On meta-methodology (‘Beyond-Cynefin’ series)

(This is part of an ongoing series that attempts to resolve problems in (mis)interpretation of the Cynefin framework, and in particular the commonly-used Cynefin diagram. For the correct interpretation and use of the Cynefin framework and Cynefin techniques, please contact Dave Snowden at Cognitive Edge.)

The standard Cynefin diagram is as follows:

Diagram by Dave Snowden, Cognitive Edge (image: public domain)

As the Wikipedia article states, “The model provides a taxonomy that guides what sort of explanations and/or solutions may apply.” Unfortunately, this is a generic model that lends itself to multiple interpretations, only one of which is ‘correct’ Cynefin. There are also multiple uses of the concepts and conceptual space summarised in the model’s taxonomy and pathways, of which, again, only a specific subset may legitimately be described as Cynefin.

It is therefore important to state that what follows is not ‘Cynefin’, yet necessarily uses what is in essence much the same taxonomy (see ‘Framework role and purpose’ and ‘Similarities to Cynefin’ in the previous post ‘Solution-space: beyond Cynefin?‘).

The central theme in this ‘not-Cynefin’ framework is the concept of ‘problem-space’ and ‘solution-space’.

Problem-space is the context of the problem. Part of this is repeatability, or perceived cause-effect relationships, which can usefully be mapped using the same ‘Cynefin’ taxonomy:

  • Simple: very high perceived repeatability, in accordance with simple linear cause-effect rules
  • Complicated: linear (repeatable) cause-effect relationships, but may involve multiple factors, delays and feedback-loops
  • Complex: cause-effect relationships are context-dependent – for example, where the effect itself becomes the cause
  • Chaotic: no perceived cause-effect relationships

(The central region of ‘Disorder‘ is always ‘chaotic’, by definition, because it is the starting-point before any cause-effect relationships can be determined; the Chaotic-domain of problem-space applies where some or all of the problem continues to show no perceivable cause-effect relationships.)

Solution-space is the context and characteristics of the solution – i.e. the methods used to resolve the perceived problem. This too can be usefully mapped using the same taxonomy:

  • Simple: the solution uses rules based on linear cause-effect logic
  • Complicated: the solution uses analytic algorithms allowing for feedback, delays, etc, but are ultimately based on linear cause-effect logic
  • Complex: the solution uses context-sensitive heuristics, guidelines and iterative re-assessment, in which the problem is continually ‘re-solved’ rather than ‘solved’
  • Chaotic: the solution uses principles to guide creation of uniquely context-dependent results

(Note: these are only one-line summaries, not formal definitions!)

The process of finding an appropriate solution to a specified problem can be mapped as a pathway across solution-space. To succeed (i.e. to be effective), the ultimately-selected solution(s) must map appropriately to the context of the problem in problem-space. Note that although in some cases a problem may be situated in just one specific location in problem-space, it is more common for it to occupy a region or even to have components that spread out across multiple regions. For example, a context might be mostly resolved by a rules-based automated process (Simple) but also ‘special cases’ that may need to be ‘escalated’ to an algorithmic system (Complicated), a manual review (Complex) or specialist expertise (Chaotic) for a ‘one-off’ incident. The overall solution must resolve all components in problem-space.

The core concept in the use of this framework is recursive meta-methodology. For example:

  • a method in solution-space acts on the problem in problem-space
  • a methodology selects an appropriate method
  • a meta-methodology selects an appropriate methodology
  • a meta-meta-methodology selects an appropriate meta-methodology

…and so on. A methodology is a path within solution-space; a meta-methodology is a path in another layer of solution-space; in effect, the layers may be nested indefinitely, but must ultimately all resolve to a set of methods that address the actual problem in problem-space.

The ultimate aim of all of this is to find methods that are appropriate and effective for any given problem, in any business context (such as my primary field of enterprise-architecture), or in any other field, as required.

I’ll stop here for now, but will give more explanation and illustrative examples in later posts in this series.

Previous posts in this series:

6 Comments on “On meta-methodology (‘Beyond-Cynefin’ series)

  1. Tom,
    As you know I also have an interest in the application of Cynefin to selecting approaches for EA, so have been closely following these Cynefin-related threads. While the tensions between you and Dave are all too visible I do appreciate the time that you have spent trying to set out your understanding and the time that Dave has given to his attempts to clarify some of the issues – there are some good learnings here.

    One thing that does slightly jar with me in this particular posting, and elsewhere, is the use of the words problem and solution, which both suggest bounded spaces, when the reality is often much fuzzier, especially in the undordered domains. I strongly share the views that David Gurteen expressed in this recent comment on his website.
    http://www.gurteen.com/gurteen/gurteen.nsf/id/no-solutions. And of course, Ackoff used to talk about messes, rather than problems.

    You do of course allude to this point, in your reference to ‘re-solving’ problems in the complex domain. However I think that ‘intervention’ would be a better word than solution, in this context.

    I will likely have some other comments on this area, as I have been giving a lot of thought recently to the applicability of interpretive practices of systems thinking, such as SSM (as opposed to functional practices, such as systems dynamics) to the complex domain. I am not so interested in the chaotic domain at present.

  2. Sally – thanks very much.

    Yes, you’re entirely correct about the dangers of viewing problem and solution as separated by a distinct boundary. The notion of ‘problem-space’ versus ‘solution-space’ is actually little more than a convenient fiction, especially when we get into real-time contexts. So yes, ‘intervention’ is probably a better word here.

    (I’m also reminded here of one of Dave’s phrases, that “every diagnostic is an intervention, and every intervention is [potentially] a diagnostic”. Under the present circumstances I’d better avoid any attempt at interpretation of that phrase, but it’s certainly relevant and valid here.)

    Hence on David Gurteen’s post, I would likewise agree strongly that there are no ‘solutions’ as such – so again, we do need a better word. I would also pick up on his point that there are no solutions’, but only only ‘responses’ (which is also in Cynefin, of course). This is why in all of my work I’m careful to push the notion of responsibility as ‘response-ability’ – the ability to choose _appropriate_ responses in and to the context. How we get to ‘appropriate’ (and its parent-term, ‘effective’) is what I’m really searching for here.

    The reason I introduced the notion of separation was as a means to explore the processes of engagement and reflection, the processes by which we improve our _own_ awareness and competence in how we ‘intervene’ with a context – what I’ve described above as the ‘pathways within ‘solution-space’. As you probably know, my real long-term interest in all of this – including oddities such as dowsing – is in understanding the development of interpretation, judgement, awareness and skill, a set of processes that vary enormously at the detail-level (i.e. ‘method’ and methodology) but so far seem remarkably consistent across all skills at the deeper, or, if you prefer, ‘higher’ levels (i.e. meta-methodology, meta-meta-methodology and beyond).

    I agree with you very strongly on the importance of the Complex domain, because at present that’s where some real gains can be made as we move away from mechanistic thinking (as again Dave has illustrated well with the proven value of his work on abductive reasoning and the like). The reason I’m particularly interested in the ‘chaotic’ domain of ‘problem-space’ – i.e. the realm of nominally-unique events – is that ultimately _everything_ includes at least some element of uniqueness. (In fact it’s possible to argue that the ‘chaotic’ domain in this sense is the only one that’s ‘real’: everything else is an abstraction.)

    There’s a real sense of something important starting to open up here, though I don’t as yet have a solid handle on it. It needs to emerge of its own, I guess – the best we can do is provide conditions under which it’s possible for that to happen. So thanks again for helping me in that process, anyway.

  3. Extrapolating from the heartfelt suggestion by Sally, and Tom’s adequate and agreeing response, to use ‘intervention’ to illustrate interdependency between problem- and solution space, I would like to ‘add a dimension’ (if you like) that I feel(!) is an intrinsic part of the quest at hand (meta-methodology). I speak of the relationship between the ‘interventionist’ and ‘the subject’. As it is with the inter effecting aspects of diagnosis and intervention, so it is at least equally true for the ‘performing artist’ and ‘his subject’ for either diagnosis or intervention. As the quote goes: “we find mostly what we look for”, and this is very true, it must be that the ‘consultant’ starts to effect the object of his attention immediately, a process which is part of what we should call ‘meta-context’.
    Well, that thought came and went into this comment. It has been lingering for some time now since a great deal of the interchanges so far seem to imply ‘no relationship whatsoever’ between the person doing the diagnosing and interventions and his ‘object’ of these. Is it in line with this conversation to suggest that the relationship of mutual effect should be in a meta-methodology? This was my sanity-check :-). For now…

  4. Paul – “Is it in line with this conversation to suggest that the relationship of mutual effect should be in a meta-methodology?” – yes it is indeed (in my opinion, anyway! 🙂 )

    I’ve probably (almost certainly?) made a mistake here twice over by implying a problem/solution separation and, as you point out above, a subject/object separation – because in some quite important senses, neither of those ‘separations’ are real. Yet in some ways it _is_ also useful to create those separations, a ‘necessary distance’ for reflection and recursive (self-)observation.

    Thinking (feeling?) about it right now, it feels somewhat of a spectrum, a ‘both/and’ rather than an either/or.

    It’s also notable that that spectrum stretches from the extreme end of the Simple, where such separations are, well, simple, to the extreme end of the Chaotic, where perhaps no separation is possible, or viable.

    Also notable that the sense of time also follows that spectrum, from a very mechanical clock-time in the Simple, through to a bewildering ‘no-time’ (in which time may be compressed to an instant or stretched almost indefinitely) in the Chaotic – as with the ‘performing artist’ and the Sufi dancer, for example. (Or ‘work’ too, if we are fully engaged in that work.)

    I suspect this exploration is still perhaps quite a long way yet from something that can be put to concrete use (as Cynefin can, for example), but this kind of challenge really helps to push towards clarity and, I hope, the right kind of simplicity. Many thanks indeed.

  5. Sorry I didn’t think of posting this before, but for those who haven’t seen it, I find this a very useful article, entitled ‘Masters of Order and Unorder’ about the application of the Cynefin model to the selection of IT approaches and ‘solutions’.


    It is written by Andrew Johnston who is a very experienced IT architect and a friend of mine. There are some other interesting nuggets on his website.

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