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Unfolding complex situations resembles onion peeling

September 27, 2010

As I was saying yesterday, during the last five years, I have used the Cynefin model as the basic template to introduce complexity to public officers, so they could better understand the background of issues related to decision making under uncertainty, organizational culture and higher-order change.

One common thing in those cases was that we had to unfold the complex situation at hand until its very essence, so we could ‘see’ most of the different sides of which it was comprised. This unfolding reminds me the experience of peeling onions. I actually think that complex problems do resemble onions; you have to reach to their heart. Of course, one can peel them until the heart is revealed, while another can cut them all the way through. My wife tells me that using the knife makes her cry more than peeling does. On the other hand, holding the onion while peeling it, permits you to ‘see’ it as a whole. Again, I think the decision is a matter of habit (and a learned skill), but also of a different scope; for example, cutting is meaningless if you want to make a barbeque souvlaki (kebab).

To get back to the Cynefin model, “peeling” a situation or a problem and placing the folds on the Cynefin template provides meaningful information. To start with, it reveals the way(s) in which a group of people think that different folds of a complex problem should be treated. In this case, the folds should be as many as possible or, in other words, we have to peel the whole onion. Moreover, the process itself permits people to see their usual way – pattern of relating, getting into dialogue, reaching conclusions (or not) and managing (or not) unfamiliar or difficult situations.

On the other hand, Cynefin can be of great help even if the problem at hand cannot be unfolded to its very heart, due to the lack either of time or of intention. In such cases, the overall distribution of the emerged properties on the 4+1 domains can reveal a higher-order pattern, which is usually fundamental for the system examined. It refers to the main way of collective perception, relation and action within this system. For example, if the participants were asked (indirectly of course) to name three of their major targets or problems and the skills they should employ or need to meet them and use tags of a different color for their choices, the result could be very revealing.

I remember one such case in an industrial business setting, where most of the middle and higher officers had placed their problems (red tags) mainly on the complex domain. They were referring to communication and sense-making problems they had with the front-line workers. However, the skills and tools (green tags) they were using to resolve these problems were rather related to the simple or complicated domain: rules, orders and compensation algorithms (see the figure).

This kind of dichotomy between the type of problems and the skills / tools used was definitely a discovery for them. They realized that they were not facing the problem “where” it was. Instead, they were trying to “escape” to a different field, where their expertise or power were seeming undefeatable, so they were feeling more powerful and safe to deal with the problem. However, that was where the real problem was created. The “others”, making sense of this shift, were considering it unfair, so the situation was remaining unresolved or even getting more intractable.

This ‘exercise’, which reveals in a very obvious and non-debatable way what usually slips from consciousness, can be used in a variety of contexts: from businesses and organizations to individuals, such as researchers, consultants, students, etc. The indirect triggering question can refer to problems and skills or to strengths and weaknesses or even to things one likes or dislikes in a given context etc. Most of the times, collective blind spots are revealed, corresponding to the fundamental assumptions of the system.

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