Untangling the Cynefin Framework, Part 3/3


Last week, in Part Two of this series on the Cynefin Framework, we explored the unordered world of Complex and Chaotic Systems, and how they require a drastically different approach compared to the Obvious and Complicated domains.

If you missed it, you can catch up here.

In this final installment, we will apply our new sense-making framework, learning how we get lost and why that so profoundly affects our ability to solve real-world problems. We will learn how our backgrounds and biases for action often lead us in the wrong direction.

We will wrap up with some key takeaways, after which you will be well-armed to go out into the world and solve problems with confidence.

Off we go!

Where We Get It Wrong

We have covered most of the map, and now have an approach to solving problems in four very different domains.

But... did you notice that little funny-shaped area in the middle? The one labeled “Disorder?”

Disorder is the state of not knowing which domain you are in. It is where we find ourselves most often.

When a new problem arises, effective leadership requires that you quickly deduce, in real-time, which domain you are in. All too often, we get it wrong, and that is often why we fail.

We get it wrong because we are vulnerable to our biases. We are all biased to prefer different actions based on our experience and expertise.

A Bias for Best Practice

Spend a few years in a rigid and bureaucratic environment? You might tend to seek a best practice for everything and believe that breakdowns result from failing to apply best practices. When things go wrong, it is tempting to spend time trying to find the imperfection in the best practice, and/or more vigilantly enforce compliance to the SOPs.

A Bias for Analysis

Are you an engineer, like me? I tend to be quite sure I can analyze any problem into submission. Technical / scientific / analytical people tend to view all problems as Complicated.

We ascribe our failures to insufficient analysis—a lack of time, resources, or expertise to figure things out. If we could have only spent a little more time researching, run one more test, used the latest, most sophisticated analytical tools...

A Bias for Probing and Brainstorming

Perhaps you come from work in a naturally complex environment? Those with military backgrounds or crisis responders, trained to operate in complexity, might assume that all problems are Complex. They might default to pulling lots of people together, getting their input, and seeing who has a good idea for action.

This is a really good approach if the situation is truly Complex. If it’s actually complicated, however, the quiet specialist in the corner who knows how to fix the problem will be quite frustrated, and you will waste a lot of time and money.

A Bias for Unilateral Action

Hopefully you are not a dictator. Dictators like a world in chaos. It justifies their desire to impose authoritarian order. If chaos is not already present, they will try to create it. Perversely, they can gain approval because this approach works.

No one cares that the fireman chainsawed a gaping hole in their roof if they put out the fire in the process. It was the right action and the damage inflicted was justified. It is tempting to applaud the authoritarian wielding their chainsaw of bold, decisive action. The problem is they were often the one who started the fire in the first place.

In the business world, maybe you are a “mad scientist” type. You might love disrupting existing systems and seeing what novel practice emerges—that’s what intentionally induced chaos is good for. It’s not great for stability, though, and it can be awfully hard on your people if they are not wired like you.

Real World Projects Are a Mix

In reality, most projects span three or even all four domains (hopefully without too much unintentional chaos). In a product development project, for example, sustaining the teamwork and collaboration required is complex. The design and engineering work are complicated, and some aspects might be obvious, with “obvious” meaning there really is one right and best way to solve a particular problem.

Leaders must be accurate in their assessment of their system in play, and nimble in their actions to apply the right approach at the right time.

The Obvious / Chaotic Boundary

You might notice that there is a “drop shadow” on the diagram between the obvious and chaotic domains. This is intentional, because the obvious / chaotic boundary is unique.

The shadow represents a cliff—a sheer-faced, vertical, slippery-edged cliff with sharp rocks all the way down, and icy waters with swirling, treacherous currents at the bottom. And sharks. Lots of sharks.

Snowden refers to this boundary as the “complacent zone.” Our past success guarantees our future success. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Famous last words.

Beware the Complacent Zone

In his book, How the Mighty Fall, step one of Jim Collin’s five-step approach to destroying your company is “hubris born of success," one of many routes to complacency.

We carelessly get closer and closer to the dangerous cliff between the obvious and chaotic domains. We blindly keep applying the best practices that worked so well in the past, failing to notice they have long since stopped working. Before we know it, it’s too late. We slip over the edge.

We find ourselves in crisis, and recovery from crisis is difficult and expensive at best, impossible at worst.

Key Takeaways

  1. Know which of the four domains a problem occupies before taking action to solve a problem. What is the problem’s habitat?
  2. Best practice is only a valid concept in the Obvious domain.
  3. With Complicated systems, analysis is required, often by experts. Seek good practice. There are likely multiple valid approaches. Beware the temptation to force a single best practice on people.
  4. Most endeavors involving human behavior are not Complicated; they are Complex. We tend to strongly prefer approaching such problems as if they were Complicated or Obvious. These approaches will not work.
  5. Be careful how much you try to move into the Obvious domain. Effective leadership and management happen in the Complicated and Complex domains.
  6. In Complex systems, use safe-to-fail experiments. Know in advance how you will amplify the experiment if it works, and dampen the response if it doesn’t.
  7. When we find ourselves in a Chaotic situation, quick, decisive, stabilizing action is imperative.
  8. Beware the Obvious / Chaotic boundary. Simple systems can fall off a cliff into chaos when we become complacent.

Sorry, No Silver Bullets

The Cynefin Framework does not solve difficult problems for you. It tells you what type of terrain you can expect to encounter. Ice crampons are essential on the glacier, but useless in the desert. Allowing adequate time for Analysis is imperative for a Complicated problem, deadly for a Chaotic one.

If you don’t know where you’re going, it’s hard to know what tools you’ll need. Understanding the four domains of the Cynefin Framework allows you to pack the right tools for your problem-solving journey. It allows us to make sense of the various systems we find ourselves in.

For us, Cynefin changed the way we approach life’s challenges. It actually changed the way we see the world. We hope it does the same for you. If you'd like to sign up for more information, take a moment to subscribe!

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