Standing up for the value of our work

How do we prove the value of our work? How we defend that value against unprincipled attack? These are real questions that we all need to face, especially in inherently-‘unprovable’ disciplines such as enterprise-architecture.

So let’s put these questions into practice.

Several people have asked me for a detailed worked-example of the sensemaking-technique of context-space mapping [CSM]. Recently, though, I’ve also ‘enjoyed’ yet another attack from Dave Snowden, in which he made two key assertions:

  • that the cross-map process used in CSM is not a ‘mash-up’ but a “hash-up”
  • that the entirety of CSM and, by inference, all of the other sensemaking tools and techniques that I’ve developed for enterprise-architecture and related fields are “invalid … in certain essential aspects”

He gave no evidence or reason as to why the cross-map process is supposedly so invalid as to be a “hash-up”, or any details as to what any of those purported “certain essential aspects” might be: so in essence, all we have from him is a circular ‘proof’, that it must be ‘true’ because he asserts that it’s ‘true’. This is a classic form of unprincipled-attack, one which most of us will face at some time or other in enterprise-architecture and the like.

His assertion is that CSM has no value; yet since that assertion itself has no rational basis, there’s likewise little point in trying to use any kind of rational defence. Probably the only meaningful response is ‘proof-of-the-pudding’, to demonstrate in practice that it does have value. And if it does have value – in other words, that it presents insights that had not previously been available, and might not have been available by any other technique – then, in turn, that should demonstrate that the attack does not have merit. We probably wouldn’t expect the attacker to understand this point: but it may help in our relations with others, in a more professional context.

So perhaps I ought to thank Snowden here, because he’s indicated the obvious candidate for this practical demonstration: what I’ll do here is apply context-space mapping to Snowden’s Cynefin framework.

And let you be the judge as to whether this cross-map technique has any practical value.

(This will, again, be long – my apologies…)

[Important point: for reasons that have been documented all too often on this website, I have had to invoke Bob Sutton’s No Asshole Rule: Snowden is welcome to reply in his own website, but will not be allowed to reply here.]

The Cynefin framework

I won’t describe the Cynefin framework in detail here: it’s summarised on its Wikipedia page, but for the full details you’ll need to go to Snowden’s Cognitive Edge website.

(What follows is based on my own background and experience as a ‘registered Cynefin Practitioner’. I did the training-course, delivered by Dave in person, way back in 2003, when Cynefin was still part of IBM – in fact I was told that my colleague and I were the first non-IBMers to do that course. I still have all of the training-material from the course, and not much seems to have changed since then: a few key elements have been dropped – such as the ‘connection-pyramids’ devised by Cynthia Kurtz – but the only significant new element seems to be the ‘Sensemaker‘ software, a simplified adaptation of a public-domain US Government project.)

Cynefin is ‘sold’ as a sensemaking framework. The key idea is that, given an unknown context (the domain of ‘Disorder’), there are four distinct ‘ways of knowing’ that we can apply to that context, and hence four distinct types of tactics that we can then use, as summarised in the Cynefin graphic from the Wikipedia page:

Each of these ‘domains’ has obvious implications for enterprise-architectures and the like:

  • we want to keep things simple, and apply best-practice wherever it’s appropriate
  • many things we deal with are complicated, requiring good practice and depth-analysis to bring it under control
  • when things get complex – such as in business-model development, or the inevitable wicked-problems of a social context – we need iteration and the like to explore the emergent context
  • almost every business will face novel or unique elements within their context, and may struggle to avoid it becoming chaotic

So yes, it’s clear that Cynefin sensemaking should be of real value in EA.

There are a couple of other key elements to Cynefin: its theoretical base, and the interdomain ‘dynamics’.

The explicit formal base for Cynefin is ‘complexity science‘: Snowden is emphatic on this point. However, within Cynefin’s own terms, there are two important corollaries from this:

  • the effective primary focus for Cynefin sensemaking is the Complex domain
  • the focus on science (as opposed to a technology-oriented approach) will naturally pull the emphasis and methods of validation into the Complicated (analytic) domain rather than the Complex (emergent) domain

This implies that there’s an inherent methodological mismatch here, right at the heart of Cynefin. It’s a mismatch that, you may note, is made visible here via a recursive use of Cynefin sensemaking on itself – recursion being a true emergent-technique, yet not a ‘scientific’ one.

[I’ll admit that I don’t know the science behind the assertion that there are always and only these four decision-making domains: I believe it originally comes from Boisot. To be blunt, though, I’m beginning to doubt there is any fundamental science behind that partitioning of the ‘Disorder’ space: instead, as with most ‘non-exact’ sciences, it may ultimately come back to a combination of pragmatics and personal opinion. Useful, yes; but not necessarily ‘the truth’.]

The interdomain dynamics are less well-known: it’s possible they may only appear in some of the earlier papers and in the training-course material, and may now be strictly proprietary to the Cynefin brand. In essence, they describe the tactics that we would use to move ‘between’ the decisionmaking domains. In some cases, it may seem that the context forces us to use specific tactics – which in effect also forces us ‘into’ a different domain, where other ‘rules’ than those we expect may now apply.

[For a non-proprietary equivalent of these ‘interdomain-dynamics’, from a significantly different yet comparable context, see the ‘disciplines reference-sheet‘ that accompanies the book Disciplines of Dowsing.]

Because they may now be proprietary, I won’t go into any detail on the ‘official’ Cynefin-dynamics. Yet there are two ‘moves’ that are described in the earlier publicly-available papers that are especially relevant for EA, that relate to how we should ‘act, sense, respond’ in the Chaotic domain:

  • take control (aka ‘the dictator’s move’), to force us into the Simple domain
  • find a pattern, to move us into the Complex (emergent) domain

Within those research-papers, these are the only moves (i.e. ‘act’ in ‘act, sense, respond’) prescribed for the Chaotic domain: so in essence, the only decision-choices described in Cynefin for the Chaotic domain consist of getting the heck out of there. (The same can be seen in the much more recent HBR paper: the only examples given for the Chaotic domain can be paraphrased as either ‘take control’ [go to Simple] or ‘set up a crisis-team’ [go to Complex].) Which isn’t exactly helpful advice for when we do have to deal with the reality of uniqueness – which happens a lot in business, and just about everywhere else. We need something that can handle uniqueness as it is – which Cynefin explicitly does not give us.

There’s another worrying implication from those two moves. One of the moves – ‘take control’ – takes us back to an overly simplistic rule-based view of the context, which in real-world conditions will inevitably fall back into the Chaotic again. In other words, it’s not going to be viable. So the only ‘permitted’ move that will seem to be viable is to grab hold of something that seems a pattern, and move to the Complex domain of ‘probe / sense / respond’ – which, strangely enough, happens to be the preferred realm and focus for all usage of Cynefin. Yet Cynefin’s internal focus on the ‘science’ aspects of ‘complexity science’ will in turn tend to drag us into the Complicated domain of ‘sense / analyse / respond’, or even the Simple ‘sense / categorise / respond’ – otherwise known in the business context as ‘hard-systems thinking’ and/or Taylorism respectively, which we know are problematic for any real-world enterprise-architecture. Yet Snowden himself affirms that point, if in a somewhat misleading way, in this diagram from his online seminar on sense-making and complexity-theory:

Concept Lifecycles (© Dave Snowden / Cognitive Edge 2010)

Hence in effect Cynefin here may purport to take us to the Complex domain, but in practice seems to offer us only the choice of ‘take control’, which rarely works well; or a slightly more sophisticated form of ‘take control’, which also doesn’t work well. That’s not good… at the very least, it means that we need to be careful as to how we use Cynefin in EA practice, and constrain its natural tendency to force us to where we least need to be.

A final key concern revolves around whether the Cynefin frame can be used as a categorization-framework. Snowden has asserted here and elsewhere that Cynefin should never be used that way – and he frequently rails against anyone who might seem to do so. Yet oddly, that’s exactly how he himself often seems to use it: for example, the much-cited HBR paper ‘A Leader’s Framework for Decision-Making‘ [PDF] consists almost entirely of a set of descriptions of what happens ‘within’ each of the domains – in other words, a categorisation of contexts. There’s an inconsistency here of which we need to take note – it is important, as we’ll see later.

Context-space mapping

Context-space mapping is another sensemaking framework (or technique, rather) that, like Cynefin, focusses or relies on emergence. Yet it’s fundamentally different from Cynefin in its nature, approach and theoretical basis – which causes some confusion, perhaps especially for Cynefin practitioners. In terms of the SCCC categories:

  • Cynefin is a Complex-domain technique with a fallback to Complicated or even to Simple
  • CSM is a Chaotic-domain technique with a fallback to Complex

Cynefin’s explicit fallback is from ‘unorder’ into the ‘order’-domains (‘science’); CSM’s fallback is to the other ‘unorder’ domain (Chaotic to Complex). Unlike Cynefin, CSM always remains in the value-oriented ‘unorder’ domains.

[One corollary from that last point is that because CSM resides in the ‘unorder’-domains, attempting to use ‘order’-domain methods of validation does not make sense. Validation of the technique must always be in value-based terms: in other words, whether it is useful, not whether or not it is ‘true’ within the terms of some arbitrarily-selected system of ‘order’.]

Even more confusing to Cynefin practitioners is the fact that CSM may legitimately use ideas and images and concepts from Cynefin, or any other source at all, in ways that could or would indeed be described as “illegitimate” if the process made any claim to ‘be’ Cynefin or the like – which it doesn’t.

[Therein lie some significant paradigm-problems, which I’d suggest are the real source for a vast amount of flak hurled in my direction by Snowden over the past few years. Oh well. I’ll come back to the paradigm-problem later, anyway.]

First, before the demonstration proper, a few key points about how CSM actually works.

As with all sensemaking, the aim is to make sense of what’s going on in some specific context. (When we start off, the bounds of that context may not be very specific at all: perhaps just some vague idea or focus. Just call it ‘the context’ for now.)

By definition, we always start out on this journey because we don’t know something. This space of inherent-unknownness – prior to any sensemaking – is what Cynefin describes as ‘Disorder’, and what I sometimes prefer to describe as ‘Reality Department’. It’s why we do sensemaking: we want to make sense of something in the context that at present doesn’t ‘make sense’.

Some people might want to split that context straight away into ‘problem-space’ versus ‘solution-space’; but enterprise-architects especially will know well the dangers of jumping into ‘solution-space’ too early. So for now, we’ll leave it unpartitioned, and just call ‘context-space’.

A common response to anything unknown is make a map: pick up any fragments of information that we can, and see what they show us. In Cynefin terms, we could perhaps say that this moves us from Disorder into the Chaotic domain. What we need to be careful about, of course, is the old adage that “the map is not the territory”.

In terms of the Cynefin-dynamics, as above, we have two options in the Chaotic domain: ‘take control’ or ‘find a pattern’. This is a key point of divergence between Cynefin and CSM: Cynefin takes the first option, whilst CSM applies an inverse variant of the second option.

As often practised – and certainly as described in the HBR paper – the core Cynefin Framework is not a Complex-domain technique. (Whatever Snowden may claim to the contrary, the Cynefin-dynamics themselves make that point patently clear.) It is a Simple-domain technique, because it ‘takes control’: it overlays its map onto the ‘territory’ of the context, and then declares that the map is the territory – or perhaps ‘the only true map’ of the territory, ‘true’ because it’s ‘based in science’ and the like.

At this surface-only level – again, typified by the HBR paper – this makes Cynefin very easy to use and to explain, and to train people in the relatively-rudimentary sensemaking that’s available through a Simple structure of categories, each of whose sub-descriptions have purported ‘truth’-relationships to each other. Commercially speaking, that simplicity is obviously a very desirable trait: but just how valid or usable the end-results would be is a very different question.

Of course it’s true that most of the deeper techniques used by experienced Cynefin practitioners – ‘butterfly-stamping’, ‘clustering’ and the like – are indeed rooted in the Complex domain: but that’s not what most people see or use. Instead, what most people see is just that Simple predefined set of categories and sub-categories – which leads directly to the over-Simple categories-only mistake about which Snowden rightly bewails.

Context-space mapping takes the opposite approach. We first accept the Chaos for what it is – we accept that we don’t know what’s going on. In keeping with the rules of the Chaotic, we throw something else in at random – and then see what happens. We’re not looking for ‘facts’ so much as insights or ideas, something we can use. We play with that for a while, seeing what ideas and images and patterns seem to emerge in relation to those insights – in other words, we move into what Cynefin calls the Complex domain. And whenever a thread seems to peter out, or ceases to be interesting, or whatever, we deliberately drop back into the randomness again. In that sense, context-space mapping is a Chaotic/Complex-domain technique.

In effect, what we do in context-space mapping is run the usual map-making process backwards. In conventional mapping, we pick on some element in the context that can be fixed in some way, either in absolute terms, or relative to some other point; we then keep repeating that process until we come to some usable description that can be described as ‘true’ in some sense or other. By contrast, in context-space mapping, we pick an arbitrary map, and place it into the Chaos of the context to see what coalesces around around that shape. It’s intentionally anarchic: in most cases, any map will do.

A useful metaphor here is that the context-space map acts as a ‘seed’ for crystallisation, with the ‘unknown’ of the Disorder space providing a kind supersaturated solution from within which new ideas and insights can coalesce. And we don’t necessarily expect that what arises will or must align itself to the map: in fact what we’re looking for most often is whatever doesn’t align. And to help that along, we will often deliberately create mismatch – ‘cognitive dissonance’ – in these throw-away ‘true’-only-for-a given-value-of-‘true’ temporary maps that we use for this purpose.

The catch is that this kind of technique is highly dependent on skill and experience. It’s not predefined: everything depends on the choices that are made by the person doing the mapping. It’s not science – it’s technology.

[There’s a radical difference there that many people miss. In a science the focus should always be on ‘truth’, on ‘how it really works’; whereas in technology the focus is much more on ‘value’, on usefulness, on ‘how it can be worked’ – or perhaps even more on ‘how it can be worked better‘.]

That’s the bad news. The good news is that that’s exactly the kind of skills and experience that people in enterprise-architecture and suchlike do aim to develop over time – hence context-space mapping is a natural fit to EA, whereas a single-function framework like Cynefin tends to be very limited in its usefulness for our needs.

So let’s develop a real example.

Context-space mapping with Cynefin on Cynefin

What we’re going to do here is develop a context-space map that can explore the role and usefulness of Cynefin in sensemaking for the type of business-contexts that are the typical concern for enterprise-architecture, business-architecture and the like.

In context-space mapping, we typically start with some kind of diagram that we use as a ‘base-map’. In essence, as above, any map will do: there are vast numbers of different diagrams and model-types in use in enterprise-architecture and business-architecture and so on, and we could choose any one that, in the moment, seems to fit with our needs for a ‘throwaway’ context-map. (For example, the Enterprise Canvas model-type initially arose from a cross-map between Business Model Canvas, BPMN, Zachman and Viable System Model.) Since we’re talking here about Cynefin, the obvious choice is the Cynefin diagram itself – hence we’ll use the basic layout and categories of Cynefin as the base-map for this exercise.

We could just stick with that for a while, perhaps using that Cynefin base-map recursively to explore itself – applying Cynefin to Cynefin. That’s a form of context-space mapping in its own right – in fact that’s the means via which I derived many of the insights about Cynefin above.

More usually, though, we would overlay other models on top of that base-map, creating a cross-map that incorporates and contrasts often dissonant ideas. For this exercise we’ll use four distinct overlays.

[Note again that there’s no ‘science’ to this choice – or rather, this is as per science as practised, as opposed to the cleaned-up, seemingly-logical but often somewhat spurious ‘science-as-presented-for-public-consumption’. The focus for each choice of base-map and overlay is always on usefulness, driven by an intent to elicit meaningful insights – exactly as per the ‘Idea’ and ‘Hypothesis’ stages in the classic ‘Idea / Hypothesis / Theory / Law’ cycle in scientific discovery.]

The first overlay actually comes from Cynefin itself: the concept of ‘order’ versus ‘unorder’. In Cynefin, ‘order’ is usually described as applying primarily to the Simple and Complicated domains, whereas ‘unorder’ (a very useful term invented by Cynthia Kurtz) applies primarily to the Complex and Chaotic domains. Conceptually, order and unorder also align well with notions of ‘truth’ versus ‘value’ respectively. We’ll apply this as a spectrum horizontally across that Cynefin base-map.

For the second overlay we’ll use something that doesn’t seem to be addressed in Cynefin as such: the timescale in which we have to respond to events. (Cynefin tells as that we should ‘act, sense, respond’, etc, but doesn’t tell us how fast we need to do so.) For reasons that will become clear later, we’ll apply this as a spectrum vertically across that Cynefin base-map, from real-time at the bottom to infinity at the top.

The third overlay is about skill-levels and decision-drivers – see the Sidewise posts ‘10, 100, 1000, 10000‘ and ‘Where have all the good skills gone?‘ for more on this. This gives us the following mapping, cross-mapped to the four Cynefin-making domains:

  • trainee (>10hrs): rule-based decisions [Simple]
  • apprentice (>100hrs): algorithm and experiment [Complicated]
  • journeyman (>1000hrs): guidelines and patterns [Complex]
  • master (>10000hrs): principles [Chaotic]

The final overlay, about levels of abstraction, or, conversely, repeatability, will need a bit more explanation. The closest analogy is the four states or ‘phases’ of matter: solid, liquid, gas, plasma. There’s a spectrum of variability, of constraints, yet with explicit ‘phase-boundaries’ between them: entities in a solid are fully bounded, in liquid can move around within distinct bounds, in a gas are essentially unbounded, and in a plasma the boundaries of the entities themselves break down. In terms of how the constraints and boundaries operate, we could map those four ‘phases’ of matter onto the same terms as used for the Cynefin domains: Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic.

There’s a spectrum there too, with explicit boundaries: but we can’t do a simple straight-line overlay onto the base-map as we did with the other two spectrum-overlays. Instead, we have to kind of bend it round to make it fit. And yet, when we look the end-result – the cross-map – it does all fit together well:

Time, interpretation and abstraction

This gives us a map that we can now use to elicit ideas and suggestions about the context – which in this case is the Cynefin framework itself.

[Before we start that exploration, though, we need to emphasise one essential point: this is not Cynefin. It’s not a ‘non-standard version of Cynefin’, nor a ‘new version of Cynefin’, nor actually ‘an extension of Cynefin’, and nor is it ‘an illegitimate use of Cynefin’, either. It’s a context-space map that happens to use some aspects of the standard Cynefin diagram as its base-map – and that’s all that it is. And it’s laid out in this way because it happens to be useful to lay it out in this way: there’s no claim whatsoever that that’s somehow ‘the truth’ – which, by the way, also means that it doesn’t make sense to declare that it’s ‘not the truth’, either.

Since some people may still have missed this point, I’ll say it again, louder: this is not Cynefin – it’s a context-space map. They’re not the same thing: don’t get confused here.

Okay? Let’s move on.]

What comes up for you when you look at that diagram? (“A mess”, some people might say? 🙂 – fair enough, but bear with me for a moment, if you would?)

What comes up for you when you compare that diagram with the ‘official’ Cynefin diagram, earlier above?

The first and most obvious point is that they’re not the same. Good: that means there’s the potential for cognitive-dissonance there. That’s the whole point: that’s what we want – because it’s from that dissonance that ideas and images and cross-comparisons are most likely to arise.

I don’t know what comes up for you when you compare and explore those two diagrams: that’s up to you, that’s your sensemaking, not mine. We’re dealing with subjective ‘truth’ here, not a purported ‘objective’ ‘the truth’: what makes sense for you is what makes sense for you – and it may not make sense in that way to anyone else at all. In a quite literal sense, it’s none of my business.

But here are some of the things that I see when I do that cross-comparison. I’ll describe them in relation to each of those overlays, though not in quite the same order as above.

[Note again that this is merely what I happen to see – what ‘makes sense to me’, and so on. None of it purports to be ‘the truth’: it’s only about insights that arise, nothing more than that. The difference here is, unlike with Snowden’s unsupported assertion that this technique has no value, here you can see all of the steps via which I arrive at each insight. What we then might do in response to each insight is a different matter, of course.]

The order versus disorder overlay would probably be the least controversial for Cynefin aficionados: it’s in the original description, even if it’s rarely shown on the diagram as such. The mapping with ‘truth’ versus ‘value’ is useful, because it suggests that IT-systems and other processes that depend on a simple ‘true/false’ logic are inherently going to have trouble in the Complex and Chaotic domains – which is exactly what we see in real-world practice.

There’s also another way to interpret the Cynefin description of context-space (which doesn’t contradict the ‘official’ version, by the way). This is that if the ‘Disorder’ domain is, in effect, the whole of a context before we make any decisions about it, then the other four ‘decision-making’ domains can also be seen as the valid way to act on that aspect of the whole: every context will include some proportion for which we can use the Simple tactics ‘sense, categorise, respond’, another proportion where we’d have to use the Complicated tactics, and so on. Every context will contain some Simple, some Complicated, some Complex, and some Chaotic. In which case, any attempt to use, for the whole of a context, a system that can only work on ‘order’, on simple true/false logic, by definition it’s going to fail in Complex and Chaotic ways. Which again is exactly what we see in practice with disaster-areas such as IT-based ‘business-process reengineering’ and many of the ‘business-rules engines’ and the like. The visual simplicity of standard-Cynefin can be very useful here as a tool to help hammer home this harsh fact to the overly-IT-obsessed.

Note, by the way, that the graphic layout is significant here: we probably wouldn’t have been able to elicit these insights without using that specific layout. One up for the Cynefin domain-layout, then – even though it wasn’t designed to be used this way.

Next, let’s look at the abstraction/repeatability overlay, and cross-compare it with the skills-type/decision-guide overlay. These do map cleanly together: we can use rules in domains of high-repeatability, and we can use ‘trainee’ skill-levels to do that type of work – and so on for the other domains. (Yes, the domains are used here as categories: but that’s exactly how the domains are used and described in the Snowden/Boone HBR article.)

We now cross-compare this with the ‘domain-tactics’ from the original Cynefin diagram: ‘sense, categorize, respond’, and so on. This gives us the following table:

  • trainee: rule-based decisions; sense, categorize, respond [Simple]
  • apprentice: algorithm and experiment; sense, analyze, respond [Complicated]
  • journeyman: guidelines and patterns; probe, sense, respond [Complex]
  • master: principles; act, sense, respond [Chaotic]

Which for the most part again does make sense: a trainee would sense what’s going on, make a decision based on predefined categories, and respond in accordance with the respective rule. By contrast, someone with apprentice-level skills should start to be able to analyse what’s going on, and identify and act on the respective factors for the required algorithm. The journeyman skill-level fits well, too; yet for me there’s an odd sense that the master skill-level isn’t quite right. Come back to that later.

But there are a couple of booby-traps that aren’t obvious in standard-Cynefin. In fact one of them isn’t even that obvious here: that people often find rules Complex, and guidelines Simple – the opposite way round to this mapping. (There’s more on that in the post ‘A human view of Simple, Complicated and Complex‘.) So in a sense this mapping is ‘wrong’, and could perhaps lead us to seriously-wrong decisions in real-world practice – if we were working primarily with real-people in that context. If we think more in terms of that ‘truth/value’ spectrum, and therefore assign machines and IT-systems to do the Simple and the Complicated, reserving the Complex and the Chaotic for real-people, then the mapping actually is ‘correct’. Remember, though, that ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ really don’t make sense here: the only valid distinction is ‘useful’ versus ‘not-useful’.

The other booby-trap is potentially even more serious in the longer-term, and relates to skills-development in the context. To make sense of it, though, we also need a better grasp of the impact of timescale – hence we’d better turn to that first, and come back to the skills-problem later.

The cross-map with timescale is perhaps the most important of all, because it highlights what is to me a fundamental flaw in standard-Cynefin: its handling of inherent-uniqueness. Or more accurately, its lack of any usable means to handle uniqueness.

Remember that, in essence, Cynefin’s stated method of handling the Chaotic is to ‘get the heck out of there’. Snowden himself has said many times that we’re never in the Chaotic domain as such: instead, he’s said, we should always grab hold of some piece of information and try to make sense of it with some kind of pattern or rule – which would automatically move us into the Complex or Simple domain respectively.

In practice, though, this doesn’t make sense – unless, that is, we happen to use the term ‘Chaotic’ in a circularly-defined way that also doesn’t make sense in terms of real-world practice.

Where does that insight about standard-Cynefin’s paucity in the Chaotic-domain come from? Answer: it’s derived directly from that cross-map between the Cynefin domains and the timescale.

The timescale stretches from real-time (which we’ve placed against the base of the Chaotic and Simple domains) to infinity (which we’ve placed against the top of the Complex and Complicated domains). If we think about it for a moment, that mapping does make sense: one of the classic dangers of decisionmaking in the Complicated domain is ‘analysis-paralysis’ going on to infinity, and much the same happens too with experimentation – ‘probe, sense, respond’ – in the Complex domain. Going the other way, towards real-time, the practical point is that it takes time to do analysis and experimentation: so the closer we get to real-time, the more we’re forced out of the Complex and Complicated, and into the Chaotic and Simple. Yet Cynefin insists that the Chaotic domain doesn’t actually exist, or at least that we can’t do anything there: which means that – according to Cynefin – as time gets more and more compressed, the only possible option is that we go back to the Simple, where everything is strictly rule-based. Which isn’t what happens in the real-world. Oops…

What actually happens in the real-world is that we have analysts (Complicated) and experimenters (Complex) who need time to do their work – which is why we usually find them in the back-room, or somewhere ‘upstairs’, well away from the real-time pressures of the ‘front line’. Down at the front-line, we usually have rule-based systems (Simple), that may be IT, human or machine – it doesn’t matter that much here, that’s just an implementation-detail. And we also have people – usually not machines – with high skill-levels, who deal with the ‘exceptions’ and other uniquenesses and inherent-uncertainties that the rule-based systems can’t handle. That’s the Chaotic domain, as far as anyone in business is concerned. But that’s the domain that Cynefin insists doesn’t exist, or that no-one stays there for anything more the briefest instant: yet the reality is that that Chaotic domain is where anyone with ‘master’-type skills and experience will spend most of their time.

That Cynefin provides no means whatsoever to address this sensemaking-need in the Chaotic-domain, within that domain’s own terms, is problematic enough. Worse, though, Snowden’s required methods for use of Cynefin actively prevent us from addressing that need, because they insist that we shouldn’t be there when, plainly, we not only are there, but need to be there and stay there. We can’t ‘run away’: staying in the Chaotic-domain is what sensemaking in that real-time, often-inherently-unique business-context will demand. Hence I’m sorry, but that aspect of Cynefin is just plain daft.

[There’s a real challenge for Cynefin to prove its value here: and, from the above, I don’t think it can do so. There’s no escaping the fact that, as it stands, Cynefin explicitly makes itself neither useful nor usable for any part of this sensemaking-domain – in fact for the entirety of what is probably the most important domain for business-sensemaking. But that’s not my problem, fortunately, so best leave it at that for now.]

Anyway, back to that booby-trap around skills-development and the relationship to timescale. Almost every business will face relentless pressure to shorten turnround times, product-development times, any kind of time-period: in other words, a constant push to compress down towards real-time. The cross-map between timescale and the Cynefin base-map shows us what will happen if – or more likely when – we push that process too far: the Complicated and Complex domains – analysis and experimentation – slowly get squeezed out of the picture, until there’s nothing left. And yes, the business probably can keep going for a while – as long as nothing changes. Even then, the pressures and lack of analytic or emergent backup will cause more and more exceptions, creating more and more overload in the Chaotic, until it finally collapses in a literally-chaotic heap. In other words, that cross-map not only shows us that excessive time-compression is a guaranteed way to kill the business, but also shows us exactly how and why it will happen – and hence the warning-signs to watch for, in case the risk gets too high. That’s a very important point that comes straight out from this cross-map.

If we now add to this picture the cross-map to the skills-development sequence – trainee, apprentice, journeyman, master – we can now highlight the real longer-term booby-trap. Remember that in that time-compression we squeeze out the Complicated and Complex domains. In doing so, we also squeeze out the support for the Apprentice and Journeyman stages of skills-development. The result is that we risk creating a context staffed by people with Master-level skills – doing all the Chaotic-domain work – and people with Trainee-level skills – doing all the Simple work – and no means to develop the trainees’ skills to become the next generations of masters. (There’s more detail on this in the Sidewise post ‘Where have all the good skills gone?‘) This is a huge kurtosis-risk for almost any organisation – and yet very few people seem to have acknowledged even its existence, let alone just how serious it really is. So again, this is another very important point that comes straight out of the cross-map.

Finally, there are some disturbing intimations of potential for misuse. These arise from specific points in the cross-maps above:

  • Cynefin purports to be a Complex-domain technique, and hence explicitly aims to address true complexity and unorder
  • its purported base is in complexity-science, which tends to place it more naturally within the order-domains (particularly the Complicated domain)
  • certain key aspects of Cynefin techniques – such as category-selection for filtering in Sensemaker – by definition derive from value-based decision-making (unorder), yet still purport to be ‘scientific’ (order)
  • the purported ‘scientific’ base tends to give a spurious sense of ‘fact’ or ‘truth’ (order) in contexts which, by definition, are actually value-based (unorder), subject to arbitrary personal interpretation – a point not acknowledged at all in the basic Cynefin-framework diagram, and barely hinted at in public presentations such as the HBR paper
  • most people see only the Cynefin diagram and other base-level categories and cross-maps, which would naturally place it within the Simple domain – yet it purports to be about sensemaking in the Complex domain

Other related concerns not covered in cross-maps above include the way in which the statistical modelling within the SenseMaker tool can give an illusion of working with uniqueness – ‘outliers’ – yet without actually working with the Chaotic-domain in its own terms, as ‘act / sense / respond’ in real-time. In effect, such use of Sensemaker veers dangerously close to ‘Complex masquerading as Chaotic’ – which is not helpful to anyone.

If we put that together with those other points above, which – as we’ve seen earlier – tend towards ‘Complicated masquerading as Complex’, or even ‘Simple masquerading as Complex’, what we’re left with is a framework whose domain-boundaries and discipline-boundaries are almost too blurred and confused to make much sense to anyone, other than perhaps its original creator. And that blurriness of the boundaries also means that many (most?) of the standard checks on safety, professional-discipline, ethics and the like are either unusable, actively blocked or entirely absent – in other words, it’s inherently wide-open for misunderstanding or misuse.

And it’s clear that such misuse could be both unintentional and, unfortunately, intentional. Given Cynefin’s current structure and presentation (as in the HBR paper), it’s all too easy to present something as ‘true’, and then jump around between domains to avoid any challenge. As it stands – to be blunt – the framework is structured in such a way as to make it all but perfect for (mis)use by a consultant who wanted to pander to the fears of worried executives, and provide them with spurious ‘evidence’ that they’re ‘in control’ of something that, by definition, cannot be controlled. To say the least, that’s not good, for anyone: and yet at present that temptation is built right into the very fabric of the framework…

One of the easiest ways in which such misuse can occur is if the framework is presented as a Simple categorisation: hence, I presume, one very good reason why Snowden is so adamant against anyone using the framework in that way – and I do applaud him for that. It’s true that that overall ‘blurriness’ can be helpful, in that it does enable some undoubtedly-useful workarounds in practice; but it also means that usage of the framework needs much more active ‘policing’ than would otherwise need to be the case – and whilst Snowden may be willing to take on that task at present, that inherent fragility means that it will always be an uphill struggle, always somewhat fraught. And behind it all, there still remain those serious ethics-risks – arising from the structure itself – that cannot and must not be ignored.

A difference in paradigm

I suspect that much if not most of the ongoing unpleasantness around Cynefin and context-space mapping has arisen from a clash of paradigms.

Snowden is explicit that he places himself within the scientific tradition, the domain of ‘provable truth’.

I don’t. Almost all of my work is in the technological tradition, the domain of ‘proof by usefulness’. Where the scientific tradition would focus solely on ‘truth’, the primary driver here is effectiveness – which I usually summarise via the keywords efficient, reliable, elegant, appropriate, integrated.

The unorder-domains do have their own ‘truth’ – but it’s a fundamentally-different type of ‘truth’ to that which applies in the order-domains. In fact, each of the SCCC domains has its own distinct form of ‘truth’. And the key point here – too easily missed by too many people, it seems – is that these different types of ‘truth’ don’t mix. For example, I’ll freely admit that some aspects of CSM do have significant similarities with something as ‘unscientific’ as a deck of Tarot cards, because we choose images that are ‘information-rich’, to allow appropriate insights to arise from the ‘chaos’ of intentional cognitive-dissonance. The point is simply this: it works – and the fact that it’s supposedly ‘unscientific’ doesn’t matter in the slightest in this context. (Yes, it might well matter in other contexts, but that’s the point: it’s context-dependent.) We know the conditions under which it works, and which it doesn’t – in other words, it’s a technology. In this particular case, it’s a known, proven technology for working with uniqueness in the Chaotic-domain, where, by definition, no ‘science’-based model is going to work.

But the problem I’ve had, time and time again, from Snowden and other ‘science’-oriented folks, is that they’ve attempted either to apply ‘scientific’ forms of validation – which, by definition, does not and cannot make sense – or else, as in this example, they’ve fallen back to various forms of unprincipled-attack. Neither of these type of tactics are helpful, to anyone. What is needed is solid, rigorous challenge in technological terms – without getting lost in spurious non-‘science’.

My real focus here is meta-methodology – the methods and methodologies for developing methods and methodologies. To be blunt, I’m still not sure that Snowden understands the difference: in fact many of his attacks over the years only make sense if in fact he doesn’t understand that point. If one can’t tell the difference between a framework such as Cynefin, versus a metametaframework such as context-space mapping, then clearly nothing much is going to make sense. Either way, the difference in paradigms is enough to cause serious friction in itself: but in practice, all we should need do is take note of that fact, respect that the paradigms are indeed different, and move on.

A practical summary

Okay, I know it’s been long, but I hope it’s been worth it: in any case, thanks for sticking with it this far. All we have to do now is wrap this up, and then we’re done.

The wrap-up is really simple, consisting of just one question: in reading this, did you gain any insights about Cynefin, or about context-space mapping, that you didn’t have before?

If you gained no insights at all – no new information, no new thoughts about how to use either of those two tools or techniques, or anything else – then Snowden has a fair point: context-space mapping is of little value to you.

But if you did gain any insights, of any kind – perhaps not even about either of these two tools – then context-space mapping does have value, for you at least.

Yet you and your experience here are the judge of this: the only judge. The only ‘truth’ here is yours.

Perhaps let me know your results in this?

Thanks again, anyway.

7 Comments on “Standing up for the value of our work

  1. This is getting really interesting. The other week I was reading some of Toms work and I had came to the conclusion that he exibited some of the traits of being an MBTI type INTP. A key trait of the INTP is that if their values (fairness, truth) are threatened then they can respond in certain ways. I noticed the disagreement between Tom and Dave, and moved on to Daves blog to get another perspective on the story. I noticed on Dave Snowdens blog that his view of MBTI is creationist. I am also classed as an INTP so I got a bit angry finding Daves attitude to MBTI a bit arrogant and anoying finding some of his opinions a bit judgemental. I have a bit of a mental block at the moment in read either of your blogs because of this dispute. It could be that Dave does not understand Enterprise Architecture or the real context of Tom’s work. I do think though, you are both highly intelligent and decent people. In summary, as you can see I have lost the plot, and if I was not a ‘tea-totaler’ I would have suggested a beer. Perhaps something for you guys to consider?

  2. @Dave Snowden
    Dave, I am glad you and Tom, are going to engage in constructive dialogue. I do not label myself by anything other than by the name I was given at birth. Interestingly, according to MBTI I am sort of borderline ENTP/INTP – only one point in it. I tend to be an introvert and I am more interested in the art of possibilities, than being judgemental. So perhaps the MBTI types could be seen as various points on a continuum rather than a box or label. After all categorising people would be a judgemental act? I did read the MBTI entry on Wikipedia and there does indeed seem to be some dispute. Some people can be very strict in their thinking, views and interpretation, a bit like a Cobol compiler; I just like to sit back and let people say what they want to say, especially when they are trying to innovate, and try to engage in constructive criticism. I do hope you guys can sort it out as I want to get back to focusing on the content. I have only discovered both your blogs very recently, and I am just starting to understand you both a bit more. It is so easy for misunderstandings and wrong interpretations to occur in the medium of text alone and I do appreciate that others might want things to be more exact.

    • Stephen: My apologies, but I’ve now deleted the Dave Snowden comment to which you replied.

      I have long since had to invoke Sutton’s ‘No Asshole Rule’ in that direction, and will not allow him to post on this website.

      In my painful experience, Snowden does not “engage in constructive dialogue”: I’ve never yet known him to do so, with anyone that that I know, and I doubt if he ever will. I have learnt the hard way that the only possible way of working with such people is to block them out. There remains, however, the need to defend one’s work against unprincipled attack from such people: hence this post.

  3. [Note to all: Despite many repeated requests, notices and other explicit warnings that he has long since forfeited any right of reply here, Dave Snowden yet again indulged in yet more abuse-as-substitute-for-professional-discussion (“get a grip, Tom”) in comments here. Not just once, but twice already.

    Of necessity, and in accordance with Sutton’s ‘No Asshole Rule’, both comments have been deleted.

    Snowden is welcome to reply on his own weblog, and I have no doubt he will. But not here.]

  4. Tom, it is up to you, and of course Dave, whatever you decide to do. I admire people who have the courage to express their views via a blog. It must be quite stressful for people having to defend a point of view and of course our opinions about topics may change as we learn more. Thinking can be a very dynamic thing whereas words written down on a page often appear to be cast in stone. On another blog I follow, written by a person that appears to be the most patient person in the world, he has been plagued continually by the most awful Troll for over 3 years. My friend never deletes a post, and responds diligently to every post fair or foul. I personally admire him and I myself would find it all way too stressful. By the way, I am in no way suggesting that Dave is a Troll and he may even have issues on his own site. Funnily enough I was only yesterday trying to find some help and assistance for my blog friend and came across this article:

    I do think it a shame, that Dave and yourself have go on the wrong-foot with each other, as I am sure deep down you both highly respect each other. Obviously, if Dave can’t comment any further, then neither should I, and whilst I do find him a bit prickly at times, who knows he might be a really nice guy and you both could end up being the best of friends. So I do hope you both find a way to help move things on, perhaps via Skype or something.

    One possible outcome is that you and David come to some mutual understanding and that all comments are removed on the above topic – including all of mine.

    Either way, good luck to you both.

    • Stephen – Many thanks.

      Unfortunately, whilst I did (or used to) respect Dave’s work, I cannot respect the behaviour. I’m acutely aware that every argument has (at least) two sides, and that I’m often wrong, and have much to learn. That said, from long, painful experience over too many years, I’m also acutely aware that there is no possible means to discuss anything rationally with him, so the only practicable solution has been to give up and not bother. I’m also definitely not the only person who’s had to do the same in that direction. Hence the explicit block from this site.

      This is fortunately rare: he’s one of only two people that I’ve had to block from this blog over the past five years (the other was in the field of ‘alternative economics’). So please, no, I won’t delete your comments above, or anyone else’s, however critical of me they may be. Just those two people, and for practical necessity alone.

  5. First, thanks for all the things I connected when reading this post,
    accept this little comment as a token of gratitude.

    Second, I do concur that this by standing in the chaotic domain that we can create much value.

    Let me share two very far-fetched, cross domain I connected, o illustrate this :

    – 1/ from a human emotion viewpoint, *vulnerability* is an emotional risk, uncertainty and exposure. also the birth place of motivation, change and creativity . creativity is about creating things that never existed before…
    Brenée Brown explain this in this TED : (and

    2/ it is also connected to *shame*, the things I cannot say.
    an even more far-fetched association , and Lets Jump straight into #nonduality :
    ( cannot say -> no concepts -> have no word of it -> (the one) with no name -> something the mind cannot grasp ( yet) ).

    chaos is just chaos for the mind seeking patterns he could re-cognize and call order and sense. Otherwise it is just reality, as it is.

    Thanks again for your sharings

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