Cynefin – Broadening the traditional approach to leadership and decision making

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Case based reasoning

Many best practice approaches are based upon case-based reasoning.  This is the process of solving new problems based on the solutions of similar past problems. You may have seen this in practice; the Service Desk analyst who restores service to an IT issue using a solution she’s tried before.  A Judge who advocates a particular outcome in a trial based on legal precedent.  An organisation which uses a previous business position or pattern of action to form the basis of future plans. Case-based reasoning is a prominent kind of analogy making. In modern enterprises such reasoning forms the basis of process creation, strategic planning and other situations where the application of such principles and approaches is intended to create structure, influence outcomes and formalise decision making approaches.

However, there is a school of thought that suggests that whilst the past may be considered a useful baseline it is s over simplistic.  Promoting that previous successful actions should be considered the basis for future success fails to consider both context and the complexity of thought and deed. Such problem solving is necessary within the environments most IT professionals work and yet we frequently rely upon case based reasoning; production line models of process control and best practice frameworks that have evolved from a manufacturing and not services environment.  Perhaps the time has come to broaden this traditional approach to leadership and decision making and form a new perspective based on complexity science.  The idea you can derive theory just from observation is not enough. During conditions of uncertainty looking instead to natural science to support the management of complex situations.

Challenging thinking

I am an advocate of best practice approaches and I have actively used many of them throughout my 25 years in IT.  Lately though, my thinking has been challenged by the work of Professor Dave Snowden (1).  The work of Snowden and his team was initially in the areas of knowledge management, cultural change, and community dynamics. It subsequently became concerned with some critical business issues, such as product development, market creation, and branding. Dave developed the Cynefin Framework.  Cynefin is a Welsh word which means “habitat”.  The term was chosen to describe a perspective on the evolutionary nature of complex systems.

“The framework provides a typology of contexts that guides what sort of explanations or solutions might apply.  It draws on research into complex adaptive systems theory, cognitive science, anthropology, and narrative patterns, as well as evolutionary psychology, to describe problems, situations, and systems. It proposes new approaches to communication, decision-making, policy-making, and knowledge management in complex social environments” (2).

All situations are not created equal

Cynefin, literally means habitat or place – “Place of your multiple belongings”. The sense that you are rooted in many different pasts which profoundly influences what you are but of which you can only ever be partially aware.  The Cynefin framework exists to help us realise that all situations are not created equal and that different situations require different responses to successfully navigate them. The framework sorts the issues facing leaders into five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect. Four of these—simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic—require leaders to diagnose situations and to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth—disorder—applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant.

The Cynefin framework defines five domains.

The first domain is ‘Obvious’ – in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all, the approach to problem solving here is to ‘Sense – Categorise – Respond’.  It is within this type of scenario that the use of best practice as we understand it is most relevant. Consider a Service Desk analyst resolving an issue via a standard operating procedure or Incident model.   Since the situation is well known the approach is to sense the situation, categorise it based on documented experience, and apply an understood solution.

However, there is a danger that obvious contexts may be oversimplified. This often happens when people experience success and then become complacent.

The 2nd domain is ‘Complicated’ –  assessing the situation requires expert knowledge to determine the appropriate course of action, that is, the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge, the approach is to ‘Sense – Analyse – Respond’ and here we can apply good practice. Consider a Problem Management team of subject matter experts getting together and coupling their knowledge and experience to perform a more in depth analysis and questioning approach because the answer and the context is not straight forward.

There is some debate over the terms good and best and for the purposes of this article I don’t want to get too hung up on the distinction.  It is enough to consider that the ‘Obvious and Complicated’ domains are ordered systems.

“Probe – sense – respond”

The 3rd domain is ‘Complex’, in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, the approach is to ‘Probe – Sense – Respond’.  Here we can sense emergent practice.  Consider unknown unknowns — you don’t even know the right questions to ask. Even beginning to understand the problem requires experimentation.  In hindsight it seems obvious, but it was not apparent at the outset.  There is a scene in the film Apollo 13 when the astronauts encounter a crisis (“Houston, we have a problem”) that moves the situation into a complex domain. A group of experts is put in a room with a mishmash of materials which replicated the only resources available to the astronauts in flight. Without a solution the astronauts would have died.  In this situation, experimentation is important to allow knowledge gathering so that as things become clearer then next steps are forged.  The goal here is to move the problem into the ‘Complicated’ domain.

The 4th domain is ‘Chaotic’, in which there is no relationship between cause and effect.  The approach is to ‘Act – Sense – Respond’.  Chaotic is the domain of novel practice.  As the name implies, this situation requires a rapid response. There is a crisis and a need to act immediately to prevent further harm and re-establish some order. Any conventional rule-based tactic for decision-making in this kind of context will usually just make things worse: instead, it requires something that respects the chaotic as such.   The solution applied may not be the best but if it works that is sufficient in terms of establishing control before attempting to move the problem to another domain.

The 5th domain is ‘Disorder’, which is the state of not knowing what type of causality exists, where people will revert to their own comfort zone in making a decision. Disorder is the space in the middle.   The imperative here is to move to a known domain by gathering information on what you know or identify what you don’t know.  In full use, the Cynefin framework has sub-domains, and the boundary between obvious and chaotic is seen as a catastrophic one: complacency leads to failure.

Being able to distinguish between ‘order’ an ‘un-order’

What the framework tells us is why it is important to be able to differentiate between order and un-order.  In problem solving, human nature leads us to oversimplify cause and then solution approach.  In its simplest terms the approach we use should allow the distinction between order and un order.  If we have seen this before or have experience that can be leveraged; the problem is ordered. If we haven’t seen this before and it is truly novel, then this is something that we may be better off exploring first; therefore, we treat it as un-ordered.   In conditions of uncertainty we should consider the worst case, not the simplest, which means that if is ordered then deal with it as complicated; and engage experts, and if un-ordered then treat it as chaotic and act in an attempt to stabilise the situation. This avoids over simplifying the situation which is common place.

Much of the management theory available today treats problems as ordered.   It defines an ideal future state and tries to close the gap.  In reality, what matters is accurately being able to describe the present state and then, of the things you can change knowing where you can influence the effects of the change and move to a safe to fail experimental management of the present to move forward to a future state which is more sustainable.

Experience, best practice and knowledge

Cynefin explains how to recognise and approach the management of different situations.  Understanding and responding appropriately is important.  Experience, best practice and knowledge, applied in an incorrect context is at best ineffective and at worst harmful. So whilst case base reasoning is useful for ordered environments and obvious decisions it fails in complex situations. The application of the Cynefin theory is very relevant to IT leaders who need to embrace complexity and paradox, and a willingness to adapt leadership style. Leaders need to be able to identify the context they’re working in at any given time and also be able change their behaviour and their decisions to match that context. Leaders who don’t recognize that a complex domain requires a more experimental mode of management will be ill equipped to perform during conditions of uncertainty.



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Michelle Major-Goldsmith

Michelle Major-Goldsmith is currently Manager of Service Management Capability at Kinetic IT in Perth, Western Australia. Michelle has been in the industry for over twenty-five years; formerly Director of Training at UK service management company Sysop and Head of Desktop and Mobile Computing at RAC Motoring Services. More latterly Michelle has been engaged as an ITIL trainer and service management consultant working with a range of clients globally. She was awarded IT Service Management Trainer of the Year in the UK in 2010 and honoured by the British Computer Society in 2011 as IT Support Professional of the Year. She is extensively published within the Service Management Industry.