The Cynefin framework – different situations need different responses

I was about to write a blog about learning in complex environments, when I realised that I have never blogged about complexity. A diagram I have found most helpful for making sense of complexity is Dave Snowden’s Cynefin (kun-EV-in) framework. The key message is that different situations require different responses to successfully navigate them. And that has implications for Knowledge Management and Collaboration as well Learning (which I’ll talk about another time).

Dave Snowden explains Cynefin very well in this 8-min video and this Harvard Business Review article brings it to life. I found one critique of the framework, but otherwise it seems to have become well-established over 15 years.

The Cynefin framework has five domains. The first four domains are:

  • Simple, in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all, the approach is to Sense – Categorise – Respond and we can apply best practice.
  • Complicated, in which 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 – Analyze – Respond and we can apply good practice.
  • Complex, in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond and we can sense emergent practice.
  • Chaotic, in which there is no relationship between cause and effect at systems level, the approach is to Act – Sense – Respond and we can discover novel practice.
  • The fifth domain is Disorder, which is the state of not knowing what type of causality exists, in which state people will revert to their own comfort zone in making a decision. In full use, the Cynefin framework has sub-domains, and the boundary between simple and chaotic is seen as a catastrophic one: complacency leads to failure.

Has anyone played this cynefin lego game?

How does this relate to knowledge management and collaboration in an organisation?

The diagram uses the terms “Best practice”, “Good practice” and “Emergent practice”. In our business I used to hear the “best practice” buzzphrase used a lot, but I was rather pleased to see that the BT leadership framework now talks about “great practice” instead. Why is that important? It’s because knowledge management and collaboration needs to have different emphases depending on which domain of the Cynefin model we find ourselves in. And all the Cynefin domains are represented in our business. So there is no one-size-fits-all, we need to choose the approach that suits the situation. Cynefin domains are a fairly simple way of helping to point to which approaches might be useful.

Sometimes there is a best practice

I have often been very insistent that there is no such thing as “best practice” – I argued that it is always contextual. But I was wrong. Sometimes, when the problem is “simple”, there is such a thing as a best practice. For example, with our ordinary BT laptops I often find myself thrashing around trying to work out how to do something. For a specific technical challenge, there is sometimes a “best way” to solve the problem.

Companies assume this is true for most of their customer service interactions. And so we build knowledge bases containing solutions or best practices to solve common problems with broadband or whatever. We try to standardise answers in an effort to give consistently good customer service. That’s good. But I do wonder if the assumption about the nature of the customer problems is really true. Maybe more of the situations our customers encounter are “complicated” in cynefin terms and so a simple “sense, categorise, respond” routine isn’t satisfactory. Is it in the nature of our customer problems that they need intelligent analysis, expert sense-making (from “complicated”), and sometime exploratory probing from the “complex” part of the diagram to complement the “simple” responses.

There isn’t always a best practice, there can be multiple good practices

In the Benefits Management subject group in BT, we have asserted that there are a number of different ways of going about benefits management. This idea of multiple good practices rather than a one-size-fits-all best practice goes somewhat against the grain for some, who want to apply the “standardisation” hammer to all situations. This isn’t just a liberal tolerance of diversity to be nice to people with different “faiths”. It is a recognition that benefits management is not simple in the Cynefin framework. It is certainly complicated, and often complex. And so there can be more than one “right answer” of how to go about it.

Complicated and Complex subjects are a prime opportunity for subject groups in BT – topics in which the answers are not simple, and where there isn’t necessarily one right answer. In the technical sphere, the Infopath group and Excel groups often come up with multiple answers to the same problem. That is good, actually.

Emergent practice needs a watchful eye to help it mature

Social software like Youtube and Facebook has been the classic “complex” situation. When they were introduced, nobody quite knew exactly how people would use them. It has been the same inside BT. When social software was first introduced, no-one quite predicted the uses that would emerge. The #solved hashtag emerged as a way of recording the success of the conversational way of helping each other with “how to” challenges. We’ve had some success using it as the backchannel for conference calls. Some big internal campaigns tried to use it as an interactive awareness channel. Not all of these experiments worked perfectly, but they contained useful seeds of novel and emergent practice. As we introduce a more scalable platform it will be interesting to see what usefulness emerges, and if the “useful seeds” can turn into good practices that we can recommend more widely. Complex becoming just Complicated or even Simple.

How would you classify the context of the knowledge management and collaboration challenges you work with? Simple? Complicated? Complex? Chaotic? Does that inform the way you go about this stuff?

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