Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework

Copyright Graham Berrisford. One of several hundred papers at http://avancier.website. Last updated 07/12/2018 11:23

 

System Theory Tutorial in London Saturday March 2nd 2019

 

A system theorist may say our behaviour is shaped by our internal state, which is in turn shaped by external events.

A social systems thinker may say our  behaviour is influenced by our place, our experience, culture etc..

Cynefin is a Welsh word covering habitat, place, experience, culture etc.

 

http://cognitive-edge.com/uploads/articles/Origins_of_Cynefin.pdf

http://mandenews.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/test3.html#comment-form

 

The Cynefin framework

The Cynefin framework is commonly shown as below with Disorder in the middle.

 

Complex

Probe - Sense – Respond

emergent practice.

--------------------------------Dis

Chaotic

Act - Sense – Respond

novel practice.

Complicated

Sense - Analyze – Respond

good practice.

order-------------------------------

Simple

Sense - Categorise – Respond

best practice.

 

Dave Snowden says the framework not a categorisation of systems (see below for that).

It lies at the problem analysis end of “systems thinking”, rather than the system theory end.

It is a “sense-making framework”.

It is a self-organising tool, a guide to choosing between processes or methods for systems analysis.

 

Snowden says when first placed in a situation, start in the central Disorder domain and then decide which kind of behaviour to adopt.

You may move from any domain to an adjacent domain, but not from simple to chaotic

Mistakenly behaving in the simple way is dangerous; it can lead you over the cliff from simple into chaos and failure.

 

The framework is a tool for working out how to solve a human problem, which approach or method to use

Given a task, a problem to solve, or transformation to make, we can use the framework to decide how we or other people best behave.

 

The problem domain is

The path from cause to effect (event to result, input to output)

Our behaviour pattern should be

We should

E.g. methodology

Simple (ordered)

Obvious

Sense - Categorise - Respond

apply established best practice.

Structured programming?

Complicated (ordered)

Requires analysis, investigation or the application of expert knowledge

Sense - Analyze - Respond

apply a good/expert practice (any of several)

TOGAF?

Complex

Can be recognised after testing, but not determined in advance,

Probe - Sense - Respond

experiment and test what practice works

Agile Development?

Chaotic

None, there appears to be no relationship

Act - Sense - Respond

act fast using a novel practice to reach order

Disorder

Unknown, we don’t know which of the above 4 domains we are in

 

work out what domain we are in!

 

The framework could be used to justify the choice of design/development method to managers.

The Cynefin system classification

Dave Snowden (as reported by Conrad Taylor) speaks of three kinds of system: ordered, complex and chaotic.

He distinguishes them as shown in the table below; I have added notes in [square brackets].

 

 

Cynefin terms

Agents

Activities

Snowden says

Ordered systems

Constrained

[by roles and rules]

are predictable

[deterministic]

Most management theory is predicated on this view.

Complex systems

Lightly constrained

[by roles and rules]

Agents interact with each other and external entities, and co-evolve [their roles and rules]

A better model for understanding human societies, organisations and markets.

Chaotic systems

Unconstrained

[by roles and rules]

Agents act independently of each other

Some assume markets are chaotic; but agent behavior is analysable using statistical analysis and probability.

 

The difficulty with this is that it confuses social entities and social systems.

The actors in a human social entity are somewhat constrained not by one set of roles and rules, but by many.

They have to choose not only how to act in one system, but also which system’s roles and rules take precedence.

As Ashby would have said, one social entity may realise infinite social systems.

Conclusions and remarks

The Cynefin framework is a tool for situation thinking rather than systems thinking.

It is the kind of mental model loved by management consultants.

It is a sense-making framework for those wanting to make a “management intervention”.

It is a tool for problem domain analysis – for choosing how to approach a business problem.

 

The four-way classification of situations or problem domains may be useful.

But in an exposition of system theory, there some difficulties to address.

 

To call every problem, situation or social network “a system” is unhelpful.

The biggest issue in systems thinking is the confusion between:

·        A social network in which people communicate

·        A social system in which people realise role and rules.

 

Here are brief definitions of terms.

·        A system exhibits regular or repeatable activities, it behaves in orderly or deterministic way.

·        An abstract system is a description or model that conforms to the principles of cybernetics or system dynamics.

·        A concrete system is a network in which actors realise the roles and rules of an abstract system.

·        A network is a structure in which actors are related and communicate with each other.

 

This table recasts these terms for discussion of societies.

Abstract social system

Roles

Rules

Concrete social system

Actors playing roles

Activities conforming to rules.

Social network

Actors who communicate

Activities performed by the actors

 

With respect to a system, social networks might be classified into three kinds.

·        In a formal social network, actors are wholly constrained by the roles and rules of the system.

·        In an informal social network, actors are somewhat constrained by the roles and rules.

·        In a chaotic social network, actors completely ignore the roles and rules.

 

Read Social networks versus social systems for further discussion.

 

Footnote: Mapping the Cynefin framework to system classifications

Dave Snowden says The Cynefin framework is not a categorisation of systems.

However it does tend to be regarded that way.

For just for fun, let us try to map it to a system classification.

Mapped to Ackoff’s system classification

One might try to map the Cynefin framework to Ackoff’s scheme as below.

 

Cynefin problem domain

Ackoff’s system class

Simple

Mechanistic

Complicated

Animate

Complex

Social

Chaotic

Ecological

 

But actually, the two schemes are unrelated

The Cynefin framework is looser, more generic, and used differently.

Mapped to Avancier’s system classification

Avancier suggests classifying an operational system by scoring it on nine dichotomies or scales on which systems might compared.

This table selects four of Avancier’s nine scales that can be related the Cynefin framework.

Bear in mind that deterministic means predictable in theory, predictable means predictable in practice.

 

Facile

Easy transformations / services

Difficult transformations / services

Complex

Predictable

Inputs have predictable effects

Inputs have unpredictable effects

Unpredictable

Rigid

Fixed components & processes

Refactorable components & processes

Malleable

Static

Constrained, rule bound

Adaptable, self-directing, evolving

Changing

 

I propose a rough mapping between the two schemes as follows.

 

Cynefin problem domain

Avancier’s system scales, applied to a human problem domain

Simple

Predictable

Facile

Rigid

Static

Complicated

Predictable

Complex

Malleable

Static

Complex

Unpredictable

Complex

Malleable

Changing

Chaotic

Unpredictable

Complex

Malleable

Changing

 

The tools are different. So the mapping here is done for fun.

Mapping Ackoff’s system classification to Avancier’s

 

Ackoff’s system class

Avancier’s system scales

Mechanistic

Predictable

Facile

Rigid

Static

Animate

Unpredictable

Complex

Malleable

Static

Social

Unpredictable

Complex

Malleable

Changing

Ecological

Unpredictable

Complex

Malleable

Changing