive on the left not the right then there comes a point (and its pretty soon) where driving on the right is no longer a lovable eccentricity but something dangerous to life and limb. I’ve show this as two points A and B. The reason for that is once you make the choice to shift to Best Practice you need to closely monitor for gaming or work arounds, not to punish them but as an indication that you may have made the wrong call. So you need a double take on this one.
  3. Finally if we have done a radical reset because the old stable patterns have started to fail, and we have started to pull ourselves out again then there is a key decision. Was the radical reset caused by our own complacency? If so we go back to the natural cadence, if it was caused by a radical shift in the external world then we need to move to Grazing for a period to ensure we are resilient. Grazing is all about being inefficient enough to be rapidly adaptive or agile.

So that is the initial thinking. A lot more to come on the method side here and it will also link with more work on MassSense and CrowdSensor which are coming along well. Trigger point will also be introduced into the training programme this fall, with events in San Francisco and London already scheduled.

PS: I’m going to stop apologising for periods when I don’t post here.  Just assume I am busy and frustrated.  I really like daily blogging and I keep trying to get back to it.  Next week I am on a walking break but I will try ….



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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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