Setting the record straight

One of the Tweets last week was a pointer to a post by Andrew Johnston of Questa Computing, somewhen back in June this year, on his Agile Architect blog, titled ‘Architects: Masters of Order and Unorder?‘.

For enterprise-architects, it’s well worth a look: quite a good summary of how standard Cynefin concepts – such as Cynthia Kurtz’s distinction between ‘order and ‘unorder’ – can be used in an enterprise-architecture context. I remembered that I’d read it when it first came out, so I scrolled down to see if there were any comments that had been added since then.

There were. The first was a typically astute question by Richard Veryard, asking for practical examples, because “it would be good to have some practical examples of how Cynefin makes a real difference to what architects can achieve” – which is something that we do all need. The second comment was a reply from Andrew, in essence saying ‘yes, we do have examples, please watch this space’. But the third comment, again from Andrew, a couple of weeks later, and with no apparent connection to anything anyone else had said, was this:

My paper is a straightforward application and extension of Dave Snowden and Cynthia Kurtz’s 2004 work, and properly credits that work. Dave has indicated that he is happy with this.

Tom Graves has recently referred to this paper, I believe mainly as a source for the Cynefin diagrams without having to seek permission directly from Dave. Tom has not contacted me in any way, or sought my permission to re-use the diagrams in his article. I do not in any way endorse his views, or have any relationship to this derivative work.

I will admit that I did what just about anyone else would do under these circumstances: I blinked. Followed by a “Wha…? – where the heck did that come from?” – because it frankly makes no sense at all.

Looking back through my weblog, I can’t find a post of mine from that period that references Johnston’s paper. I do remember reTweeting someone’s link to it, though. I haven’t found any reference of mine to that specific diagram – i.e. “as a source for the Cynefin diagrams without having to seek permission directly from Dave” – and Tweets don’t carry graphics, of course. So I really don’t know what this frankly bizarre rant of Johnston’s is all about… I’ve no idea what’s going on there.

I posted a reply-comment, which duly went into the “Your comment is awaiting moderation” state, from which it has never emerged: I’ll have to assume that Andrew deleted it. Which is disappointing, but there ’tis: he’s entitled to do so if he wishes. Yet in the interests of setting the record straight, this is the comment that would have appeared there if he had allowed it.

Andrew: re: “Tom Graves has recently referred to this paper, I believe mainly as a source for the Cynefin diagrams without having to seek permission directly from Dave.”

I referred to this paper because I thought it was good work. The assertion that I referred to this paper “mainly as a source for the Cynefin diagrams without having to seek permission directly from Dave” is both insulting and absurd – not least because the Cynefin diagram is explicitly in the public domain anyway (see Snowden’s licensing notice on the Wikipedia page on Cynefin).

In the past I have done very extensive work on ‘the Cynefin categorisation’, in particular on attempting to integrate the Chaotic domain, which is barely addressed in Snowden’s work (though it is addressed in some depth in Kurtz’s more recent work). The methods and approaches I used in that work are most certainly not ‘derivative’ – a fact which seems to be the main source of Snowden’s very public ire (including an extraordinary out-of-context misuse of two of my diagrams in his ‘History of Cynefin’, seemingly for the sole purpose of mockery, and certainly without any apparent understanding of their proper context or use). It is certainly true that most of my work around ‘the Cynefin categorisation’ has a different practical and theoretical base – for example, Snowden concentrates on complexity-science, whereas my work leverages iterative/recursive techniques from the futures disciplines (such as Causal layered analysis) and enterprise-architectures (such as TOGAF ADM, as also extended beyond IT). At Snowden’s request, I have explicitly and publicly separated my work from his, although you might note that Kurtz does explicitly acknowledge some of my ideas and material in her current work on ‘Confluence’.

Richard Veryard above asks “it would be good to have some practical examples of how Cynefin makes a real difference to what architects can achieve”, to which you replied “Yes, I do have some real, current examples where complexity is forcing me to say to the client ‘you can’t analyse this’: watch out for a follow-on ‘examples’ piece sometime soon”. However, it is now three months later: would you give us a timeline as to when you publish these examples? (In the meantime, if anyone is interested, there are many examples of real-life usages of a ‘Cynefin-like categorisation’ linked to proven enterprise-architecture methodologies available in my books – see TetradianBooks – and on my weblog.)

I do acknowledge that Snowden and I have disagreed strongly in the past over our significantly different approaches to theory and practice in the ‘unorder’ space, and I appreciate that people may sometimes choose to ‘take sides’ in such cases of ‘conflict of ideas’. However, ‘taking sides’ does not actually further the progress in the field. You might also note that Snowden’s work is not designed to work directly with and in enterprise-architectures, whereas mine is. In that sense, might I request that you at least consider my work properly in its proper context, rather than dismissing it outright on the say-so of someone from a largely unrelated field of enquiry?

If I were of a more paranoid frame of mind, I could almost believe that someone might grant permission to use their material only on condition that specific other people and their work are to be publicly denigrated. There are plenty of examples of that happening throughout the history of science and elsewhere, after all, where jealousy or fear takes precedence over honesty or sense. Fortunately I’m not that paranoid: yet it would be disappointing – to say the least – if that were to turn out to be so in this case, wouldn’t it?

Oh well.

4 Comments on “Setting the record straight

  1. Actually Tom you still haven’t understood the basic point. Everyone developed theories and there will be agreements and disagreements. The problem was when you used the Cynefin name for your models despite their being veery different. I was also irritated with some of your statements about Cynefin and the framework which were plain false and your refusal to respond to detailed replies. Its easier to maintain an unsustainable position if you avoid specifics so I can understand the approach. Pity really, there was an interesting discourse possible.

    I am very interested to see how you moderate comments on your blog given your comments above.

  2. Tom,

    Apologies I have not contacted you sooner. I have been on holiday until last week, followed by a busy catch-up with my clients, and I was trying to digest your comments before taking action.

    The reference to my paper is in your post “Tackling uniqueness in enterprise-architectures” at I read this when my attention was brought to it by a Google blog scan back in June, not by any other mechanism.

    Your post contains one direct reference to my paper, and no comment that I could discern on my own assessment/use of Cynefin. The only other references are where you reprint the diagrams, where you promptly make notes that these are not the “up to date” versions against which you would like to comment. In the comments to the piece you then used the phrase (addressed to Dave Snowden) “I would also point out that since you’ve publicly accused me of plagiarism if I do reference the original sources…”. You never contacted me to post any sort of comment on my article itself.

    Taking these points together I think my inference about the use of my paper was unavoidable. If that was incorrect I apologise, but I hope you’ll accept it was a reasonable assessment based on the evidence I had.

    I’m not a “Dave Snowden follower”, and I don’t agree with everything he says. However, I have found his/Cynthia’s work on Cynefin extremely useful, and I think we are both comfortable about the relative relationship between his work and my use of it. I was keen to “set the record straight” to ensure that your use of my paper as a source was not seen to challenge this relationship, hence the comment on my blog, and an equivalent comment on Dave’s blog.

    I did read your paper, but didn’t find anything in it which I could latch onto as a working Solution/Enterprise Architect. That’s not to denigrate your work in this field, just an assessment based on my need for very simple, clear concepts which I can use with developers and business people with little or no knowledge or interest in the formal knowledge management space.

    A quick point on Richard Veryard’s comment. That was originally made when the paper was published in 2005, and at the time I had the best intentions of publishing a follow-up piece with real world examples. However, as my clients are major organisations and my relationships with them mostly on public record, it has proven very difficult to find ways of documenting examples of “unorder” in a way which will not challenge those ongoing relationships. I may resolve this at a future date, but may not do so very quickly.

    I hope this sets the record straight with you. I am happy to publish your comment alongside this explanation, if you will do the same.


  3. Dave “Pity really, there was an interesting discourse possible.”

    Yes, agreed, it is a pity, but unfortunately much painful experience indicates that it isn’t possible. So I accept that, with some sadness, and move on.

    “I am very interested to see how you moderate comments on your blog given your comments above.”

    See above, and in this reply.

  4. Andrew – many thanks for the detailed reply. I apologise if I sounded angry, but I will admit I was very much thrown by the comment about “I believe mainly as a source for the Cynefin diagrams without having to seek permission directly from Dave” in your original comment.

    The point about ‘up to date’ is that, for valid reasons that Snowden would explain if you wish, the core ‘Cynefin categorisation’ underwent a major change a few years back: ‘Known’ and ‘Knowable’ were re-labelled as ‘Simple’ and ‘Complicated’ respectively. The diagram that you used in your article (and that I do recognise and acknowledge as Snowden’s and/or Kurtz’s work) used the earlier version of the terminology.

    As Snowden and Boone demonstrate in their excellent HBR article ‘A leader’s framework for decision-making‘, the core ‘Cynefin categorisation’ of Simple, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic makes immediate sense to most business-folk. Beyond that basic categorisation, however, things can quickly get messy: Snowden, for example, has often complained (and with good reason) about people using the categorisation in too simplistic a manner. For enterprise-architectures, my experience has been that a different approach is required than the one which Snowden seems to espouse: rather than focusing primarily on complexity (as Snowden does, and again for valid reasons) my experience has been that we are better served by a more recursive approach, in which the basic categorisation is applied iteratively at many different layers of abstraction, following much the same kind of approach outlined in the TOGAF-9 ADM. Very few IT-systems, for example, are capable of handling true complexity directly, and can only be brought to tackle complex contexts via better understanding of Complicated contexts (as in Roger Sessions’ ‘Simple Iterative Partitions’) or recursive approaches that work with the complexity (such as Nigel Green’s work on VPEC-T and ‘Simple Business Event Processing’). (Neither of those approaches are designed to work with serendipity or inherent-uniqueness, which seems to be where Snowden and I diverge in terms of our understanding of what constitutes the ‘Chaotic’ domain.)

    The reality is the basic ‘Cynefin categorisation’ of domains-of-interest as either Simple, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic is one of these fundamental distinctions that is essential throughout the IT-industry and elsewhere: it existed long before Cynefin came on the scene, although there’s no doubt that Kurtz and Snowden did help to articulate those distinctions. The catch – as I’ve found to my cost – is that if we use the term ‘Cynefin’ to describe that generic categorisation, we risk causing confusion with everything else that’s attached to the ‘Cynefin’ term, and which is understandably annoying Snowden and any others associated with ‘Cynefin proper’. As a result, I do now take real care to avoid using the term ‘Cynefin’ at all – which is difficult, because so many other people in enterprise-architecture and elsewhere do use it in that ‘incorrect’ sense. Quite what we can do about this problem in future I just don’t know.

    If your work as a Solution/Enterprise Architect at present is primarily in the detail-layers of the IT space, then yes, I can easily understand why you say that you “didn’t find anything in it which I could latch onto”, because my own work as an enterprise-architect is mainly in the more abstract layers above (ie. Zachman 1-3 rather than Zachman 3-5), and usually beyond IT at that (ie. ‘the architecture of the enterprise’ rather than the common [mis]usage as ‘the architecture of the enterprise-IT’). However, you may find useful the service-model in the Enterprise Canvas concept, which aroused a lot of interest in discussions at the recent Open Group conference in Amsterdam; one of the articles (‘The Enterprise Canvas, Part 6: Models’) specifically addresses how to use a ‘Cynefin categorisation’, along with many other EA model-types, in describing a service-oriented architecture.

    Many thanks again – and please do keep in touch if you want to discuss these or any other themes in enterprise-architectures.

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