Cynefin again

This one will probably only make sense to those who have some experience of Cynefin (see also Cognitive Edge) – but it should be useful anyway even if you don’t.

Cynefin model

The diagram shows the usual layout of the Cynefin domains – unordered on the left, ordered on the right.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this whilst working on the SEMPER book – hence reviewing my notes from the original Cynefin course I did with Dave some years back.

Idea I’m working on is about where the action needs to happen in the real world. As I remember, Dave said that we need to bring everything from the unordered domains (complex, chaotic) into the ordered domains (known, knowable) in order to work on them. And he’s right, if our aim is to make sense of what’s going on – hence Cynefin as a ‘sense-making’ framework.

But I’d argue that he’s not right when we actually come to apply that sense-making to a real context in the real world. To do the latter, we have to move back again, from the ordered into the unordered, because at some point, and to some extent, the real world is inherently always either complex (if we have numbers of instances large enough to derive patterns) or chaotic (the single point of contact, or ‘market of one’).

More to the point, if we use Dave’s approach alone (i.e. unordered to ordered), we’ll be straight back in the same mess that we’ve always been with the positivist, ordered view of the world (regulation, analysis and so on) – it’s never been a high-survival tactic to try to force the messy complexities of the real world to fit in with some arbitrarily-chosen ‘rules’ or ‘laws’, and then complain when Reality Department won’t go along with our assumptions. :wrygrin: Instead, we need to respect and work with the fact that reality is complex and chaotic. Hence the need to move back from ordered to unordered at the point of action. Which ain’t going to be popular with the control-freaks and bean-counters, of course, but that’s their problem, really.

Dunno whether Dave’s shifted his thinking on this point in the past few years – he probably has, though I haven’t seen anything on it in published work – but it’s a suggestion to think about, anyway.

4 Comments on “Cynefin again

  1. I don’t think Dave ever thought like that to be honest. You move things from unorder to order in order to shift them from exploration to exploitation. Order exists in the real world. In the complex domain you act, but you do so by safe-fail experiments (multiple and in parallel) as you are still exploring the evolutionary possibilities of the system. You might want to look at the HBR article on leadership which expands on this a bit more;jsessionid=IUUFK2LFMEJHWAKRGWDR5VQBKE0YIISW?id=R0711C&referral=7855

  2. (Gosh you’re quick, Dave! 🙂 )

    Agree entirely about ‘fail-safe’ (ordered) vs ‘safe-fail’ (unordered). But the phrase I’m jumpy about here is “from exploration to exploitation” (and I know you don’t mean ‘exploitation’ in the pejorative sense, either). As far as I understand it, the actual sequence is closer to “from exploration [unordered – safe-fail etc] to sense-making [ordered – building some kind of schema or explanation] to exploitation [unordered – individual instance etc]” – because the real world (i.e. the point of exploitation) _always_ contains at least some element of unorder.

    May just be a semantic quibble, of course, and/or me failing to get some aspect of the fine detail in Cynefin. 🙂 But the distinction seems to be relevant in terms of _why_ we need to get the control-freaks to let go control – because, whether they like it or not, this shift back to Cynefin-style unorder at the exact point of exploitation shows why ‘control’ not merely doesn’t but _cannot_ work in the real world.

  3. Hi Tom,

    Sally Bean pointed me to your blog – we seem to share some similar views aound what might be called the real-world/ordered-model paradox theme:

    and an interest in developing ‘high-end-of-EA’ frameworks (VPEC-T in my case). We also have a shared interest in Dave Snowden’s work. It feels like we might/should have a good chat (over a pint one day).

  4. Thanks very much for the comments and links. I’ll admit I’m struggling a bit with the ‘beads’ metaphor, and I don’t have enough info to do more than guess about CADS or VPEC-T, but yes, we’re definitely in the same general domain. 🙂

    Like you I’ve been pushing for some years now that enterprise-architecture is about the whole of the enterprise – not just its IT. (Though as Sally Bean knows, such ‘heresies’ are still falling on carefully-deaf ears amongst the IT-types, especially here in Britain. Oh well. Some signs of change, at the last TOGAF conference, but not enough to make a difference as yet. Humph.

    I’m still finishing off the ‘Bridging the Silos’ mini-book – reworking Zachman, TOGAF et al as “a conversion course on [real] enterprise-architecture for IT-architects”, but there’s an extract already up on the TetradianBooks website if that’s of interest – see . And I’m probably rather closer to publishing the SEMPER and SCORE material – see – as a means to _measure_ the effectiveness of the enterprise: with luck it should be in print form before the end of July, anyway.

    So yes, would love to meet up for a chat as to how we could develop these ideas further, to make EA actually _useful_ at last in a business sense. Over to you as to where / when?

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